‘Elated and dis­mayed’

Fidel Cas­tro’s death and legacy bring mixed feel­ings for one Cuban-Amer­i­can

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Ho­ra­cio Sierra Ho­ra­cio Sierra is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of English and mod­ern lan­guages at Bowie State Uni­ver­sity. His email is hsierra@bowies­tate.edu.

Iowe my life, po­lit­i­cal views and Cuban iden­tity to Fidel Cas­tro. I de­spise him and thank him for that. My fa­ther was born in Ha­vana and my mother was born on the op­po­site end of the is­land in Man­zanillo. Were it not for my grand­par­ents’ dis­gust with the Cas­tro regime, my par­ents would never have met as young Cuban ex­iles. And I would not have been born as an Amer­i­can in Florida.

Like other sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans of Cuban her­itage, my cul­tural iden­tity has been a hy­brid one wherein Amer­ica comes first and Cuba comes a close sec­ond. I al­ways stand for the na­tional an­them and I al­ways de­fend our coun­try while cri­tiquing the kinks we still have to work out. Hence, even as my gen­er­a­tion has shocked our con­ser­va­tive par­ents with our lib­eral ways by ex­hibit­ing the very Amer­i­can val­ues they wished were in Cuba — free­dom of ex­pres­sion, speech and in­de­pen­dent thought — we have al­ways main­tained a hard-line con­ser­vatism when it comes to Cas­tro and com­mu­nism.

My vi­sion of Cas­tro was crys­tal­lized at an early age when I lis­tened to my ma­ter­nal grand­mother re­call the time she shook hands with him as he came down from the moun­tains dur­ing the early days of the rev­o­lu­tion. Like many work­ing-class Cubans, she and my grand­fa­ther had hopes that the re­moval of the dic­ta­tor Ful­gen­cio Batista would im­prove Cuba. They were in for a rude awak­en­ing when Cas­tro es­poused Marx­ism, na­tion­al­ized in­dus­tries and abol­ished the free press.

Cas­tro was a mod­ern-day Ju­das. As I formed my po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies, I was al­ways in­formed by a dis­tinctly Cuban sense of dis­en­chant­ment.

I was re­minded that soon af­ter Cas­tro’s rev­o­lu­tion, my mother, my un­cle and their class­mates were sent to work at a la­bor camp. They were in el­e­men­tary school, and their nim­ble hands could work won­ders in the field as the regime tried to boost its floun­der­ing econ­omy.

Don’t just read over that. Imag­ine the sce­nario for a mo­ment: The gov­ern­ment takes your chil­dren from you and forces them to work in a la­bor camp.

As my grand­par­ents saw it, a free ed­u­ca­tion wasn’t worth much if you didn’t get to choose what you read. Like­wise, a free health care sys­tem wasn’t worth much if you didn’t have any­thing to live for. What good was your life if you couldn’t be like Don Quixote and tilt at the wind­mills, try­ing to make the world a bet­ter place by start­ing a busi­ness, be­ing a re­bel­lious artist or serv­ing in the church? A com­mu­nist econ­omy with­out in­de­pen­dent thought or free­dom to wor­ship was not why their par­ents and grand­par­ents had left Spain for the New World.

And so both sets of grand­par­ents, in­de­pen­dent of each other, im­mi­grated to the U.S. Wel­comed with open arms by the United States’ Cuban Ad­just­ment Act, my fam­ily be­came cit­i­zens, earned Amer­i­can col­lege de­grees, be­came pro­fes­sion­als, bought homes and as­sim­i­lated to Amer­i­can life with an as­ter­isk.

Mi­ami is where both my lib­er­al­ism and con­ser­vatism flour­ished. I read vo­ra­ciously in English and Span­ish. I went to hard-rock shows and Glo­ria Este­fan con­certs. My par­ents bought me a brand-new car when I was 16. We went on sum­mer va­ca­tions to Europe. I was a mid­dle-class Amer­i­can teenager. We were the bour­geois fam­ily that Cas­tro and other Marx­ists railed against. And we were al­ways thank­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to be as much.

Hence, I evolved into a con­ser­va­tive lib­eral.

I went to col­lege and my pol­i­tics be­came more lib­eral than my par­ents’ — but never to the point where I blindly em­braced Marx­ism like so many arm­chair ac­tivists and ivory tower philoso­phers. My fam­ily had lived through the “praxis” of so many Marx­ist “the­ory” cour­ses. And so, even as I joined the Col­lege Democrats and the LGBT group, I was aware of the lim­its to left­ist pol­i­tics. Af­ter all, there is only one po­lit­i­cal party in Cuba, and gay men were rounded up and sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps in Cuba dur­ing the 1970s.

And so I find my­self elated and dis­mayed over Cas­tro’s death. Although it is the end of an era, free­dom will not ma­te­ri­al­ize in Cuba overnight. Cas­tro’s death is sym­bol­i­cally im­por­tant. For as much as he will be li­on­ized by those on the left in the com­ing days, weeks and years, Cas­tro was a re­minder from the mo­ment of my con­cep­tion that free­dom is the abil­ity to ques­tion your po­lit­i­cal be­liefs and also their lim­its.


A Cuban flag flut­ters at half-staff near a ban­ner de­pict­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader Fidel Cas­tro, who died in Ha­vana on Nov. 25.

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