tampabay.com

50 years of Fidel and my family

By Marilyn Garateix, St. Petersburg Metro Editor
Published February 10, 2008


Back in Cuba ... the sky was brighter.

Back in Cuba ... the grass was greener.

Back in Cuba ... the flowers were prettier.

My siblings and I grew up hearing that phrase constantly. There was one and only one thing that wasn't great back in Cuba: Fidel Castro.

I have never met the man, but he has been a never-ending presence in my life. My parents, grandparents and other adults in my family despise him. They had to adapt to a new country while mourning the loss of their homeland to a revolution they vehemently opposed. And they blame Fidel for everything.

When I was a child he was the bogeyman.

When I was a teenager he was the reason I didn't know my uncles, aunts, cousins in Cuba.

When I was a college student, he became the center of political discussions with my father.

And when I became a journalist, he was the focus of bad newspaper stories, written by people who didn't understand Fidel and what he had done. At least that's what my father said.

I'd explain that the stories were striving to present the facts and allow people to judge for themselves. Papi was never swayed. He had one response: He's Fidel.

Hanging over our lives was the idea that Fidel would one day die, and Cuba would be free. But he is the longest serving leader in the world and even as there is speculation that he will not stand for president later this month, Cuban officials have made clear that the country will remain Communist. Fidel may go, but the country of my parents will not have returned. So we cope.

My parents were among the first in their large extended families to arrive in Miami. When we were young, our elders focused on the positives of being Cuban: the good food flan; the wonderful music (salsa); our many relatives and friends (everybody was a cousin); the strong education we were getting in Catholic school with other similar students (our kindergarten teacher was a family member); our colorful language (Spanish); and a strong work ethic (we all worked summers in my dad's clothing factory).

They hoped my generation would continue to treasure our culture as we maneuvered between two worlds, the old one they left behind in Cuba and the new one we were embracing in America. They hoped to give us confidence to succeed in this brave new world - and confirm they were right to flee Cuba. While my parents were proud of being Cuban, they didn't talk about the bad in the past. They would share only bits of their journey to Miami and what they left behind. Papi said some memories were just too painful.

Then, on a 12-hour drive from North Carolina to Tampa after a family trip to visit my uncle, the stories began to spill out. My father recalled growing up in Cuba, the scrapes he and his numerous brothers got into, how all the boys' names began with the letter E and the girls' with N, the teen dance parties, his journey from the countryside to Havana to join an uncle in the army, how he met and courted my mother - under my grandfather's watchful eye and chaperoned by my grandmother, how he asked for my mom's hand in marriage. And how devastated he was when he realized he would have to leave Cuba and his family behind.

Fidel's 1959 revolution divided my father and his 11 siblings, pitting brother against brother. My father acknowledges the army wasn't perfect, but to him, Fidel's politics were far worse. His father, a country judge, died in jail. My father has hinted at being jailed himself but won't say more than that.

He eventually escaped and was the first to arrive in Miami in April 1960. My mom, who worked for an American cargo company, smuggled him aboard a departing ship to Key West. She followed a few months later, arriving on the American company's last ship out of Cuba. U.S.-Cuban relations chilled to a deep-freeze shortly after. My parents were married in November 1960 with only two family friends as witnesses. Many in their families eventually arrived on the "freedom flights" that brought thousands to the United States. My father's older brothers and younger sister, however, remained in Cuba.

It is hard for me to imagine the courage it took to leave home for a strange land. As a journalist I was on a Coast Guard cutter reporting on the 1994 exodus Fidel allowed that had Cubans jumping on rafts. Whether in the end they did it for political reasons or economic reasons, every time a Cuban was pulled from the sea I thanked my parents.

Moments like that - and my father's stories - helped me understand that their obsession with Fidel stems from an emotional and personal place. My parents would like us to despise Fidel with the same passion. Perhaps some in my generation do. But my brother, sister and I will never experience what our parents did. We can only respect it, try to put ourselves in their shoes, and support it in our own way. Everything is Fidel's fault.

Today, this is what my 7-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew know about Cuba: They know abuelo and abuela (grandparents) are Cuban so they too are Cuban. They love frijoles (black beans). My nephew has rhythm and ear for music. On Christmas Eve, they take part in Noche Buena, a traditional Cuban celebration involving the roasting of a pig in the backyard. Often, 40 or so family members and friends attend. My niece and nephew go to Catholic school just like their father and I did. Their school, though, is more diverse. My parents communicate with their grandchildren in Spanglish. As I wrote this article, my niece was working on a project on her culture for her Brownie troop. Some of the pictures you see here are similar to the ones she is using. She giggled when she saw abuelo and abuela as a young couple standing in the tobacco fields.

My niece and nephew, however, don't know who Fidel is. My father rarely talks about him in their presence. As with us, he is reluctant to share the painful memories. My generation is Cuban-American, but niece and nephew are perhaps more American-Cuban.

My generation remains the link between the old and new, and time will tell how much of our culture is passed on. Fidel may not be as central, but my father hopes his children and grandchildren will continue to support free speech, free elections and democracy in Cuba. Several of my professional colleagues have visited Cuba. I would like to, but I never have out of respect for my father, who opposes travel to Cuba. And I know he still hopes he can be the one to introduce his children to his beloved island.

Over the nearly 50 years he has run Cuba, Fidel has endured incidents many thought would be the end of him. In July 2006, when he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and handed power to his brother, Raul, the death watch began again in Miami. My father asked me to call him if I heard any news. It was not to be. The rumors have continued to surface since Fidel is no longer a visible presence.Once my parents were vacationing in Canada with another Cuban couple when they called about yet another rumor. They were all poised to dash back to Miami if it was true. And they would all return to Cuba in a heartbeat.I could not confirm Fidel had died so my parents continued their vacation.

By Feb. 24, Cuba's recently elected National Assembly must pick a Council of State, who will then pick a president. For nearly 50 years it has been Fidel. There is speculation the 81-year-old leader will step aside. If he does it will be momentous. And almost anticlimatic. Cuban officials have stressed that the socialist revolution will continue. Still, Miami will be buzzing. It will still be the most important news on Spanish-language talk radio. I'm sure my father will call me. My siblings, cousins and I will discuss it. My niece and nephew may overhear that talk.

I envision a time when Fidel may no longer be part of our family conversations. Yet, he will be a constant presence in my life, at least. You see, Fidel and I were both born on Aug. 13.

Marilyn Garateix can be reached at mgarateix@sptimes.com.