A month before he died last year at the age of 83, Agustín Román was honored by the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews for his interfaith work as a Roman Catholic bishop. So the fact that a Jewish author will pen Román’s authorized biography isn’t just fitting -- it is itself a reassuring Miami narrative.
During the final months of his life, Román designated El Nuevo Herald religion writer Daniel Shoer Roth, a Venezuelan Jew, to tell his life story.
It is undoubtedly one of South Florida’s most iconic, a drama that included Román’s expulsion from communist Cuba in the 1960s and his rise to become what Shoer Roth calls “the spiritual father” of Miami’s Cuban exiles.
Román had long been a fan of Shoer Roth’s work as a religion journalist, especially his articles on “La Ermita,” the Coconut Grove shrine to Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s Catholic patroness, which Román founded in 1967. “And then I think he got to know me personally,” Shoer Roth told me. “I’m very honest but I’m very spiritual at the same time, and he saw that.”
Shoer Roth began interviewing Román for the biography in January of 2012, just a few months before the prelate passed away that April. But the project didn’t become official until this summer, when Shoer Roth received, through the shrine, a grant from the Bacardi Family Foundation to write the book, which he expects to publish by early 2015.
Román was one of some 3,500 priests and nuns whom Cuban dictator Fidel Castro booted off the island in the early 1960s. But his career was “unique,” says Shoer Roth, who likens the impact of Román’s life and death on Cuban-Americans to that of Cuban singing legend Celia Cruz. “You’re not going to find someone with his virtues, attributes and the effect that he had on this community.”
Aside from distinguishing himself as the first Cuban bishop in the U.S. Catholic church, Román was also famous for quelling massive and potentially deadly riots among frustrated Cuban detainees who had taken hostages at federal prisons in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta, Ga., in 1987. Román recounted to Shoer Roth that he told the inmates he couldn’t pray the Our Father with them as long as they were holding weapons. “That was a historic moment,” says Shoer Roth, “when everybody then dropped their arms.”
But as a pastor to Cuban exiles, Román was also a strong advocate for South Florida’s myriad other immigrant groups, including Haitians. And while he never returned to Cuba, his work in the U.S. encouraged dissidents on the island and eventually helped revive the Catholic church there -- which is now the country’s leading non-communist institution.
As Román told me once in an interview, he tried to get Cuban dissidents to see that even if the Castro regime “probably wouldn’t be brought down by a hurricane, it could still be brought down by termites.”
That long-term mindset helped boost the morale of dissident leaders like the late Oswaldo Payá. “He [told them] truth will always win,” says Shoer Roth, “and I think many people in the dissident movement saw in him that way of dealing with adversity.”
That’s a universal message that Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, believers and atheists, can all relate to. The subject-biographer relationship between Agustín Román and Daniel Shoer Roth is a good reminder.
The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.