Parading down Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana this weekend, you might have thought the Miami Marlins became World Series champions or everyone in Little Havana won the lottery. But the truth was so much greater: Fidel Castro was dead. And for the Cuban-exile community, no news could have been better news. After years of rumors tugged at the heartstrings of so many Cuban-Americans, the news of Castro's death was finally real.
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Castro, the seemingly eternal-ruling communist dictator, singlehandedly destroyed more lives than anyone would care to count. His bloody legacy is littered by that of murderous firing squads, separating families, imprisoning and torturing dissidents, seizing personal property and taking over private businesses at gunpoint. His forceful imposition of radical socialism on his own people turned a once beautiful thriving island into a crumbling poverty-stricken heap.
In Cuba, even today, there’s no freedom of speech, freedom of press or free-market economy. Cubans can’t protest, own land, own a business, travel or change jobs without government approval. If they do, they’ll be shot or jailed. Food is scarce and market shelves are bare. Cubans are forced to live on a government-manipulated average monthly salary of $25 per month, regardless of job title, qualifications or education level. In short, for those not lucky enough to have escaped in time, life in Cuba today is still one of overwhelming government control not unlike the way it was when Castro grasped rule of the island in 1959.
My family was one of the lucky ones. My grandfather, Barough Zarco, ran an extremely successful bed linen factory in Havana, one of the biggest on the island, with his father, Isidoro Zarco. He was also a licensed accountant and my grandmother a licensed pharmacist. They enjoyed a life on the island that was teeming with extraordinary architecture, good jobs, beautiful cars, grand parties and more freedom. My great-grandfather, Isidoro, paid it forward. He was known in the neighborhood for his unbelievable generosity, leaving the front door of his house wide open so that any poor families in his neighborhood could walk in and eat. When Christmas came around, he had a gift waiting for every youth in the neighborhood whose family couldn’t afford to buy them one. He was also instrumental in building the Cuban-Hebrew Sephardic congregation in Havana. The sense of community was strong and life was beautiful.
But the rise of a young, strong, fast-talking revolutionary named Fidel Castro didn’t sit well with them and the heartbreaking revelation that they would soon have to leave the life they knew and loved quickly dawned on them. With communism on the horizon, the choice was excruciatingly difficult. Stay and risk your livelihood, or leave and start all over again in the hopes of giving your family a chance at a better future in the United States.
With arrangements for the latter in the planning stages, something horrifying, yet incredible happened. One day at the factory, a group of Castro’s young armed militia stormed in, ordering my grandfather and great-grandfather to turn the keys over to Fidel. It was his factory now, they said. While leading them out the door, some militia members realized they were taking over Zarco’s factory, the same Zarco who fed them and bought them Christmas gifts for so many years. Because of this, my grandfather and his father walked away with their factory confiscated, but their body and limbs intact.
It was 1961, and with the island going downhill fast, my grandfather scrambled to find a way out. He finally managed to get two plane tickets through a family friend. He was very lucky. But they weren’t enough for the whole family to leave together. So he assigned the seats to his two sons, my dad and uncle, who flew to New York to stay with his sister-in-law until he could hopefully find a way out for him and my grandmother.
Miraculously, several months later, he got a call from a friend who worked at the airport. “If you want to leave, you need to get over here now,” he said. In the blink of an eye, my grandparents sped over to the airport barely having a chance to say goodbye to their beautiful Cuba. They left behind everything. Among them, my grandfather’s beloved 1957 baby blue Chevy Bel Aire that he left in the airport’s parking lot, never to be seen again, with the keys in the door and a note on the window so that whoever took it wouldn’t break in and damage it. (We later reunited him with an exact replica of the car just a few months ago.) They were bound for New York to reunite with their sons and start a new life in the United States. But life would be much different.
Moving to Miami shortly after, my grandparents struggled to make ends meet. Their degrees were meaningless. Their pockets empty. My grandfather went from owning a factory in Cuba to working in one in Miami for less than $1 an hour. He worked a total of three jobs, laboring away tirelessly for 18 hours a day for nearly 40 years. The climb back up was a slow and painful one. My grandmother had to re-earn her pharmacy degree. My grandfather was working tirelessly, earning barely enough to provide for his family and his third child, my aunt. My dad and uncle mowed lawns to pitch in. It was a constant struggle.
But it wasn’t in vain. What was lacking in material items was made up for in character and teachings. Chief among them, the priceless value of work ethic. It was a trait that helped both my dad and uncle to eventually be accepted to Harvard University and become successful professionals as a doctor and a lawyer. The life my family lives today stands in stark contrast to the one endured by my parents and grandparents. If not for their sacrifices, everything my family has achieved and enjoys today wouldn’t be even in the realm of possibility.
This story of struggle to success, through nothing but blood, sweat and tears is unique but not uncommon among the Cuban-American community. It’s one that forms a stronger bond among us than anything Castro’s power could’ve ever dreamed of threatening. The Calle Ocho celebration pushed the strength of that bond to the forefront. Being there was something special. The energy was indescribable. It was full of life, dancing, blasting Latin music and waving Cuban flags. My only wish is that my grandfather, who passed away in January, could’ve made it a few more months to see the day. And I wasn’t alone in sharing that nostalgia for a family member. It was an opportunity for me, and so many others to come for those who didn’t live long enough to witness it.
It went beyond a party. It was about celebrating exactly what our families fled for over 50 years ago. Freedom, democracy and happiness. Not about the death of a man, but about the lives of our families. Celebrating that all the sacrifices, tears and struggles were not in vain. Celebrating the symbolic end of an ideology. Though significant change in Cuba may not happen overnight, Castro’s absence may be just enough to shake the structure of his communist platform in a way never seen before. Without his powerful presence, the end of a brutal dictatorship that destroyed so may lives is hopefully on the road to seeing its final days. The savage man, who portrayed himself as immortal, has been proven otherwise. Cuban-Americans on the other hand, still stand strong. The Cuban people have earned this. And they’re not ones to end a party early. So if you’re waiting for the celebration to end, you may not want to hold your breath.
David Zarco is a Jewish Cuban-American born and raised in Miami Beach, FL.