On Nov. 25, 2016, when news of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s death arrived in Miami’s Little Havana, an area densely populated with Cuban-Americans, the streets lit up in celebration.
“When we found out, it was really eerie…the equal would be like when Osama Bin Ladin was shot, for Americans, how they felt. Of course people were celebrating,” said Cuban-American Georgia State student Jade Gonzalez, who was in Miami visiting family when the former Cuban dictator’s death was announced.
News of Castro’s death reached Gonzalez late at night while she was out at a party in Miami with her friends.
“CNN broke on my phone, ‘Fidel Castro dies at 90’,” Gonzalez said. She then stood up and told all her friends who were seated with her, prompting silence among the group. “This one kid who is a freshman in college gets up and he’s like, ‘I think I need to call my mom.”’
Gonzalez did the same.
“[My mom] gets a phone call from me and she’s like, ‘What happened? Did you guys die? And I’m like ‘No, but Fidel Castro did.’”
Gonzalez said her mother then went to wake up all of her family in the house and she returned home for the evening. After a quick Uber ride back to her house, Gonzalez entered a home filled the sounds of breaking news reports surrounding Castro’s death and the raw emotion that accompanies a family mutually enthralled by a single event.
“Everybody is gathered around the TV,” Gonzalez said. “Twenty minutes later my grandma is like ‘Well, Castro’s dead, I think I might actually sleep for the first time in sixty years.’ I was like, damn, this is real.”
The next day, Gonzalez said Miami was flooded with Cuban-Americans celebrating the death of their homeland’s former ruler. According to Gonzalez, businesses were discounting products, people were honking their car horns, drinks were being bought and Cuban restaurants were being overrun with joyful mobs of individuals delighting in what they hoped would symbolize the end of a shameful era in Cuban history. Gonzalez said that the celebration resembled the atmosphere of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“There’s ladies dressed like they were going to prom. They always say Miami’s the land of beautiful people, but they came out that night. It was crazy,” Gonzalez said. “My grandpa was sitting in the front seat of my dad’s Suburban and he was like, ‘I’m so proud of you guys for being here and sharing this with me, this is important.’”
Although the death of a man that caused Cuban people so much pain served as a moment of celebration for Gonzalez and her family, they were not blind to the harsh reality that people in Cuba would continue to face under the control of Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl.
As Gonzalez and her family were excitedly getting ready to go out and celebrate the night after Castro died, she says her grandma told them “the reality which is actually so sad is that you guys are going to go celebrate tonight but nothing changes for the people of Cuba. They’re still under a horrible dictatorship.”
Gonzalez recognized the unchanged reality presented to the Cuban people as well. “Raúl is just as bad,” she said. Though she is excited about the Obama administration’s decision to transition America’s foreign policy with Cuba into an engagement-based system, she does not believe any significant change will come about soon or easily, even following Fidel Castro’s death.
“I do want to say that I’m hopeful, but I’m not,” Gonzalez said. “If [there] was to be a big change it would take more death, more blood to get [the current government leaders] out of there. There’s no way they’re going to leave.”
Gonzalez has never gotten the opportunity to go to the country in which her father and grandparents fled and is not sure that she ever will because of the regime which still maintains a stronghold over the Cuban government.
“I know I might never see Cuba. It sucks because it’s so much of my identity,” Gonzalez said. Though she does not have much hope for the near future of Cuba, she is given hope for Cuban people by the way that so many Cubans have been able to flee Cuba and fulfill the “quintessential American dream” here in the United States.
Gonzalez comes from a long line of Cuban heritage. Her father and grand-father fled the country while Fidel was still in power, originally making their way to Spain as political refugees.
“When they realized there was no life for them in Spain, Spain didn’t want to accept any refugees, they came to America and they became citizens,” Gonzalez said. “It’s pretty much the quintessential American dream, they just worked for everything they have and that’s how they made it.”
As many immigrants and refugees often do, the family chose to originally settle in New York. After some time they eventually rooted themselves in Miami, FL, though, a hub for Cuban-Americans just ninety miles away from the Cuban coast. With such close proximity to his homeland, Gonzalez’s grandfather began doing everything in his power to contact family members still stuck in the land of Castro’s regime in an attempt to help them gain their freedom.
“His family moved to Miami to be closer to Cuba, so the family members who were coming from Cuba could be accessible to them,” Gonzalez said. While in Miami, they filled their house with relatives also making the journey from Cuba. “My dad basically lived in a hotel for refugees his whole life because his parents would do everything they could to get their family members and friends over from Cuba.”
Gonzalez was born in Miami and raised there until her family moved to metro Atlanta when she was about 6 years old. Being a Cuban-American in Georgia meant that she often felt the stigma associated with being a minority in a predominantly-white area, she said.
“Being the only brown kid in my class, it was definitely really racist,” Gonzalez said. “I think the first time I got asked if I had a green card, which I didn’t know what that was, I was in second grade, and this kid is like, ‘Do you even have a green card?’ and I was like ‘What is that?’”
Gonzalez went home that day and asked her mother if she had a green card. Her mother told her she did not because she was an American citizen and decided that she would have to speak with her daughter’s teacher about the incident. Upon hearing that her mother’s last name was Gonzalez even though she had blonde hair and white skin, Gonzalez’s teacher said that she must have married a Mexican man.
Gonzalez’s mother informed the teacher that they were Cuban.
Gonzalez said she has no doubt that her Cuban background has immensely impacted her life in America. She said that being a minority in rural Georgia has caused her to love attending Georgia State, a campus which prides itself in its diversity. Her status as a second generation immigrant also influenced her plans for a future career.
“My major is political science, I want to do immigration law. It’s a part of who I am,” Gonzalez said.
A byproduct of a family directly impacted by the Castro regime herself, Gonzalez still holds a strong yearning for change that will positively impact the Cuban people, regardless of her doubts that such a prospect seems likely.
“I wish it wasn’t like that, for the families and my grandfather’s friends and people he knows there who that have to live like that. I do hope it changes.”