"¡FIDEL ESTA MUERTO!" Students, faculty and alumni share their reactions to and reflections on the news of Fidel Castro's death.

I couldn’t sleep, so I turned on the news about one in the morning. When I heard [that Fidel Castro died], the first thing I did was to get on my knees, thank God that this day finally came, and ask forgiveness for being relieved that someone died.

Then I thought of my mother, who had passed away 13 months prior, and how I had longed for her to live long enough to see Fidel dead. After one day of waiting to let it sink in, my family went to Versailles to share this moment with our community who had suffered so much.

Onelia Collazo Diguez and Francisco Rosendo Collazo

This photo shows my dad at age 28, a few months before he went to prison as a political prisoner for planning to overthrow Castro. He and others were in the mountains, but somebody who knew him informed on him. That man came to live in the U.S. years later. My dad served seven years out of a 15-year sentence. Some of his friends were killed. He was supposed to have been killed but, for some reason, was spared.

I often dream and think about finding the records or stories about when he was in prison. I always wondered when he could get to the point where he could talk to me about it, but he died when I was 20. His work ethic and kindness to others were his hallmark.

—Onelia Collazo Mendive '95

Gustavo Arcos Bergnes

When the death of Fidel Castro was announced, my first thoughts went to my uncle, Gustavo Arcos. In the wee hours of July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro invited my uncle Gustavo to ride in the car he was driving to the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. They shared the same age, political prison, exile, and the hopes to topple Batista and reinstate democracy.

My uncle’s hopes were shattered soon enough after the 1959 revolutionary victory, and soon enough he was again a political prisoner. He was never allowed to leave the island. Eventually, Gustavo became the dean of the peaceful opposition to the Castro regime.

My uncle and Castro, the dissident and the dictator, seemed destined to be each other’s nemeses. They were both hospitalized almost simultaneously in July of 2006, but only my uncle died a few days later. It took another 10 years for his nemesis to follow. I know they are not in the same place.

—Sebastian Arcos, associate director for academic support services at the FIU Cuban Research Institute

—Jorge Duany, director and professor at the FIU Cuban Research Institute

I was in Havana working on a research project with some professors at the University of Havana. I was surprised at how little emotion was expressed by anyone I saw in Havana, neither grieving nor elation. It seemed like just another news item on television.

There was a demonstration at the university, with a memorial set up on the steps, but in general on the streets it felt very normal, with just a bit of an extra police presence visible. Nobody I talked to expected much to change anytime soon, although there are small changes taking place in the economy and in politics. But the pace of change is glacial.

—Karen Paul, professor of management and international business

Left to right: Sandra Gonzalez-Levy's father Carlos Jarro, Sandra and her mother Herminia

When I heard Fidel Castro had died, many painful memories came to the surface. The news brought me back to when I was a teenager living in Miami with my sister Zita and older brother, Miguel Angel. My parents had stayed behind in Cuba because they wouldn’t leave without my older brother Carlos, who was a political prisoner. Miguel Angel had arrived in Miami in 1961 and served in the U.S. Armed Forces as part of a troop trained to fight in Cuba. The force was disbanded before it went into action, and Miguel Angel subsequently married and had a son.

Miguel Angel heard that Cuban guards could be bribed to release political prisoners. He left South Florida in a boat named Jane with the hope of being able to bring my brother and both my parents.

I never heard from him again. Family and friends in Miami began a massive search. My parents went to the Cuban authorities and wrote to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. But Miguel Angel was never found. There are people who said they saw him in Camarioca escorted by a group of militia. My family throughout the years has speculated as to what really happened. Was he imprisoned, was he killed by the milicianos because they saw his ‘dog tags’ from the U.S. Armed Forces that he always carried in his wallet? Or, did he drown in the Florida Straits?

My family and I were eventually able to get my brother Carlos and my parents out of Cuba via Mexico. But my biggest regret is that my parents both died not knowing what happened to their son and that his son grew up without his father – an incredible and sensitive human being.

My story is no different than so many other Cuban families stories. Our suffering will not be forgotten. Hoping for a free and democratic Cuba 🇨🇺 soon!!!

—Sandra Gonzalez-Levy, senior vice president for External Relations at FIU

I’m a first-generation American. Personally, I didn’t witness the atrocities of the Castro regime. But my grandmother Diana has told me stories of what it was like to live throughout the revolution. Stories of bullet-riddled houses and anxiety-riddled people trying to go along with their day-to-day lives.

She left the island in July of 1961, boarding an airplane from Havana to Miami with two children in tow, sans husband and without a penny to fall back on. She was 31 at the time. She’s 86 years old now. Sometimes, she’ll tell me of these vivid dreams she has of her home town Guantanamo. The cobblestone streets, the old movie palace she went to see Gone with the Wind at, the many Marine Corps dances she’d sneak out to in her youth.

I called her from a friend’s house to tell her the rumors that were floating on the internet. We had not received confirmation save for a tweet from the BBC. Normally, she would’ve dismissed them. After all, members of the Cuban exile community are well aware that rumors in regards to Castro’s demise spread with some regularity. But she didn’t blow off this rumor. It must’ve been something in the air. “Ya veremos. [We’ll wait and see],” she said as we hung up.

And then the Associated Press went with the story. And so did The New York Times.

I met my grandmother in front of Versailles just past 1:30 in the morning, where about 2,000 people had descended. It seemed that every member of the Cuban-American community must’ve known to go to Little Havana. It’s like Mecca with better arroz con pollo.

Pots and pans clanged in furious rhythm as people clogged Southwest 8th street.

Grandma Diana, Aunt Martha and I stood in awe. Almost six decades of animosity and agony being expressed in an initial moment of relief. My grandmother, who is usually far from the most jubilant person, was beaming.

“Bueno, no sabemos lo que va a pasar ahora. Raul sigue ahi. Tenemos que ver. [We don’t know what will happen now. We have to wait and see],” she said.

I’m not sure about the political implications Fidel’s death has. They might very well be negligible. But I know this much: My grandma’s dreams of her homeland certainly won’t carry the same sting anymore. Because another chapter in the painful history of the much beleaguered island nation has been closed.

Let us see what is to come.

—David Barrios '11

We got some casualas (pots and pans) and headed out to Calle Ocho first, but the real party was at La Carreta on Bird Road. My family cried, laughed and partied. Too many emotions to describe and too much pain to bare. We definitely had to celebrate the end of a ruthless dictator.

—Alejandro Escudero, political science student

Celebrations on Calle Ocho, Nov. 26. Photo by Alejandro Escudero

At 1:05 a.m. on Saturday, I heard my mother shout "¡FIDEL ESTA MUERTO!" (Fidel is dead.) All the local stations were reporting live the news I had waited on for 22 years. I watched as thousands of Cuban Americans made their way to Versailles restaurant on 8th Street, known as La Casa del Exilio (the home of the exiled). I felt relief, peace of mind. I felt my grandfather, uncle and dozens of cousins could finally rest in peace.

Many of my family members were assassinated by Fidel’s firing squads at La Cabaña. My grandmother lived with the fear that the same men who assassinated her husband would also take the life of her six kids. Those six kids (my father and his siblings) were humiliated for being the offspring of a man who rebelled against the regime. My female cousins fought a war against communism and were sentenced to decades in prison. My brave cousins joined the CIA and planned dozens of (failed) attempts to destroy the regime. My mother's father spent most of his youth and adult years imprisoned. My mother was denied a college education because her parents were not affiliated with the communist party.

I was not born in Cuba. I decided to be Cuban, to carry on the legacy of my family and my community of political exiles. I do it for my Catholic aunts who assisted Sunday mass illegally; for my young cousins who still live under tyranny and are doctors and scientists but have no resources to excel in their profession; for my other cousins who are teachers but their lesson plans consist of indoctrinating the nation's youth with communist propaganda; for all the homosexuals who were physically abused and sent to work camps; and for the homosexuals diagnosed with mental disorders and “treated” with electric shock therapy.

I will always be grateful for the freedom I have as an American. I hope my homeland inspires change in my beloved island. Now more than ever, I will stand by my people still living on the island. They are not alone. I only hope to live to the day Cuba becomes a free democratic nation.

—Obier Miranda, biology student (with contributions from sister Onix Miranda, biomedical engineering student)

Alberto Aguiar's parents, circa 1967

At first, I thought it was another rumor. And then when I realized it was real, I had a deep sense of happiness that the brutal dictator had finally perished. Writing this, I get emotional thinking about how much my parents suffered. I remember sitting by the phone watching when my mother was able to speak to her parents in Cuba while the Cuban government monitored, listened and reprimanded if the wrong words were spoken.

She only saw my grandparents in person twice after we exiled in 1967. My grandparents were poor, humble people. They had a small store, perhaps 200 square feet in size, where the locals from her small town shopped. In 1966, the Cuban government showed up one morning and took control of their store. It wasn’t just the rich that suffered. It was anyone who did not help Fidel in his quest for power.

—Alberto M. Aguiar '88

My experience in connection with Fidel Castro is that he destroyed the country I grew up in, Venezuela. Fidel Castro's communism is evil. His ideals sound inclusive for all, but these ideals accomplish misery and conformity. There is a reason why there are so many Cubans that risked their lives to escape from Cuba. There is a reason why so many Venezuelans have left their country, as well.

In the U.S., you can choose to purchase from hundreds of brands and stores. Our economy in the U.S. is one of the best in the world. In countries like Cuba and Venezuela, you are forced to get an allowance of food per week. There is not enough food for everyone and it all goes unreported because the media is controlled.

When I lived in Venezuela, before communism came around, we could buy anything we wanted and many brands. Today, even taking a shower is complicated, because there are water outages constantly. Communism impoverished the Venezuelan economy and Fidel Castro is hated for that. In my view, Fidel Castro is the worst thing that happened to South America, and it bothers me tremendously when people who've never been close to Cuba or Venezuela talk about how great Castro was.

—Gretha Graziani, MBA '11

Traffic along El Malecón thoroughfare in Havana, Cuba, circa 1955 (Photo credit: The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift)

I instinctively grabbed a photo album and wrote this in Spanish for all of those in my family who perished without being able to live this day:

Al oír esta noticia sobre la muerte de Fidel, sólo puedo pensar en los que no pudieron estar aquí para ver este día.

Ese muchachito - a quien (sin querer, queriendo) le inculcaron el amor por Cuba y el dolor visceral del exilio - al final tiene el honor de reportarles, estén donde estén, que hoy se cumplió justicia!

Abuela, Abuelo y tío abuelo Ramón, demás parientes y amistades de nuestra familia que murieron "sin patria, pero sin amo," hoy pueden descansar en paz.

[Upon hearing this news about Fidel's death, I can only think of those who could not be here to see this day.

That little boy - in whom (without wanting, but wanting) a love for Cuba and the visceral pain of exile was instilled - in the end, he has the honor to report to them, wherever they are, that today justice was fulfilled!

Grandmother, Grandfather and Great-Uncle Ramon, other relatives and friends of our family who died "without a country, but without a master," today they can rest in peace.]

—Robert Herrada MPA '06

Cubans depart for Miami on the Freedom Flights, circa 1973 (Photo credit: Cuban Exile History Museum)

We are all very happy in my family, and I in particular. My grandfather used to be thrown in jail several times a year for no reason other than being against the government. He was tortured and thrown naked in a lake during winter for the whole night, just to make him reveal the names of others like him. But he never did.

His younger brother was killed by Fidel in 1961. His older son was sent to jail at only 12 years of age and spent six months in solitary. All I had for clothing were a pair of shoes, a couple of t-shirts and two pairs of jeans to go to school, to go to a party, to do everything. I remember eating every single day of my life from age 11 to 24 only white rice, green peas and, in some occasions, eggs or chicken. I've never tasted green peas again, and hopefully never will.

—Jorge Lima, computer engineering student

Sloppy Joe's bar in Havana, Cuba, circa 1925 (Photo credit: The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi promised gift)

I must admit I was taken aback by the news when I first read of his passing on Facebook. It was truly surreal; quite a visceral reaction, I must say. I was born in the U.S. and quite honestly related more to my Spanish/Lebanese roots. However, when I read of his death, my mind and my body were consumed by a flood of raw emotions regarding my grandparents.

One day, soon after Fidel had taken power, my grandfather was visited by a man who apparently was sent to speak to him. He told my grandfather they knew how much money he had and the properties he owned. He told my grandfather that he had a determined amount of time to leave; otherwise, his family would pay the price. They were forced to leave in their 50s with their children and grandchildren.

Can you imagine having to flee for your life, leaving all you know, all you have worked for, with just a few belongings in hand? Imagine having to start over in an unfamiliar country where you have limited resources, an entire family depending on you, and you barely speak the language.

My grandparents left their home in Guantanamo, their daughter's home, a beach house, the Picolo Night Club, a caoba furniture store, and rental property. My grandparents worked for every cent they had along with my grandfather's brothers. They came as immigrants to Cuba themselves and so did my grandmother.

They left Cuba by way of Spain, because my grandmother was Spaniard. They lived in Spain for two years. During this time, they sent their son ahead to the U.S. to forge the way in New York. Luckily for them, my uncle had an accounting degree and spoke some English.

When they arrived in New York, everyone hustled to find work. As soon as they were able to rent a large home in Long Island, they opened a basement hostel, providing meals, linens and bathroom amenities to single Cubans who couldn't afford an apartment.

—Celia M. Almeida, MS '96

The Dr. Daniels docks at Key West during the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans to the U.S. in 1980. (Photo credit: Keith Graham, The Miami Herald)

For as long as I can remember my family and every Cuban-American I know has been waiting, hoping and planning for the day the old dictator dies. You see, if only he would die, things would be better in Cuba: families would reunite, people would not take to sea looking for freedom, political prisoners would be liberated, Cuba would be prosperous again and a half century of suffering would finally come to an end.

Now we face the reality that Fidel Castro is dead and it makes no difference. Sure, we celebrate the death of the head and ultimate symbol of the failed revolution, which my family fled 36 years ago during the Mariel boatlift. No doubt the world is generally a better place without one of the darkest figures of the 20th century, a man who brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

But not much has changed in Cuba as a result.

¡Se murió Fidel! But the wait continues.

Maydel Santana, director of the Office of Media Relations at FIU

Hearing about Castro’s death reminded me about how grateful I am that my parents risked their lives to bring me to this country. I was 4 years old when my parents decided to leave Cuba and travel to South America to reach U.S. soil.

We left to Bolivia, then Guatemala, until we arrived in Mexico. Once we got to Mexico, we swam through the Rio Grande. I remember looking down into the embankment and hearing the water. It was cold and dark. My parents placed me in an inner tube and my dad swam me across. We left behind suitcases of clothes and hundreds of pictures by the river banks. My uncle, who also came with us, almost drowned. He was caught in debris, and my dad had to jump in and save him.

We ended up in Brownsville, Texas, where we met up with a cousin that drove from Miami to pick us up. We moved from a no-name hotel to a Holiday Inn in fear of being discovered. My parents later heard on the news that the same hotel we originally stayed at was raided.

Anyway, that’s my story. I came to FIU in 2004 as a student and never left.

—Dolores Medina '07, MS '09, associate director of Enrollment Communications & Outreach at FIU

All I can say is that my family felt relief. The next day, my family (those that live here) threw a party just to celebrate. [I felt] a little sad that a few of our loved ones didn't live to see this day. The biggest thing was hope - for a new chapter and for a better future. The hope that one day Cuba will be free.

—Diana Pupo, biology student

El Memorial Cubano at Tamiami Park honors the victims of Castro's regime.

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