Fidel Castro

A phone call to my exile father — and a glimpse of the life he left behind

Fernando Frías joins revelers in Little Havana following the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Fernando Frías joins revelers in Little Havana following the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

I jump in the car, dial his number, and race through Little Havana streets as I let it ring through.

When I hear him answer, I just blurt it out:

“Papi, se murio Fidel!”

The first call I make when I learn that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has died is to my father.

Never mind that it’s 1:09 a.m. or that my dad is 88 years old. I know exactly what he’s doing and where he’ll be — the same place he has gone every Friday for as long as I can remember: Papi is playing dominoes with his brothers.

“Como? Pero muchacho, de verdad?”

Yes, Papi. This time it’s true.

“Hey, listen to this!” he says to the room. “He says Fidel Castro is dead!”

He laughs nervously at first. And then, a crack in his voice. I feel one in mine, too. I hang up to the sound of hollering on the other end of the line. I drive in a fog of adrenaline toward Versailles restaurant, the epicenter of Cuban exile where Little Havana is erupting, and capture images with my iPhone where the emotions of others can be neatly cropped within a 5-inch glass screen.

Marchers carry the Cuban flag down Calle Ocho in front of Versailles on Saturday, November 26, 2016.

It is not until past 10 a.m. Saturday when I wake up from a night of watching others cheer and cry and clang pots and sing and wail and drink cafecito and smoke cigars and pop bottles of champagne and hand-paint signs and carry their children on their shoulders and say things like “I’ve waited my whole life for this.”

A whole life.

A whole life is what I’ve lived on this side of the Florida Straits. A whole life — a whole other life — is what my father lived when he left Cuba at age 42. The man I know was not the one he left behind. The country farmer, one of 11 children who scraped his way from the rural province of Oriente to the capital of Havana, where he and his five brothers made a life for themselves as cafe owners.

I never met the man who had his seven shops and bodegas taken from him when the government nationalized all private business. The man who went to prison for two years after he tried to leave the country on a speed boat and instead heard 17 men executed on his first night in jail. (He knows they were 17 because that’s how many coups de grâce he counted.)

No, I only know the old man two years younger than Castro, who somehow outlived the dictator though two of this brothers and sisters did not.

Did last night really happen?

I reach for my phone, see it scrolling with messages and, still in a fog, dial my dad, who is just as groggy when he answers the phone at his home in Pembroke Pines.

He is getting ready to come down to Miami. There is no cordoned-off Calle Ocho in hermetic Pembroke Pines, and he wants to be where it’s messy, where it’s Latin, where emotions are unspooling, where 12 hours later people are still chanting and crying and singing and laughing and lamenting and helicopters are swirling.

“Let’s go down there together,” he says.

OK, I hear myself. But already, I feel myself bracing.

He drives the 25 miles to my home in Flagami and together we snake through back streets in silence. Cars speed by with horns honking and Cuban flags flapping from windows as we reach Versailles. Helicopters are pop-pop-popping overhead. The swales of Little Havana are filled with cars from other neighborhoods. I drop him off near the restaurant, tell him to meet me by the ventanita and head off to park.

I hurry my way back into and through the crowds where I was 12 hours ago in twilight. He’s not by the coffee window and I start to worry. So I dive into the crowd that packs Calle Ocho in front of the restaurant from sidewalk to sidewalk.

The mass of revelers sways like a tide with schools of Cubans in song. I look for my dad in his red-and-white baseball cap in a throng that is singing itself hoarse with that Willy Chirino tune. Cuban and American flags wave. People bump into one another and apologize with a smile without breaking song.

Deep in the middle, where a man is playing the bongos, I catch a glimpse of the back of a head I think I recognize, a red ball cap over silver hair, and I plunge in.

The music gets louder the deeper I go. The singing, more breathless. The dancing everywhere. The crowd sways, pushing and pulling, and all at once, it washes me into its vortex, and the man in the red baseball cap is suddenly in front of me.

He is clapping and singing with his back to me, his voice joining the chorus. And as he turns around, his eyes toward the sky, I see him for the first time. Not just my father. The Fernando Frías from a lifetime before I knew him.

He is smiling through reddened hazel eyes and soon mine match his.

I’ve been waiting my whole life for this, he says.

Waiting, since that life long ago.

Carlos Frías is the Miami Herald food and dining editor and author of “Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in a Forbidden Cuba.”