To be “Cuban” is a congeries of tensions, resentments, affections, and loyalties. Look at me—I was born in Mississippi. My earliest memories consisted of sounds: commercials in Spanish at my great-grandmother’s feet in a darkened room; the blare of WAQI 710 AM on my way to kindergarten and its most prominent voice, impressive and pompous, serious about being taken seriously; teachers who switched from English to Spanish with no fear of revolt from native born students; the tremble with which a visiting great-great aunt, my National Geographic atlas of the world spread like a giant meal across our laps, explained in 1982 that Fidel Castro was a very bad man, therefore she was grateful for the one chance she’d gotten to meet us. It took years to extrapolate the poignancy of that last clause.
El tirano. El asesino—also recurrent sounds. Few of those un-Cuban Americans grew up in households where a political figure was held in such contempt at best and at worst rancor that never hardened, never froze, never thawed. Thirty years ago Joan Didion, limning the Cuban ethos, wrote a book about Miami that no subsequent chronicler has improved on:
Some were American citizens and some would never be, but they were all Cuban first, and they proceeded equally from a kind of collective spell, an occult enchantment…They shared a definition of patria as indivisible from personal honor, and therefore of personal honor as that which had been betrayed and must be revenged.
Honor depends on a sense of self-worth; honor is often a fiction we tell about ourselves. For my grandparents, “Fidel”—never “Castro,” or “Fidel Castro” because you drop formalities when discussing a relative—meant the confiscation of property, loyalty oaths, cousins who in 24 hours donned military drag for the sake of kissing the regime’s ass. It meant parents putting children like my mom on planes bound for Miami, assuring them that things would be OK “in a couple of months.”
For the generation of 1960, “exile” came to mean a congeries of ill-resolved denotations too: an umbilical cord to a homeland tantalizingly close; a tacit loyalty oath that separated them from los nuevos cubanos, i.e. those who emigrated after 1994; a membership in a political party, a superpower that thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act made them beneficiaries of the most generous immigration policy in American history, an example of liberal altruism that their political sympathies would disparage when applied to others suffering similar deprivations.
To the Cubans in their twenties whom I teach at Florida International University, “Fidel” is in every respect a bogeyman. “I thought he was already dead,” a couple of them have written on social media. Imagine for a moment a country in which a citizen can open a paladar one week and learn the next about a relative getting whisked away for a few nights in jail for not saying nice things about the regime; the informant is an uncle or a cousin. The whirr of travel has had its effect. Fidel was an inconvenience—a monstrous one. My students are happier here, “where I can make some money,” I hear many times.
A Miamian whose progressivism has led to many a fraught moment at holiday dinner tables, I suffered no pangs reconciling my convictions and Fidel’s Communism. But dialectics explained him too: a culmination and an aberration. He was the ultimate caudillo and the wiliest of the bunch, malleable when necessity required it. I still found pockets of recidivist support on social media, literate men and women who had probably read Reinaldo Arenas’ account of his imprisonment for homosexuality in Before Night Falls; he also describes the torching of sugarcane fields in the early sixties, a blow from which Arenas says Cuba never recovered, reducing the island to Soviet peonage. Most chilling to any lover of books: the Cuban revolution brought universal literacy and nothing worth reading.
For me, the news of Castro’s death brings neither joy nor peace. In thirty years I’ve had no reunion with long-forsaken relatives, so complete was my nuclear family’s separation from the island. My parents, those kids sent ahead not long after Castro made public his Communist sympathies, have made clear that they have no interest in reclaiming stolen property or returning even provisionally. Miami is their home. They foresaw no American invasion. They lamented, with considerable truth, how the United States can pluck a Noriega out of Panama on a whim or invade Iraq on the pretext of nuclear deterrence—Cuba actually had fissile missiles! A man whose erudition has deepened his common sense, my father is aware of the cunning of history: more than once he has remarked that if Fidel had never “happened” he would never have met my mother. We are products of the Cold War.
Marxists speak of historical inevitabilities. As the Castro brothers cleaved families, it created new ones. From the spilled blood of his enemies and the ruined lives of the apolitical came forth prosperity, an impressive resilience, and a robust need to be normal, for better or worse (a need to be louder too, and don’t you dare complain). Fidel deserves no gratitude. But in the theme of the traitor and the hero we—Castro and us—played our parts. Jesus required Judas, after all. Now we await how and if destiny will find us a new dragon to slay.
Alfred Soto is a student media adviser and instructor of journalism at Florida International University. His work has appeared in The Miami Herald, Rolling Stone, Slate, SPIN, and Pitchfork Review.