Meet the Cuban-American Illustrator Who Blew Up the Internet With His Controversial Magazine Cover

Lead Photo: Edel Rodriguez/Der Spiegel/dpa
Edel Rodriguez/Der Spiegel/dpa
Read more

It’s not every day that a German-language news weekly becomes a trending topic in the US chattersphere, but the esteemed Hamburg-based Der Spiegel made a rare crossover last week with its arresting choice of cover art.

Set against a stark white background, an image of Donald Trump rendered in simple geometric shapes and bold primary colors displays the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty. His mouth curled into a feverish cry, the cartoon Trump brandishes an imposing knife as streams of blood pour from the statue’s disembodied head and onto the ground below. Across the lower left, in a clean serif typeface, the cover’s only text reads simply: America First.

Unsurprisingly, the cover has produced considerable backlash for its violent imagery and references to tunic-clad ISIS militants, but Der Spiegel has stood firmly by the decision, framing it as a defense of democracy and freedom of the press in the face of encroaching authoritarianism. Yet for artist Edel Rodríguez, who pitched the original illustration to Der Spiegel, the significance is far more personal.

Edel Rodríguez in his studio.
Read more

Born in Havana in 1971, Rodríguez came to the United States as part of the infamous Mariel boatlift of 1980. In a recent interview with El País, he credited his origins as a political refugee with the visceral reaction to Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban that inspired the image. “This is a nation of immigrants,” he remarked. “That’s a very important idea for me, and Trump wants to decapitate that idea.”

Yet, in his Republican-leaning home city of Miami, Rodríguez’s fellow Cuban refugees haven’t necessarily shared this point of view. In fact, in an enlightening window into Miami’s Cuban-American political dynamics, the artist was summarily slandered as a communist and told he should have died at sea. His response? “Nobody is more anticommunist than me!” he insists. “That’s why when I see Muslim families divided by Trump’s decisions, it affects me, because I remember when I was a child Fidel Castro was the one who divided the Cuban people.”

A graduate of Pratt Institute and Hunter College, Rodríguez has built a long and successful illustrating career out of his expressive minimalist style, imbuing each image with complex layers of meaning. Indeed, the simple orange-on-yellow visual synecdoche that stands in for Trump on the Der Spiegel cover also made recent appearances in Time, while similar politically charged images have graced the covers of publications like Newsweek and BC Law. But even with his international profile, Rodríguez sees himself as rooted in a venerable tradition of Cuban printmaking, and dreams of one day commemorating the freedom of the Cuban people with an image of José Martí.

As for the backlash to his most recent work, it seems Rodríguez is taking it all with a critical distance . “It’s made me realize that a lot of people don’t have the capacity to understand images as a form of communication,” he mused. “This drawing is a concept. A statue is not a person, it’s a statue.” Then, his Cubanía apparently stirred by the vaulted emotions, he continued: “It’s an idea, caballeros, understand that it’s art.”