When I arrived in Miami in the fall of 1957, Fidel Castro and his band of rebels were camped in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra hills waiting for their moment to rid their country of the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had been locking up up his critics and making himself and his cronies rich.
Greater Miami’s population was mostly Anglo in ’57, although one found a modest percentage of Spanish-speaking residents. Stores on Flagler Street displayed small signs in their windows that read “Se habla Español,” (“We speak Spanish,”) to encourage their patronage.
Fidel made his move in January 1959, leading his revolutionary band out of the mountains into Havana, toppling the Batista regime. Cuban people cheered, relieved to be rid of the cruel Batista. Jim Arroyo, a native Venezuelan familiar with Latin American politics, warned his young adults’ Sunday School class on the following Sunday. “Mark me, before long, you will be comparing this Castro to Hitler.” We were doubtful, but Jim could see where this was heading.
Now in charge, Castro adopted a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, and his positive reforms in education and health care were more than offset by control of the press and the economy, and the suppression of dissent. Thousands fled to Miami, leaving behind their money and everything they owned. Overnight, Miami changed forever. As a student and reporter, I had a front-row seat to witness it all.
As a charter student at Miami’s new community college in 1960, I found myself surrounded by friendly young Cuban-Americans. Student leaders had names like Alonso and Martinez. A decade later as a Miami Herald reporter, I was writing articles about once-wealthy Cubans being forced to start over. Respected physicians and attorneys and their spouses who had worked as dishwashers and housekeepers in Miami Beach hotels and hunched over sewing machines in Hialeah, making sport shirts, had worked their way up, creating their own businesses and medical practices, even entering politics.
Your know the rest of the story. The successes of hard-working Cuban-Americans has altered Miami and neighboring Broward County and beyond forever. Signs in store windows now read, “We speak English.” Farewell, Fidel.