BY ANDREA HERNANDEZ ’19
In the early hours of August 23, 1994, 23 Cubans packed themselves into a 24 foot boat on the island’s coast near Matanzas. Among them were my loving parents and then 2-year-old brother. Unfortunately, as they prepared to embark, their trip was delayed by a mechanical failure. The group scrambled and was able to find a local mechanic who agreed to fix the boat. The next day, joined by the mechanic, they crossed through the Rio Yumuri to Florida.
After traveling for nine hours, the boat was intercepted at sea by the United States Coast Guard and the people on board were brought to Guantanamo Bay. For the next five months, my parents lived in camps with thousands of other Cuban balseros in the U.S. naval base, located at the tip of the island. Despite messages across camp that they would never set foot on United States soil, my parents remained hopeful that they would not have to return to the country that had failed them so deeply. The U.S. eventually granted them permission to leave, and on Feb. 10, 1995, they arrived in Miami, Florida.
Cuban refugees have fled the island in large numbers since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Although the initial wave of migration primarily consisted of the island’s elite who knew that severed ties with the United States meant bad news for their big businesses, this was not the motivation for all of the migration that followed. These waves of migration saw the exodus of political prisoners, members of the working class, those deemed socially undesirable and people who struggled to meet their everyday needs, among others. To homogenize exiles as the island’s white, upper class is to deny the realities of thousands of Cubans, many of whom have risked their lives to escape the oppressive communist regime.
Having been born and raised in Little Havana in Miami, home to a large population of Cuban refugees, the overwhelmingly positive reactions to the news of Castro’s death came as no surprise to me. In fact, I vividly remember my community’s reaction in 2006 when false reports circulated that the dictator had finally died. Because he made few public appearances, especially after “resigning” from presidency in 2008, speculations of his death were common. In the hours that followed the official announcement given on Nov. 25, people poured out into the streets of Miami waving their Cuban flags and banging their pots and pans. It was finally true.
Several states separated me from my hometown and the heart of the festivities, but I found comfort on social media where friends and family shared stories of their time on the island and their struggle to escape. Occasionally, I also stumbled upon people who grieved his loss.
These people on my Facebook timeline, none of whom had lived under Castro’s dictatorship, praised him for what they deemed advancements in Cuban society. But what good are high rates of literacy when there is no freedom of the press? If the revolution truly ended racism, as they claimed, why does the government try to censor Afro-Cuban rappers who attempt to tell their stories? How just is a society that criminally prosecutes its critics, censors text messages that contain phrases like “human rights” and heavily censors the already very limited access to the Internet? It is naive to say that those who romanticize Castro’s regime are alone. Even figures like Colin Kaepernick and Bernie Sanders have publicly praised the country’s successes in education and healthcare. When faced with criticism, both were quick to separate their admiration from the country’s undemocratic and oppressive history.
Last Friday, one week after Castro’s death, I gathered with Cuban and non-Cuban friends alike to acknowledge the symbolic moment. I sang along to Celia Cruz, munched on Cuban snacks my family had shipped from home and played more rounds of dominó than I can count. In South Hadley, nearly 1,500 miles from home, I celebrated.
I celebrated for my mami, who despite a phobia of crowded spaces and open waters set out to sea in search of freedom. I celebrated for my papi, who just last month lived out his dream of purchasing and fixing up a boat, a criminal offense in Cuba. I celebrated for my brother, who enjoys a career as a nurse that pays him more in a day than a Cuban doctor earns in a month. I celebrated for Uva, my grandmother, who frequently compromised her own safety to put enough food on the table.
I celebrated for those in Cuba who can’t, and for those who did not live to see the day.