Why Chicanos Love Fidel Castro But Hate Cuban Exile Politics

A mural in San Diego's Chicano park depicts Fidel Castro and Che Guevara alongside other Mexican icons.

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.

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.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Fidel Castro in Mexico
Read more

Many Chicano Movement activists and future scholars developed ties with revolutionary Cuba during the ’60s and ’70s. 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.

Politics aside, the Cuban-Chicano rift also runs strong through American culture.

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.

Mural of Castro and Che Guevara in Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park
Read more

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.

This story originally appeared in OC Weekly and an excerpt has been republished here with permission. Read the whole piece here.