Ding Dong the Dic(tator) is Dead

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Versailles Cuban restaurant in Little Havana. Photo credit: Jorge Zamanillo

In a span of 12 days, the world lost not one, but 2 influential Cuban leaders. One rose to fame and power with a loud and powerful roar, making sure everyone and everything in his path knew whom he was. The other, quietly and politely from behind the scenes, led his fellow Cubans in his own way on their individual paths to freedom and the American dream. The first was Fidel Castro, the other was my papi, Miguel Perez.

My father came to this country sometime in the late 1950’s, became a permanent resident of the U.S. on December 14, 1961, began working for Pepsi-Cola in Miami in 1966, became a naturalized citizen on June 21, 1968, married my mother in May of 1971…

Why do I know all these dates? Because this last couple of weeks I metamorphosed from being his daughter to being the personal representative of his estate. Not a transformation I was looking forward to.

For those of us Cubans (or Cuban-Americans) growing up these past 40+ years in South Florida, Fidel’s death is huge news. And for those like my father who left Cuba as a young adult in the 1950’s- 1980’s, it is even more so.

My father fled from Cuba literally running away from Castro’s military forces, being shot at as he ran through the forest, hiding out, finally escaping with literally nothing but the shirt on his back. He couldn’t let his family know of his plan beforehand,  because it would put them in danger as well. He didn’t speak to them for 20 years, for fear of incriminating them back on the island.

When he finally arrived safely in this country, with no family around to help, he first settled in New Jersey (as did many Cubans). He had a couple of good friends who fled with him and who became his roommates. They lived right above a diner in a one-room apartment.

For the first 2 months, the only thing he ate was western omelets. He spoke no English, but overheard someone ordering that at the diner and it looked good, so he mastered those words. Whenever he’d come in and sit at the counter, the waiter would ask for his order, he’d proudly say “western omelet”, day after day, as that was the only thing he knew how to say.

He was briefly involved in a covert operation run by a division of the U.S. military, where he and a bunch of men were trained and prepared to ship out as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion. But shortly after they were deployed, their ship was called back, and it was over.

He eventually made his way down to Miami (as most Cubans often do) and kept plugging along. He had heard there was a Cuban man who worked for Pepsi-Cola who may be able to help him get a job there, so he went in and introduced himself. When they asked him if he knew how to drive an 18-wheeler, he said ‘of course, no problem at all!’ Mind you, he’d never driven a truck, let alone an 18- wheeler, but he really needed the job. So he faked it till he made it. He eventually rose through the ranks at Pepsi-Cola and ended up a distribution manager, retiring after over 30 years at the company. He helped countless Cubans who arrived by giving them their first job and an opportunity for success just as he had been given long ago.

I grew up fearing Castro and his power even though I’d never set foot on the island. I knew what he could and would do if you ever dared speak out against him. Even in Miami in the 1970’s you’d have been hard pressed to find a Cuban daring enough to speak ill of him or his regime out loud. All my family were there- my grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins….and there was nothing we could do to help them, thanks to the U.S. embargo. If someone was daring enough to try and make a phone call and send word that a friend or distant family member was planning a visit, sending aid in the form of medicine or money, they had to use code words because the phone lines were rumored to be tapped. The Castro regime would supposedly swoop in and take the person on the phone away, far, far away to Castro Jail where they would never be seen again.

I have heard that when Castro first came on the scene in Cuba, and was wooing the country with his charisma, he also spent some time here in South Florida. It is rumored he spent the night at my great aunt’s house…a story my maternal grandmother would tell me as a child and I would recount to people by saying “Castro stayed with my family once when he was good.”

My family, like many countless Cuban (American) families, would often hear of and hope for the demise of Castro, and his regime. He was rumored to be dead at least half a dozen times, each time bringing a spark of collective hope to the Cuban community that meant someday they would be able to return and rebuild. But the spark was always quickly extinguished when it wasn’t true.

But now, finally, it is over. The magic spell that Fidel had cast on Cuba is broken at last, at least metaphorically. I hope it will continue to pave the way for better relations and a sense of hope for the tiny, beautiful island where all my family continues to struggle and survive, along with many other hopeful Cubans.

My father, in his own small way, made his mark in this country as a Cuban with conflicted feelings about his homeland, in quite a different way than Castro. As I slowly, piece by piece, document by document, learned about many of my Dad’s life adventures over the course of this past year, what would be his last, we somehow became exponentially closer.  So did my brother and he.  My brother finally managed to capture my father’s stories on a voice recording on his iPhone as they spoke late one night. My father was not much of a talker, but for some reason on this night, he spilled it all. Things I’d never known about for 44 years. And I know we will cherish that recording forever, all the moments of our collective cultural and family history preserved at last.

I wish Papi had been around to see this, finally, the long-awaited end of an era. But at the very least I get a kick out of imagining him laughing and enjoying the festivities in Little Havana this week in spirit, having a shot of Havana Club rum in celebration.

Someday, when it is all not so raw, I will finally listen to his stories, to his voice telling his stories. But for now, I will say a prayer, and light a couple of candles….one for my father, and one for Fidel Castro.

En paz descansen los dos lideres Cubanos, que siempre seran recordados por sus hechos,  ya sean buenos o malos.

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Photo credit: Jorge Zamanillo

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