Why Chicanos Love Fidel Castro But Hate Cuban Exile Politics

A portrait of Fidel hangs on a balcony in Havana
A portrait of Fidel hangs on a balcony in Havana
Photos courtesy of a compañera

Cuban exiles greeted news of Fidel Castro's death this weekend with jubilant celebrations from the streets of Miami to Echo Park. They danced on Castro's grave, seeing him as nothing more than a brutal dictator forever more than a few bags shy of a ten million-ton sugar harvest.

But while Cubans in the United States danced, many Chicanos mourned what they felt was an extraordinary man. They shared pictures of Castro on social media and dedicated tribute songs by Carlos Puebla in memory, all hailing the Bearded One as a modern-day Spartacus against U.S. imperialism. The activist group Unión del Barrio even gathered in Los Angeles to celebrate Castro's rebellious life. And while Univisión and Telemundo broadcasts in the wake of Castro's death toed the official Cuban-American line, the average Mexi immigrants huddling to get coffee at Jax Donuts in Anaheim or standing at loncheras in SanTana were quick to call Castro a chingón, proving that to be a Fidelista doesn't necessarily mean being a comunista.

In a hemisphere filled with intra-Latino rivalries, the Chicano-Cuban split over Castro on this side of the border is among the most bitter. Cubanos can't fathom why Chicanos would say anything nice about a man who upended the lives of their viejos, while Chicanos (and Mexicans, for that matter) ultimately see Castro as one of the only individuals to ever fulfill the Latin American dream of defying los Estados Unidos—and for over 60 years, no less! But the clash makes perfect sense given the marked contrast in immigrant stories and statuses between Chicanos and Cubans stateside, one created by the American government in a divide-and-conquer strategy straight out of J. Edgar Hoover's evil mind and perpetuated ever since by Cuban exile politics.

Mexican affinity for Castro traces back to the Mexican roots of the Cuban Revolution in 1956. Back then, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista released a jailed Fidel who had tried to overthrow his government, freeing him to resettle in Mexico where he met Ernesto "Che" Guevara and began plotting sedition anew. When Cuba turned Communist after the revolution, the Organization of American States (OAS) expelled the island from its membership. Only Mexico maintained diplomatic relations, a tradition that explains why Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto lamented Castro's death and paid homage to the two nations' special history. Add in Pérez Prado, guayaberas, boxing and baseball, and it's a veritable love-in.

A billboard against the blockadeEXPAND
A billboard against the blockade

Many Chicano Movement activists and future scholars developed ties with revolutionary Cuba during the '60's and '70's. Che became our revolutionary icon bar none, but Fidel pops up more often than not in Chicano murals to this day. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez traveled to the island several times in writing The Youngest Revolution: A Personal Report on Cuba. La Raza Unida Party co-founder Jose Angel Gutierrez and other national delegates visited in 1975.  UC Riverside Chicano Studies professor Armando Navarro met with Castro in 1985 during a Central American peace delegation. And numerous other Chicanos throughout the decades have made the trip with Venceremos brigades, delegations that traveled there long before it became officially legal.

In many ways, Castro became the heroic figure Chicanos never truly had, a messianic figure that proved someone could stare down the U.S. once and for all (and what's with the eternal nostalgia, Chicanos ask, that Cubans have for a pre-Castro island that the U.S. never allowed to become truly free?). All the Mexican heroes got assassinated early; in el Norte, Cesar Chavez came close, but got promoted to sainthood before effecting any true change, while Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales was not only too regional of a figure, but was more the Martí of the movement with his legendary "I am Joaquín." Only Reies Lopez Tijerina had the charisma and Castro-sized cojones to lead Chicanos out of the wilderness, but after his daring 1967 Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid in New Mexico, Tijerina never came out of federal prison stints quite the same. Cubans decry our supposed tolerance of Castro's authoritarian excesses; Chicanos tell them the Mexican Revolution put more people before the firing squads—and Mexis don't get all bent out of shape over that.

Split families caused by exile? Welcome to the Mexican-American experience. Mexicans have fled to the U.S. after its 1910 revolution only to be deported over the decades through repatriation, Operation Wetback and President Barack Obama's own record-breaking la migra milestones. We never enjoyed political refugee status, whether fleeing the Porfiriato, the PRI's "perfect dictatorship" or narco madness. On the other hand, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966—better known as the "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy—allowed for any Cuban reaching U.S. shores to stay and pursue permanent residency for the past 50 years, an amnesty program like few others.

Rather than fight for equal immigration rights for Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, and other Latino refugees displaced by chaos even worse than what happened in the wake of Castro's takeover, Cuban-Americans and their politicians have instead zealously guarded their favored-group status and joined in GOP anti-immigrant hysteria for decades. Cuban Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz even tried to one-up Trump this year with tough talk on ending DACA, with Cruz telling a young DACA woman to her face that he'd deport her—yeah, that won't cause any resentment!

Politics aside, the Cuban-Chicano rift also runs strong through American culture. Early on, the lamestream media canonized the Cuban exile story until it seemed every refugee family had a coffee plantation that Castro violently usurped, came to the United States with nothing, then became successful with just their gumption. Chicanos have always rolled their eyes at that angle, because it's what our families have been doing for over a century with no government help, settlement programs, or subsidies whatsoever—yet our stories get disappeared in favor of depictions as eternal illegals and invaders. 

A mural in MatanzasEXPAND
A mural in Matanzas

The romanticizing continues today: multiple newspapers this weekend in their coverage of Castro's death (including the Orange County Register) claimed that the Operation Pedro Pan airlift of Cuban children and teens in the early 1960s constituted "the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere," which ignores simple facts: the generally accepted figure of Operation Pedro Pan refugees over its lifetime is a bit over 14,000, while congressional figures show over 50,000 unaccompanied Central American minors came to the United States last year alone.

It's double-standard favoritism like this that pisses Chicanos off, and pushes them away from Cuban exile politics. And it gets its most prominent play, of all places, in music. Yeah, a bunch of hynas bump to Pitbull, and the older generation still blasts Beny Moré (let's not forget Banda Machos' immortal technobanda remake of "La Culebra"!)–but those are exceptions. What's the one mariachi song gabachos inevitably request? The Cuban "Guantanamera" (thanks a lot, Tune Weavers-loving baby boomers. Couldn't you have popularized something by Agustín Lara, instead?). Who got all the mid-'90s Latin explosion old-school love? The Buena Vista Social Club and its derivatives, which Cuban exiles vociferously protested because it wasn't their version of a dreamy Cuba.

Then there's the Latin Grammys. In the early 2000s, major Mexican regional music stars from Pepe Aguilar to Los Tigres del Norte boycotted the pinnacle of the Latin music industry for not giving screen time to norteño, ranchera, and banda acts even though Mexican music genres account for more than half of the Latino music album sales. Mexicans saw the Latin Grammys as just another promotional platform for Emilio Estefan, a Cuban exile producer and Gloria Estefan's husband who rebuffed Aguilar's criticisms at the time and threatened to sue cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz for libel after he mocked up Estefan as Fidel. All these years later, the Latin Grammys are still an anti-Mexi sham.

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Estefan offered an olive branch last year in song by recording "We're All Mexicans," a pandering tune that sounds less Mexi and more Miami Sound Machine. The music mogul couldn't bring himself to describe the song as a response to Trump calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "criminals," instead saying it was merely a reminder of how all of us Latinos have progressed in this country. Chicanos were too busy bumping YG and Nipsey Hussle's "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)" at protests everywhere to even bother noticing Estefan's over-produced jingle, anyway.

And speaking of the incoming Bigot-in-Chief, nothing exposes the current-day chasm between Cuban exiles and Chicanos more than the Trump vote. Much is made about how the billionaire won over 29 percent of Latinos according to Election Day exit polls, though the National Council of La Raza points to the Latino Decisions polling firm showing Trump winning a record-low 18 percent (that poll had Mexis supporting Trump at 15 percent to Cubans' 48 percent, with younger cubanos skewing towards Hillary). In Florida, Cubans favored Trump by 54 percent, about twice as much as non-Cuban Latinos in the state. Brigade 2506, a Bay of Pigs Invasion veterans group, even gave its first-ever presidential endorsement when deciding to board the Trump train—destined to be as disastrous as the first landings at Playa Girón!

Look, Chicanos don't hate Cuban-Americans as people. We learned not to talk politics with the parents of the ones we knew growing up in Aztlán, and we have nothing but love for Porto's potato balls, Celia Cruz, PBS's pioneering '70s Spanglish sitcom ¿Qué Pasa, USA?, and Yasiel Puig before he sucked. And we'll never blink when they wave the Cuban flag—good for them!

But during Little Havana's celebrations of Castro's death,  folks carried "Trump: Pence" signs, a man dressed up in a giant Trump costume and more than a few wore red "Make America Great Again" hats. And no one condemned them. Think Chicanos are going to join in on the anti-Castro festivities, or feel empathy for Cuban family separations, while a big chunk of them support a president-elect ready to deport three million immigrants guaranteed not to be Cuban?

Chicanos would rather scream "Viva Fidel" before ever banging pots and pans with the Cuban exile clique. You can bet an exploding Cuban cigar on that!


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