“How did you hear?” I asked Mariela. I hadn’t seen her for ten years, but we still kept in touch over Facebook. She lives in North Carolina and I live in Tennessee. When the news broke of Fidel Castro’s death at ninety years old, she popped into my mind. I sent her a Facebook message, and she immediately replied.

“My boyfriend told me when I woke up, but I was half asleep and didn’t understand. My middle sister in Tampa texted me and my oldest sister a few minutes later… I don’t process information that early in the morning so it took me a while to really understand,” Mariela said.

“I didn’t find out until the morning, either. My brother said he found out the night before. I guess right when it was announced. He woke my dad at one a.m. to tell him.”

Fidel. El Jefe. The large shadow over all of us had died and every news channel and social media outlet showed stories of people celebrating his demise or crying over the loss. Few interviews strayed from these black and white reactions. Cubans are known to show emotion, and this event brought out the extremes. Whether Cuban-Americans were born and raised in the states or grew up in Cuba, Fidel Castro was the singular figure who shaped our lives.

My father immigrated to America in 1949, a good ten years before Castro descended with Che Guevara from the Sierra Maestra mountains to launch his coup. I was born during a snowstorm in Buffalo in 1967, a world away from my father’s birthplace of Gibara in Cuba’s Holguín Province. Mariela was born in Cuba, in Las Tunas, and lived there until she was 21. Born in 1974, she passed countless emblems of Che and Fidel as she went to school. While I was just beginning to learn that my father was from a place we couldn’t go to, with an evil warlord, a boogeyman, a Communist (a near curse word during the Cold War), Mariela was “snorkeling in the warm shallow waters of the Caribbean in total awe of the corals, basking on the white sandy beaches, eating ice cream; and not having to pay to visit museums, go to the doctor, watch the top baseball teams in the country, or even get a college education.”

Like Mariela, my father’s memories were of carefree days on the shore, playing baseball, and puppy love. He lived under the rule of Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, a man who killed and tortured people who didn’t agree with him. My father remembers stories of men being forced to drink castor oil and tied to stakes as their bowels ran loose until they dehydrated and died. No hard numbers are available, but estimates say Batista killed more than twenty thousand. No wonder people danced in the streets when Fidel overthrew the man.

“In my eyes, growing up hearing these stories, Fidel was our very own Robin Hood,” Mariela said. Stories of those first days and months after Castro took the reigns were magical for Mariela’s family. “There were trucks full of provisions being delivered by the new government to our neighborhood, people dancing overjoyed in the streets, celebration after celebration… The years before had been bleak, during Batista’s dictatorship. My grandparents were living then in the eastern part of the country, in the small city of Las Tunas, and were struggling to feed their seven children. But now there was more food available, and soon they would also have free access to healthcare and education. My grandmother, who was illiterate until then, learned to read and write during the country’s literacy campaign of 1961. During that year, Castro’s government sent ‘literacy brigades’ all over the island to build schools, train educators, and teach over 707,000 Cubans to read and write.”

In American terms, early Fidel resembled Bernie Sanders – a passionate idealist. “Anyone who would take on the big guy, take down corporations, give free education, I’m for that guy,” Mariela said. “So it was easy for me growing up to love, not Fidel himself, but the principles the revolution was built upon. For example, the coral reefs of Cuba are so much brighter than the rest of the Caribbean. Why? Because the cruise ships haven’t made it there. They were big about protecting the environment. They taught us that.”

“And the literacy rate is 99 percent,” I replied. (I looked it up after our conversation, and it’s actually 99.8 percent.) Perhaps even more impressive is that women are equal to men in Cuba, and not just in their constitution. Sixty percent of lawyers are female, as are nearly half of Parliament, judges, and Supreme Court justices.

Although I tried to educate myself about my heritage when I was growing up, I would see pictures or news reports of Cubans in the streets hailing Fidel, and assume they were authentic. Everyone loved him, I thought. But a trip to Havana in 2001 taught me differently. We hired a college professor to interpret for us, and he told us he almost lost his job because he was sick the day of one of the parades and they threatened to fire him. What doesn’t make it to our television screens is that Cubans were made to go to rallies, speeches and parades. Their attendance was marked. Placards were handed to them with pro-Castro sentiments already attached. Not attending these televised “shows” was seen as an act of defiance. Jobs could be lost; there could even be jail time.

As a teen, while I sat on our orange shag carpet with the air conditioner on full blast, I may have even seen a young Mariela on television in a crowd at Plaza de la Revolución. “I went to a few of his famous speeches and rallies,” she said. “We were forced to go through school and college. Millions were there.” I believed what my eyes showed me: millions of people supporting this man my family and all of South Florida loathed. I didn’t know they were forced to be there.

In the early eighties, when I was in high school, the landscape of South Florida changed. I’d been the only one of Cuban heritage in most of my classes. Then the Mariel boatlift happened – an emigration allowed by an agreement between Castro and Jimmy Carter’s administration after ten thousand Cubans flooded the grounds of foreign embassies in Cuba demanding asylum.

From April to September of 1980, 125,000 new Cubans inundated Florida. Some were high society, some were criminals, but all had to go somewhere. They began to bleed up the Florida coast and my school grew with pockets of kids speaking a language I’d only heard from my grandparents. One thing that was noticeable is that they all were happy. I was naïve, or perhaps just young. I didn’t fully realize what they’d escaped from. Some recognized my last name, so they tried to befriend me, but once they started speaking Spanish, the line was drawn. No entiendo.

Mariela was still there during that time. “I started working in the fields, in schools ran by the government,” she said. “In the sixth grade; I was only ten years old then and continued working in the fields for half a day, until I was seventeen. As relationships with the Soviet Union started to deteriorate, it was hard to find food.

“I was in college and my mom would wake up to make me sugar water, warm, for me to have something in my stomach. I wouldn’t eat anything until dinner (a potato or so). That’s why I would faint so often. I had only one pair of shoes, hand-me-downs. Converse. And they had a huge hole on the sole, so I had to fold newspapers and put them under my feet. Since there was no transportation, I would walk easily five to seven miles a day like that, folding the newspaper every mile or so.

“I would come home from college and find my mother screaming in pain. There was no gas stoves or electricity to cook. She would make a fire in the backyard, and with hands deformed by arthritis, she would cook a meal for me to have something warm in my stomach after all day with only sugar water. She had no medicine for her arthritis. No one was working. There was no work. I don’t know how we made money… but even with money there was nothing to buy. The embargo made it impossible for corporations to send things to Cuba. Only Russia was bold enough to go against the United States on the embargo.

“So, when I decided to go to college after high school, my sisters and my mom were so angry with me, because I should have gotten a job to help.”

In the early ’80s, Cubans were making an average of eight dollars a month. Buildings were falling into disrepair. People were using pickle jars to make carbonators for their run-down Russian Lada cars.

“When I visited in 2001, I brought a cheap pen with me,” I said to Mariela. “We kept going to see a band play every night. They were amazing. On the last night, I gave the band leader my pen. He started crying and said, ‘Now I can write down our music.’ They had been learning it all without having it written down.”

Mariela understood. “I have a love affair with pens and journals because for years I couldn’t write my thoughts down.”

While Mariela was struggling to survive, I was in college complaining that my parents were picking me up to take me to a Tony Bennett concert. Bennett – not Bowie or Duran Duran. It was some fundraiser, and what seemed to be a test of my newly-adult impatience turned into one of the most meaningful nights of my life. At intermission my father introduced me to his friend Pepin Almeida. Walking with a cane at that time, the man who had been the Chief Medical Officer for the Bay of Pigs military operation would leave a large impression on me. He would become the subject of a book I wrote, and in the process, my mentor.

Fidel started his political career as an idealistic college man. Pepin did too. Because his Catholic religion was oppressed under Fidel, in 1960 he agreed to help the CIA overthrow Fidel and restore freedom of faith. After the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 Pepin, fled Castro’s army and hid for a week in the jungle, drinking dew off leaves and eating lizards. They waited for the CIA, for Americans, to rescue them, but no one came. Frail and becoming delusional from dehydration, when Pepin was captured by Castro’s militia he was grateful. His captors handed him a bowl of congri – beans and rice. He later said it was the best meal he’d ever tasted: “Nothing makes food taste better than the gravy of hunger.”

After two years in political prison, undergoing solitary, mental torture, extreme hunger and dysentery, Pepin was exiled to the United States thanks to a deal brokered by Robert Kennedy.

Everyone was starving – Mariela, Pepin, my great aunt, and the biological grandfather I was forbidden to meet because of the American embargo. They were starving for food, for knowledge of a bigger world that wasn’t filtered through the control of Fidel.

Mariela wasn’t in a physical jail, but after the Soviet Union cut back supplies, her life became extremely difficult. Wanting to find freedom in exploring her inner-life, she began to sneak into church. Cuba had entered the periodo especial, the Special Period. In true Castro spin, he called on his people to sacrifice more. They would see hardships, but they were on the right side of history, he reassured them. The periodo especial was to be short, to prove what they were all really made of, and to make them even more unified.

“It’s infamous,” Mariela said. “That’s when the mass exodus happened. I would walk on the beach and find body parts.”

“Body parts? Are you serious?”

“Yes. People would tear down their houses to build rafts.”

The people who couldn’t take it anymore tried to escape, or they joined secret groups to try to enact change. This is when Mariela’s family knew, for their survival, they had to flee.

“My stepfather was a member of a human rights group,” Mariela said. “He was beaten, in and out of detention, for his political views. The United States had a program to bring political refugees here. We came straight to Greensboro in 1995. Flew to Cancun, then Miami, then Greensboro all in one day.”

Mariela and my father have a lot in common. They didn’t want to leave Cuba. Despite the atrocities during Batista and Castro’s reigns, they loved their country; their friends and family, the beaches, the sunsets. They were around the same age when they left: her 21, him eighteen.

My father thought he’d go back after he got his degree. At least for a visit. With no English skills, he depended on translation dictionaries until he earned his medical doctor’s degree from Medical College of Georgia. After five more years of specialization and residencies, it was 1961 and Fidel was in power. When he left Cuba 57 years ago, there was no thought that he wouldn’t step foot back there. Now that Fidel is dead and a return might be possible, my father is too old and tired to make the trip.

While many Americans don’t grasp why Miami is a small version of Cuba, with many areas Spanish-only, it is because of this same idea. They thought they would return. This week, well, next month. And the years stretched on. Exiles bought ham radios and boats. They kept their boats ready and pointing toward their homeland, waiting for news to crackle through their radios that the time had come; that they could return.

And then there are the ones who show up on the news, waving flags in the street, rejoicing over Fidel’s death. “I know so many people from his generation that just refuse to go back, who raised their children with lots of hatred. I want all of that healed,” Mariela said. With articles and pictures coming out of Cuba showing young people eager to adapt the fashion and music of the outside world, there is great hope that healing is on the way.

Mariela, who had only sugar water for breakfast, who worked the fields at ten years old, fainting from lack of nutrition, who lost loved ones who tried to escape poverty and oppression, and who was threatened to get kicked out of college for going to church – she has forgiven and found something inside that helps her move forward. Those days she snuck into church helped show her a new way. She doesn’t call it religion, but spiritualty. She realized she had an inner life, one no one or no government could touch.

I, on the other hand, haven’t been able to move forward or forgive. Not yet. I’m hoping to learn from Mariela. Neither of us are celebrating the death of Fidel, nor are we lamenting the loss of a man who made some positive social changes. We both are reconciling our experiences with the news of his death.

Although our connections to Cuba are different, both of us are sad – for people like Pepin Almeida who passed away before this long-awaited return, for Mariela’s friends and family members who died during the difficult times. Feeling upset or overjoyed over the loss of Fidel would be simpler, but those are black and white emotions. Like Fidel, life is never that simple.

Karen Alea

Karen Alea is a writer and teacher living in Tennessee.