The image is of the dress Amanda’s mother wore on the plane to the United States from Cuba.
Words by Amanda Perez and Nikolai Hernandez
The recent death of the longtime revolutionary leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, has sparked heated debate in our country regarding his legacy, specifically whether he was a man of the people incessantly hounded by colonial powers or a brutal dictator who used a proven form of subjugation to control his people.
In the interest of asking those who know best, rather than fighting ideological battles on the internet, we asked two first generation Cuban-Americans to describe their view of the man who their families fled.
Both sets of my grandparents decided to drop everything, hop on a plane to a country
they’d never seen, and start a new life with children under the age of ten. They didn’t
come from royal families or families blessed with genealogies of wealth.
My grandmother grew up on a farm. My grandfather has less than a high school education.They came to this country – the land of the free, the land of work-hard and earn-what-you-need thanks to the Bill of Rights. Their lives under Batista weren’t golden.
Their lives under Batista weren’t American. But they knew if they stayed in Cuba under
a Castro dictatorship, their children’s lives would be owned by government.
They knew if they stayed in Cuba under a Castro dictatorship their children’s children’s lives would be marked by a communist who’d brainwash young minds into believing communist theory had been purely applied to their beloved country.
My grandparents came to America with nothing.
My grandmother came to this country to give her children lives she couldn’t imagine, only knowing that their lives would be free.
Free to own their stories, free to own their minds, free to own their homes, their lives.
Fidel Castro’s death is represented by the scars my parents bear on their arms, like immigrant stamps that scream a struggle to survive.
Fidel Castro’s death is represented by the tears my grandparents cried onto aluminum Coke cans, staying awake until 4 in the morning collecting 50 cents worth of recycling so they could buy crackers for breakfast.
Fidel Castro’s death is represented by my college degree, acquired in the States because my grandparents left their motherland on a hunch that Cuba would never be the same.
Fidel Castro’s death is a triumph.
One man has represented an entire immigrant struggle. Immigrants who so badly didn’t want to leave their country that they call themselves exiles.
Exiles from a country that has been frozen in time; a country that has been left destitute, wrought by the debris of an ill-fated promise of equality.
A country that has screeched to a halt, trapped in a time capsule filled with forgotten corpses and crooked crowns.
Fidel Castro’s death is a reminder of what Cuba was and could have been.
His death is a reminder of the incredible immigrant story of an entire people who fled to America to make a life they wished they could make in Cuba, a story of a people who made such an impact on the country they decided to flee to that an entire community of people still rally together to remember together what they chose to leave and to celebrate what they have accomplished both despite and in spite of a man that worked his entire life to prevent it.
When my mother, uncle, grandmother and grandfather boarded a flight bound to the United States from Cuba in 1963, the only certainty they had was that their lives were about to change forever. Some have praised his life and mourn his death. Others have despised him and celebrate his departure.
For me, there are no two ways around this: Fidel Castro was a tyrant and dictator whose Communist regime has systematically oppressed the Cuban people for decades. The Castro regime has undermined the legitimacy of the United States for as long as it has existed. It was an activity particularly relished by Fidel Castro, who lived through the course of eleven different Presidential administrations.
The failure of major Western leaders to acknowledge this in the wake of his death, and instead offer their best wishes for a time or grief, or sharing fond memories of friendship with the late Cuban dictator, is disheartening to many first generation Cuban-Americans such as myself. Allow myself to be perfectly clear: I support normalization of relations with Cuba.
I believe that Cuba, much like the Communist states that have fallen before it, must be gradually brought into the fold through renewed diplomatic and economic policies. However, such efforts cannot be done with blind cooperation. Human rights violations on a statewide scale. The jailing of political dissent. The suppression of information.
The Castro regime is communist dictatorship whose actions are antithetical to U.S. values. My family has been divided, physically and ideologically, by the actions of Fidel Castro and his government. At this point his death is largely symbolic. But we cannot ignore his legacy of oppression moving forward.