I never expected to cry when Fidel Castro died.
Having been brought over from Cuba on a small boat when I was only 4, I was too far removed. Too American. Besides, I’ve spent an adult lifetime resolved that the demon would not infect my soul. I would not allow him to make me angry. Wouldn’t let him affect my politics. Wouldn’t drink to his demise. Wouldn’t shed a tear upon his death.
But I cried when my millennial daughter walked into the living room and told me, “Hey, Fidel Castro died.” The daughter of a former journalist, she offered her source: “The BBC is reporting it.”
I did what any good American would do: turned on the cable news, grabbed the computer, and sent a text to my sisters. But then, inexplicably, tears came.
They weren’t for a despot but rather “Los Viejos.” My parents, Castro’s peers.
Castro ripped their rights away, killed or incarcerated tens of thousands in order to intimidate the population into compliance with his edicts. Potential rivals were killed. Property was confiscated. Children were forced to work cane fields. In Castro’s Cuba, you work at whatever the state says you need to do.
Nobody voted or was asked about any of this. Quite the contrary. If you offered a critical view of any edict or policy — or worse, Castro — you were beaten or had your home taken away or were imprisoned.
Faced with a future under those circumstances, my parents sent their two daughters, who were able to get permission to leave because they were girls and apparently dispensable, to a Catholic convent in Corpus Christi.
Imagine, those of you who are parents, the kind of hell they must have lived to put their daughters on a plane, uncertain they’d ever see them again.
Less than a year later, hidden under tarps in the hold of a wooden 20-foot fishing boat, my parents and I left our homeland in hopes of reuniting our family.
I’ve always believed that those of us who left should have thanked Castro, because he gave us a pass into this amazing country. But then, I was 4 when we left.
Castro’s peers, Los Viejos, had careers and homes. They were not, as some here in the United States like to postulate, simply the elite of the island. That may have applied to those who left in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. But as the diaspora grew, it swept out the Cuban middle class.
And they never got over it.
My mother was unable to see Castro’s face on TV without going into hysterics. My father would go to the University of Texas whenever he saw anybody speaking on the virtues of Castro’s Cuba, so he could offer his perspective on Cuban life under Castro.
On the wall in the living room of the house in which I was raised hung a small, tattered, cloth Cuban flag with a single word on it.
“Volveremos.” We will return. I don’t know whatever happened to that flag. It wasn’t on the wall when they died in the Rio Grande Valley.
So many people were hoping to outlast Castro, who died at age 90. And most didn’t.
No. The tears weren’t for the despot, who didn’t so much die as fade away. They were for Los Viejos, the pain they — we — lived, and the hate spawned by that pain. As I expressed in a text to my sisters Friday night: “Such a weight of hate for so long. Lifted.”
I cried, not so much in celebration, but in relief.
Shortly after I sent that text, one of my sisters and her daughter fulfilled a commitment she had made to my parents: She opened a bottle of Champagne they had bought, “to be opened upon Castro’s death.” It was 25 years old.
I heard it was sweet. I’m just glad we’re finally rid of it.