UNION CITY, N.J. — The death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro was received Saturday by Cuban immigrants and their children with tempered and mixed emotions in the city known as the "Havana on the Hudson."
News of the death was the center of conversation at local restaurants and bakeries on Bergenline Avenue, where several Cubans said that Castro’s passing brings hope that freedom could come to the nation that they left years ago.
“It’s the beginning of the end,” said Enrique Mendez, who was born in Cuba and who received a call from his son in Tampa who told him about Castro’s death late Friday night. “I think things will begin to change.”
Ragnar De Illas and Eva Alfonso, who stopped at Las Cubanitas Bakery to grab some café con leche and bread, were the only ones to focus on some of the good things they said the dictator brought to the country. They lauded the free education and health care Cuba provides its citizens.
“The studies are great, but the problem is that when you finish school the jobs don’t pay the way they should,” said Alfonso.
De Illas said that since he left Cuba 11 years ago to go to Europe and then the United States he has realized that things aren’t all bad in his homeland.
“There are some good things that you notice after you leave,” he said. “Cuba began to change before he died. Before, you couldn’t buy a house or a car, and now you can.”
Castro’s death, at age 90, was announced by his brother and current president, Raul Castro, late Friday night on state television.
Some Cubans said that they were awoken a few hours after midnight by family and friends in Miami who called to tell them the news. Others said they found out this morning on social media and on television news.
“At first I thought, could this be true, because this has happened before and it hadn’t been true,” said Maria Ulacia, who said she received a call at 3 a.m. “And then I thought, although one has left there’s another Castro left, the brother, so we have to wait and see what happens.”
Jorge Cuellar expressed the same sentiment, saying that, although he was hopeful, he knows the reality is that Raul Castro has led the island for years with not too much change from his brother.
“I’m happy, but we still have to deal with his brother,” he said. “His brother can be twice as bad, he has his past, too.”
Others expressed sadness that their parents and grandparents who were either political prisoners or fled the country when their properties and businesses were seized by the communist regime were not alive to see the day that Castro died.
“My grandparents left everything behind, my family left everything behind to come here to escape him and my grandparents died," said Esther Montero. “They never got to see a free Cuba, which is upsetting.”
Montero recalled her grandmother keeping a packed suitcase in her closet for the day that she could return to Cuba. Her grandmother died last year, and so did her grandfather.
“She was anxious and just waiting for the news that Cuba was free, and she was excited about the Obama deals and that he was talking to Cuba and she was like, she could taste it, we could go home,” she said. “But they never got to hear this news.”
Fernando Villar, who was having a breakfast of expresso, carrot juice and empanadas at El Artesano Restaurant, carried with him black and white pictures of his parents and grandparents who fled the island in the early 1970s. His grandfather and father owned a dairy farm in Cuba.
“They took their farm away and they fought as much as they could, but they were arrested,” Villar said. “I wish my father could have been alive for this.”
Villar said when he heard the news Friday night, he headed to the Cuban restaurant but found that no one was celebrating.
“It didn’t have the impact I thought it would,” he said. “I think its because it’s the older generation is here, and they weren’t going to go out at night to celebrate.”
There was no dancing on the streets, like the celebrations that erupted Saturday morning in Miami, but a few honking horns could be heard in Union City, which has been home to Cuban immigrants for decades.
“We will have some champagne or cider,” said Olga Echazabal, who was walking with her sister Gloria, who came from Cuba in 1970. “I know nothing will change with this, but he was the person who started all of this.”