Oakland, Calif. — THE headline scrolled through the corner of my computer screen sometime after 10 on Friday night. Fidel Castro had died. It was news I’d been waiting to hear my entire life, and yet I hesitated.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it, but rather, that the event was one we’d rehearsed so many times that now that it had actually happened, many of us — Cubans, both and off the island — were caught off guard.
Then the texts started coming in and I did what I’d done a million times before: give in to the pull of Fidel.
My cousins in Miami texted to say they were headed out to wave the flag and chant for a free Cuba.
In Spain, another cousin sobbed. The tension in her back, she said, had completely disappeared.
“It’s as if some grumpy old man in the neighborhood had died, someone you knew your whole life,” my 20-something niece, a very recent arrival to the United States, texted from New Orleans.
An ex-girlfriend in Boston, who grew up in Cuba, stated: “I feel nothing.” When I pointed out that she’d cried years ago when Fidel had fainted in the sun, and again when he’d fallen and broken a knee, she stood her ground. “Yes, that impacted me, and when he said he wouldn’t be president anymore. But this, no.”
My friends in Havana responded to my calls with silence. “Yes, he’s dead … ” they acknowledged, then the lines filled with the gurgle of distant TV broadcasts or clattering in the kitchen. I could see them, every one, staring off into space.
We’ve all been waiting, waiting for this to happen. All of us tethered to Fidel: staying with Fidel or leaving Fidel. Loving Fidel or hating Fidel. In a cab in Istanbul, the driver asked: “Oh, you’re Cuban, what do you think of Fidel?” At a laundry-mat in Chicago: “You’re Cuban? So what’s Fidel really like?” In a classroom in Honolulu: “All I know about Cuba is Fidel.”
Fidel. Fidel. Fidel.
And how do I feel? The distance between my body and Cuba has never seemed greater. I feel strange, relieved and a little sad. I was born on that island just as its revolution shook and inspired the world while splitting its own people in two: those in, those out. At 6, I was taken out. In the late ’90s, I went back to live there for a few years. I was seduced by a million things that had nothing to do with Fidel and his revolution: the light, the din, the salt. Oddly, when I was there, I hardly ever thought of Fidel.
During that time, I once found myself in the same room with him, a ballroom in Havana for a celebration of the 26th of July, the anniversary of the young rebels’ catastrophic attack on the Moncada barracks. (Leave it to Fidel to make a resounding failure the centerpiece of his mythos.) A friend and I had managed tickets to the exclusive affair. When he arrived, we felt the room tremble as we spotted him maybe 50 yards away, an old man and yet as majestic as we’d always heard but couldn’t imagine. To our astonishment, he seemed to turn toward us.
And then we clutched each other’s hands. “We have to go, right now,” my friend said. I nodded: I was suddenly terrified that we might somehow wind up near him and that a photograph of the moment would reach Miami, causing my entire family to drop dead. For her, who lived in Cuba, the possibilities were much worse. We ran out of there, breathless until we reached the Malecón. “I was afraid,” she said later, “that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut and that I’d start shouting. ‘Down with Fidel!’”
David Greene talks to writer Achy Obejas about her New York Times opinion piece: “The Little Fidel in All of Us.” It examines her complicated feelings about Fidel Castro, who died last week.