by Jamie Rich | February 25, 2016
Jeanette Rubio on faith, family and growing up in Florida
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio shot into the national political stratosphere last year as a young Republican presidential candidate and the latest personification of the American Dream, this time for the nation’s Latin-American community. But back at home in Miami, his wife of 17 years, Jeanette Rubio, keeps that dream alive with a starkly grounded day-to-day routine, rooted in family, faith and Florida.
Whether or not her husband wins the Republican nomination remains to be seen, but no matter the outcome, the Rubios’ political ride won’t end with the next election cycle. In her first one-on-one interview, Jeanette, 42, sat down with Flamingo to give an exclusive peek into her personal story, beyond the oft-repeated fact that she cheered for the Miami Dolphins (for one season) nearly 20 years ago. I caught up with her in West Miami the morning after the Republican debate in Charleston, S.C.
Dressed in a black knit sweater, fitted camel-colored pants and pointy black flats, the petite brunette welcomed me into her living room with her girl-next-door smile and an offer of water. Here’s what she had to say about raising four kids in the digital age, balancing life with her on-the-road husband, and growing up in South Florida.
ON GROWING UP
You were born and raised in Miami?
I never lived anywhere else.
How did growing up in a Colombian household in Miami shape you?
Well, I speak Spanish, and it’s very easy to keep the language because the majority of people in Miami speak Spanish. The [Latin] culture here is very strong. There’s a lot of things we have here that when you go out of the city, you don’t really have. The food, the food is very important. It’s just a very fun, very rich culture.
What does being a Floridian mean to you?
I‘m always talking about how wonderful it is to live here because you have so many different cultures from around the world. Obviously, I come from a family that’s from Colombia, and Marco being a Cuban-American, that tells you a lot about what Florida offers. You have a great diversity.
Do you have a favorite childhood memory growing up in Florida?
I have six siblings: four sisters and two brothers. My mom worked a lot, so I wasn’t able to get out and visit Florida like I do now. She was working the majority of the day, in the evenings, and during the weekends. So when we were young, Disney was definitely where we would go to have fun. She was a single parent during that time, so that was our vacation. So if I have a childhood memory, it would be enjoying that time and now seeing my kids enjoy it. I think that’s such a great tradition.
Have your kids outgrown the Magic Kingdom?
I don’t think you ever outgrow the Magic Kingdom.
Has it been difficult being in such an intense national spotlight?
There’s good things and bad things. The good thing is we get to meet so many people and visit places we’ve never been before. Obviously Marco is not able to be around some of the family activities or some of the kids’ activities at school. But we work through it. We have a great support network. This weekend, [when I was at] Marco’s debate, my mom stayed with the kids.
What can you tell us about your mom?
She was a single mom. My mom had me and my sister with my father. Then she remarried, and I had step brothers and sisters from his family. Then my mother and my step-father had a child together. In the blended family scenario, I’m in the middle.
She divorced my step-father when I was in my teens, and she just tried to make it work to make ends meet. She didn’t have an education. So she opened up an import-export business. And she tried the best she could to provide a stable environment in the setting that she had, not always being there. My mom is such a strong woman.
What was your relationship with your dad like?
I loved him very much. My father and mother were divorced when I was between the ages of 4 and 5. He passed away in my early 20s. He had cirrhosis of the liver. He worked at a printing company, and he was very gifted in the arts. He was a painter. He knew how to draw very well, and he had a good ear for music. He could play the guitar, the piano, the drums. My father also loved playing chess. That’s one my favorite games to play.
How often did you see him?
My sister and I went back and forth every other weekend. He was the kind of dad, you go to his house, and it was fun—no rules type of thing. With mom, it was all rules.
ON RAISING KIDS
Tell me about your children.
My boys are typical boys. They are like little puppies, running around the house. I have to tell them to stop.
When I think of Anthony , I think of a heart. He’s such a good kid. Always smiling. Always having something good to say. And Anthony loves Dad. He calls him every single day just to say, “Hey, Dad.”
The little one, Dominick , is more attached to me. When he comes to our bed, he comes to my side. He never comes to Marco’s side. He knows exactly what to say because he knows it’s going to soften Mom up.
For Amanda , Dad can do no wrong. The great thing about Amanda is now we have conversations, and there are things that I do that she wants to participate in. We have a good relationship.
Daniella  has a mind of her own. She’s the one who knows what’s going on in Marco’s world. She’s very engaged.
Do your kids speak Spanish?
Amanda and Daniella do. I try to talk to them in Spanish, but my first language is English. It’s hard to keep that second language without forcing yourself to practice. You can get it in school, but it’s never the same unless you are practicing at home. It’s very important.
Is there a neighborhood place that’s part of your family routine?
It’s very difficult to have a routine because my weekends are filled with one going to football and the other going to volleyball. What we end up doing is we’ll go to Flanigans after a game.
You must spend a lot of time driving.
I’m driving all over Miami. The traffic here is so bad. It’s horrible. You just go through backstreets to try to figure it out.
Do you volunteer at the kids’ schools, as a room mom?
I’m working, and I try to balance the time that I have with their activities and also doing things with Marco. As for being room mom, that is a big responsibility. And you have to compete with some of the things you see the other moms do. I mean they go all out! If you don’t go all out, then you feel bad about that. I was always the helper.
Do your kids have their own electronic devices?
When they are younger you have no idea how much supervision, how much control you have in what they are able to see or do, but once they become 12 it’s more difficult. You start to hear what other parents are letting kids do, and it puts pressure on you as a parent to do something you haven’t allowed your kids to do yet.
Call me old-school. The girls got their phones at 13. The older one, I started her off with one of those phones from CVS, just to see how responsible she would be. It’s amazing because kids are getting phones at a younger age. A phone is expensive, and the line is expensive. And if the whole family has phones, the next thing you know, it’s like making a car payment.
Did the family dynamic change when the kids got phones?
When kids get their phones, they communicate without having to say “hello.” I actually force them to call. I tell them, “You have to call your grandmother. You need to call me. I like to hear your voice.” I let them use their phones in the car, but I like talking with my kids. I want them to have access, but not the obsession. As an adult, you pick up that phone and look for something that you have to do. Once my kids are in the car, I don’t talk on the phone because if I’m on the phone, then they start getting on the phone. It’s so easy to go into the routine and lose that connection.
But once they come home, phones go into the drawers.
Do you listen to Pitbull or Gloria Estefan driving around Miami?
I’ve listened to them before, but that’s not my kind of music. My kids will listen to what I listen to. I’m the DJ in my car. I love country music, believe it or not: Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban. Also ’90s music, Christian music, Elton John, Billy Joel. Daniella loves, We Didn’t Start the Fire. I mean, we could put that on 20 times. They have memorized that song.
Do your kids use social media?
The only thing they are really allowed to have is Instagram. Whether it’s a phone or social media, there are rules with what they can and cannot do. They can’t just put anyone on their account. It has to be somebody I know. I had to shut that down when they’ve allowed someone to go on that I don’t know. They try to see how far they can go. But they are very good.
Like your mom, you keep the kids straight?
I’m the one who makes the rules, for the most part. Marco plays the fun dad. I’ll say, “no” to Amanda, and he’ll be whispering behind my back to her, “Don’t worry.” Then, of course, I look like the bad one.
Who’s driving the family’s healthy lifestyle?
It’s me. It’s important, and I’ve talked to the kids and Marco about it. It makes such a difference with your health. Obviously, I try to balance everything. Kids like candy, and hamburgers and hotdogs. If I’m going to purchase the items, I always try to get the best. The kids like Pop-Tarts. Marco likes Pop-Tarts. So I always try to get the organic Pop-Tarts, if possible.
Do you cook a lot of Hispanic dishes?
No, I don’t. Hispanic food is not the healthiest.
ON MARCO AND THE CAMPAIGN
When did you meet Marco?
We met a block away from our houses, when I was 17 and he was 19.
How long have you been married?
I always get confused because we’ve known each other for so long. He’s the one who reminds me. [She pauses.] Ok, October 17, 1998. You know you’ve been married a long time when you can’t remember how long you’ve been married.
What has been the hardest part of the campaign lifestyle?
The hardest times for me are when I know that Marco would love to be at one of the kids’ events, but he can’t make it because of what he’s doing. And I try my best to get him with FaceTime. Marco makes it a point to be engaged and involved. He stops whatever he’s doing, especially when there’s an issue with one of the kids, to be there for them. That’s his priority, no matter what.
How do the kids feel about all of this?
It’s hard for them because they miss their dad, especially the boys. But, at the same time, they really feel so proud of what their dad is doing for America. Marco serves as such an example for them. Anything you can do to serve your country and to give back—it’s just such a good example for our kids.
How do you and Marco make time together, given his campaign schedule?
When the kids are in bed, that’s usually when we sit down and talk. We try to go out to a movie or to dinner. Obviously, it’s very difficult now. But we still try. When I was up in South Carolina, even though he was debating, we sat down and ate dinner together. That’s generally our time.
Were you able to spend time together after the last debate?
No, he left. He went straight to New Hampshire.
Does he get home most weekends now?
No, that’s it. He’s not here. For a while.
Have you wondered what it might be like to be the first Floridians in the White House?
I’m taking this a day at a time. I’m just so focused on being what I can for the kids and for Marco. I think when Marco wins, that would be the best thing. I would love to be able to give that to the state.
Are you comfortable speaking in public?
I think I’ll always be shy about that because I’m more introverted. I’m the complete opposite of Marco in that area. But I think I’m ready for it.
Tell us about your work.
I love my job. I work for the Braman Family 2011 Charitable Foundation. I’m thrilled to be part of a foundation that allows me to go out and be part of the community. I meet with organizations. I talk to them. I visit their locations. Then we get together with the board and discuss the applications. The two primary interests are Israel and local at-risk kids. The board makes a decision on which organizations they want to help. They are helping at-risk children, helping the homeless, helping veterans. I consider the people working for these organizations to be unsung heroes.
You influenced Marco to highlight the issue of human trafficking. How did you first become interested?
I became aware of that issue when I was pregnant with Amanda, and I was just watching a program and I couldn’t believe that was happening. The more I started learning about it, I started talking to Marco about it. When he won and went in the Senate he took an [interest] in that area and realized, ok, this is not just an issue that’s happening around the world, this is happening here in our backyard, in our home state. It’s horrible. It happens to these young girls, who fall into an unfortunate situation because they’re looking for either love or a place to stay. They end up being trapped in something that they can’t get out of.
What would you like people to understand about you?
Truly, my priority right now is my family, being the anchor for Marco to do what he needs to do and also for my kids. I feel like that’s the best job in the world for me right now.
Do you have a personal mantra?
Look, my faith is very important. For me that’s where my focus is and especially when it comes to who I am, who I raise my kids to be and who I am as a wife.
Do you have a role model in your life or a hero?
Believe it or not, Mother Teresa. Just what she did to change the world and how she cared for people. It’s just a beautiful story.
Where can you find peace when things get chaotic?
If I have to disconnect, I usually go to a church here, Little Flower. It’s a Catholic church in Coral Gables. You just go in the middle of the day or early in the mornings. You just sit there, and it’s so peaceful.