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Children of Cuban exiles ponder meaning of Castro's death

In my childhood imagination, Fidel Castro's death unfolded differently.

News spread during the day. All of Miami spilled into the streets, cheering and dancing and singing the Cuban national anthem. I didn't know all the words, but shouted those I knew at the top of my lungs. My friends were all there. Our oldest relatives were still alive, and they had tears in their eyes. Because this meant Cuba was finally free.

In my 33-year-old reality, I found out Saturday morning on Facebook.

As my family slept in our Tampa home, I devoured scenes described in the Miami Herald of my hometown alive with the clanging of pots and pans, and felt the pangs of missing out.

I wasn't alone in my loneliness.

So many of my generation — those born in the United States to Cuban exile parents — moved away for school or work, married people who didn't speak Spanish, and now found ourselves trying to find the words to explain what this moment meant.

My brother Nick Zayas, 31, was in San Francisco with his wife when they saw the news on their phones. He felt compelled to tell their Uber driver. "He said, 'Oh, okay,' " my brother recounted Saturday. "I said, 'You have to understand this is a big deal.' "

We grew up perfectly straddling two cultures. We watched Saved by the Bell and ¿Que Pasa, U.S.A.? We left cafe con leche for Santa Claus.

We never stepped foot in Cuba, only heard stories about work camps and firing squads and neighbors who would rat you out if you said the wrong thing. We will never truly understand how bad it must have gotten for my grandparents to pick up and leave with nothing but their two boys.

My parents met in the United States. So did those of most of my friends. If it weren't for Castro, we wouldn't be alive.

But we were raised to hate him. I remember sitting in class, in a predominantly Cuban Catholic school when a kid asked whether it was a sin to wish Castro dead. No, we were told.

He was the great traitor, who deceived everyone into thinking he would give them the country they wanted. Then, he took everything away.

"I don't know what it's like to grow up without an idea of there being some sort of uber villain," my brother said. "Cubans are very mythic. We have our exodus story and we have our Satan. And now the Satan is dead. ...

"Look, Raúl Castro is still in power. Things in Cuba aren't going to change overnight. But symbolically, this is huge."

I think about my great-grandmother, who used to listen to Spanish talk radio in her efficiency kitchen while making me a soup I'd never be able to replicate or find in a restaurant.

I wonder how she would have reacted.

So many older Cubans died saying they wouldn't visit the island while Castro was alive.

"I've been trying to convince my parents for years," my friend Normaliz Rodriguez Chacon told me. "Now it feels like that might almost happen. … This moment means I might finally see and learn where my family grew up, where they went to school, where they were born. Things people take for granted."

Normaliz, a 32-year-old pediatrician, skipped a trip home for Thanksgiving, saving that time off for Christmas. She found herself in a New York hospital, delivering babies, while everyone she knew live-streamed videos from Calle Ocho.

"I want to scream and shake people, 'Hello, this huge, important thing happened.' No one's even talking about it," she told me. "I started Googling places to hang out with Cubans in New York."

My friend Horacio Sierra, an English professor at a Maryland university, was traveling from Arkansas to Washington, D.C., when he heard the news. He spent his flight listening to Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan.

"In Miami, I was always too American to be Cuban. My Spanish wasn't as fluent as everyone else's," Horacio, 33, told me. "As I've gotten older, I think I've embraced my Cubanidad."

Part of it, he said, comes with being the only person around to speak up about the exile experience when someone says they want to go to Cuba "before it changes."

"My generation is the one that has got to carry the responsibility," my brother echoed. "I told myself, get ready for the think pieces. Give it a day for people to start saying it's tacky for people in Miami to celebrate the death. I'm already prepared to tell anyone who tries to tell me that, 'You don't understand. This isn't yours.' "

Alexandra Zayas is the Times Enterprise Editor. Contact her at azayas@tampabay.com. Follow @AlexandraZayas.

Children of Cuban exiles ponder meaning of Castro's death

11/26/16 [Last modified: Sunday, November 27, 2016 3:35pm]
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