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A new voice in Miami: Felice Gorordo's Roots of Hope
CubaNews / February 2011

By Larry Luxner

If the Versailles Restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana district is ground zero for the fading generation of Cuban exiles who spend their sunset years plotting against Fidel and Raúl while sipping cortaditos, then Tinta y Café — a cozy, hole-in-the-wall coffeehouse located three and a half miles east along Calle Ocho — is clearly the anti-Versailles.

Here, amid the empanadas, fresh-squeezed orange juice and iced café con leche, friendly service and a surprisingly refreshing diversity of political opinions thrive in a neighborhood not normally known for such tolerance.

“This place has gotten bomb threats because they would hold discussions about anything and everything under the sun,” Felice Gorordo, one of Tinta’s most loyal patrons, told us over breakfast last month. “Early on, the owner made it very clear that she would respect all viewpoints.”

The Miami-born Gorordo is executive director of Roots of Hope, a nonprofit group known in Spanish as Raices de Esperanza. At 28, he’s also the youngest person ever profiled by CubaNews.

Both of Gorordo’s parents are from the central Cuban city of Sancti Spíritus. His father, a police officer, fled to South Florida as a Pedro Pan refugee in 1961; his mother — who works in school administration — followed in 1972.

After graduating from Miami’s private Belén Jesuit High School, Gorordo went to Washington’s Georgetown University, where he studied government.

“In 2002, my freshman year, I had an identity crisis,” Gorordo explained. “It was sparked by a teacher at Georgetown who told me that if I thought I’d get to know Cuba from books, I was mistaken. So I decided to go to Cuba. It was before the 2003 restrictions imposed by Bush, so we could still travel there on a family license.”

That didn’t sit well, however, with the young man’s parents — who were adamantly opposed to the trip.

“My family thought I was crazy. They couldn’t understand why I would want to go,” he recalled. “The night before the flight, my mom cried and refused to see me off.”

But upon his return, he said, “everyone was waiting for me at the airport. My mom took me to La Carreta [a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami], and we talked all night.”

This is the trip that sparked Raices de Esperanza, said Gorordo — who’s been back to Cuba 10 times since then.

“At that time, we really didn’t have any sort of agenda or mission. We were a bunch of young people, a loose affiliation of students who were kind of going through the same thing — trying to get in touch with our roots and find our own voice.”

Gorordo and his friends decided to form an organization of Cuban-American students and sponsor a conference at Harvard University.

By the time Roots of Hope was formally established as a nonprofit, nonpartisan Section 501c(3) organization two years later, it had 100 student members at eight schools.

“Today, we’re at 55 universities with 3,500 alumni,” Gorordo told CubaNews. “And we haven’t gotten attacked as much as we thought we would. To a certain extent, the older generation likes the fact that we’re getting involved.” Since its first conference, Roots has held annual meetings at Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Duke, University of Miami and Cornell; its 2011 conference will be at Boston College.

“The UM conference was the most charged debate we’ve ever had on the embargo,” he said. “We’re much more diverse than our parents were, but we don’t take a stand on the embargo, even though it comes up all the time. We also don’t get involved in lobbying, but we do support people-to-people. Our focus is not regime change.”

But Gorordo wanted to do more than have fellow students discuss politics; he needed a cause.

The perfect opportunity presented itself when President Raúl Castro declared in March 2008 that ordinary Cubans, for the first time, could own mobile phones — a luxury that until then had been reserved for a select few.

Well aware of Cuba’s reputation for having the lowest mobile penetration rate in Latin America, Raices launched Cellphones for Cuba, which aims to provide young Cubans with refurbished cellular phones.

So far, C4C has collected some 4,000 handsets.

“Most of the ones we collect are old and can’t really be refurbished. The ratio of phones we collect versus the ones we send to Cuba is one in five,” said Gorordo, so instead, those phones are sold to recyclers.

“For an iPhone or a Blackberry, you get $25 or $30. An old Nokia gets you a dollar. Some recyclers pay us by the pound.”

To date, Gorordo says his buddies have shipped 300 handsets to Cuba, though the goal is 10,000. He’s even negotiated a deal with his alma mater, Georgetown University, so that all recycled phones collected on campus go to Roots of Hope.

“We send them to Cuba through three different distribution networks: students, artists and religious organizations. We give phones to young people who otherwise wouldn’t have the means to buy the hardware,” he told us.

“We just finished a Christmas shipment, sending 120 phones to 60 young people for them — one to keep and one to give away.” Gorordo added: “We do not want to control who gets the phones as long as it’s people who need them. We want to give them the means and tools to connect and communicate among each other.”

Although the C4C campaign has been featured by CNN, BBC, NPR and the Wall Street Journal, what really put Gorordo’s little group on the map was the Juanes concert — which in September 2009 attracted some 1.1 million Cubans to Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.

Roots of Hope played a key role in neutralizing initial Miami opposition to the historic event, which was overwhelming.

“We realized very early on that the guy had great intentions. He didn’t want to go there and sing for Fidel and Raúl; he wanted to sing for the people. He felt the youth were the future, and he wanted to inspire young people to become agents of change.”

Gorordo said one of the Colombian rocker’s conditions for doing the Havana concert was that when he took the stage, he could say whatever he wanted.

“There were no barriers. Both sides were suspicious of the others’ intentions, but we wanted to take politics out of it.”

Gorordo, newly married and the father of a year-old baby girl, received several threats because of his promotion of the concert. But his people eventually won over the Cuban community through common sense.

Some 30% of all young Cubans attended the memorable event, during which Juanes at one point shouted out “Viva Cuba Libre!”

In Miami, 73% of Cuban exiles watched the Sep. 20 extravaganza; an opinion poll afterwards found support for the event had leaped from 27% to 53%. The biggest shift came from older exiles, who went from only 17% in favor before the concert to 48% afterward.

“We proved people wrong both here and over there. The Juanes concert was a tipping point in terms of our perception, and it’s something we can point to that was historic, a watershed moment,” said Gorordo, who recently gave up his job at Liberty Power to work full-time for Roots of Hope.

The organization is 100% funded through private donations, he said. This year, its budget is around $150,000, though in 2012 it’s supposed to double to $300,000.

One of Roots’ biggest corporate backers is Bacardi Corp., which sponsored a film about Juanes at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater.

“We also get support from Carlos Saladrigas,” a wealthy Miami executive and co-chair of the Cuba Study Group, said Gorordo. “He was the first to support us, but he did so with one condition: that there be no conditions on the money we receive. We’ve gotten offers from people to give us much more than we’ve ever been able to raise, but we said no because there were conditions attached.”

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