Groggy in the early morning hours on Saturday, Cuban exile Ana Diaz-Gutierrez awoke when her phone lit up with a text from a cousin in Spain: “Prima, este es el mejor dia de todos los dias. Que bueno, que dia mas maravilloso.” (Cousin, this is the best day of all days. How great, what a marvelous day.)
“And it’s all with emojis that are champagne, Spanish dancers,” said Diaz-Gutierrez, recalling the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call. “I look at the text and I’m like, ‘What is she talking about? Who’s birthday is it that I’ve forgotten?’ ”
It wasn’t a celebration of life, but rather the celebration of a death, one that had already been playing out on the streets of Miami for at least four hours. Fidel Castro, Cuba’s repressive leader of more than half a lifetime, was dead.
“[My mom] was the first thing I thought of,” said Diaz-Gutierrez. Her mother, Maria de la Concepcion Gutierrez Castaño, fled Cuba in 1960 with several family members, including then-7-year-old Diaz-Gutierrez, the year after Castro came to power. She died last year at 94.
For many Cuban families Saturday, thoughts turned to relatives who Castro outlived — the ones who were there to feel the tyrant’s iron grip tighten around the island until Cuba was asphyxiated.
Cemeteries across Miami became symbols of Castro’s unrelenting control that lasted nearly six decades. For the thousands of first-, second- and even third-generation Cubans celebrating on Calle Ocho, there are nearly an equal number of tombstones in Miami for the ones who couldn’t wave their flags in front of Versailles restaurant.
“They must be celebrating in heaven,” said Diaz-Gutierrez, who visited her mom, uncle, aunt, grandmother and godparents at Woodlawn Park North Cemetery on Calle Ocho Sunday afternoon.
At Woodlawn Park, dozens of graves had been spruced up with small Cuban flags and fresh flowers. At Flagler Memorial Park Cemetery three miles away, dozens more graves had Cuban flags with the words “Cuba Libre,” or free Cuba. One glass case holding an urn sported a new sticker: “Salimos de un tirano” (We are free of one tyrant).
For the families of Cuban exiles who fled a new Cuba following Castro’s 1959 revolution, the memories of repression are still fresh.
Diaz-Gutierrez’s family, originally from Cienfuegos in southwestern Cuba, was descended from a wealthy Spanish businessman who opened warehouses known as Almacenes Castaño and later banks under the same family name. Years later, her uncles would work in the business, as well. The family relocated to Havana. And her father, a pilot for national Cuban airline Cubana Aviacion, went on to become the private pilot for Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro’s younger brother and Cuba’s current president.
But Castro started taking control of the business. News spread that homes were being confiscated by the government.
“Everybody in my family knew he was bad news,” Diaz-Gutierrez said. They left the first chance they got: On a KLM flight from Havana to Miami, money and jewelry stuffed in the lining of Diaz-Gutierrez’s doll trunk, her gold bracelets doused in baby powder to make them look like costume jewelry. After defecting through Canada a year later, her father and two uncles would serve as backup pilots for the failed U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro.
The family first settled into a motel on Brickell called the Villa Grande for three months (“that’s where I learned to eat grits”), with Diaz-Gutierrez’s grandmother, two uncles and an aunt, her two brothers and three elementary-age cousins, she said. The Americans were going to send them back any day, they thought.
But they didn’t, so the family settled in Miami. Now, Diaz-Gutierrez has two children and four grandchildren. She works with her brother for a company that distributes plastics.
While most of the people who came on the initial flight to freedom are now dead, the wisdom they passed on has not been forgotten.
Her mother made sure of that, Diaz-Gutierrez said, teaching every child born into the family to say, “Que mala esta la situacion en Cuba,” (How bad is the situation in Cuba) with their hands on their heads.
At the cemetery Sunday, Diaz-Gutierrez turned to her granddaughter, 4-year-old Andrea Carolina, whom she took with her on the visit: “Who is the bad man in Cuba?” she asked in Spanish. The two had plans to join the demonstrations at Versailles later in the afternoon.
After placing fresh daisies at the Gutierrez-Castaño tomb, where her mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle lay, Diaz-Gutierrez and Andrea sat on the grass and said a prayer.
Her stark white shirt stood out among the foliage: A Cuban flag with the words, “Al fin libertad.”
Liberty at last.