Cuban-American Eric Ulloa, who was part of the ensemble and understudy to the male lead of the Broadway musical On Your Feet!, has written a reaction to the news that longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died November 25 after nearly six decades in power in the Caribbean nation.
The musical tells the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and how they left Cuba and achieved stardom in the U.S.
Ulloa's words follow:
My boyfriend woke me from the coma I was still feeling Friday night, as 24 hours of pre-, during, and post-Thanksgiving gorging will do to a person.
“Fidel Castro died.”
“He died. It’s on CNN.”
I think I murmured a, “That’s good,” and kept on sleeping, assuming the news was just a reflux-induced dream brought on by an unnecessary slice of cheesecake and the absurd amount of bourbon in my system.
The next morning, I climbed downstairs and my mother greeted me with the news as well.
“Fidel died. The son of a bitch is dead.”
I popped the coffee pod into the Keurig as I processed that this was in fact a reality. I was in my hometown of South Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday and so the local news humming from the TV indeed confirmed the news. This was real. Fidel Castro was dead.
I born in Miami. My mother had been brought here from Cuba she was 4, and my father left Cuba when he was 15. Growing up in Miami, false reports of Fidel’s death were as common as the sun rising and falling. At least once a year, breaking news would pump out of the Spanish radio stations that it had finally happened, Fidel had died.
And as fast as the Cubans ran for their pots and wooden spoons to bang out a celebration in Calle Ocho, the reality would come through that it was indeed another false alarm, and the dictator remained on Earth and in power of their homeland. I grew up being told stories of how beautiful Cuba’s beaches were and how nothing we had ever encountered held even a candle to the white sand and turquoise ocean of this mysterious land. I would sit with my abuelo while he delivered magazines and hear him talk to a fellow immigrant about the wonders of Cuba as they sipped at their cafecito. The memories as enchanting as the smell of the coffee that engulfed me. Cuba was a magical place, a place that I wanted to see with my family who spoke so powerfully of it.
Yet, whenever you mentioned going back to visit, you were sternly stopped with, “No. Cuando se muere Fidel!” …No, not till Fidel dies.
I grew older and assimilated into my American all-white surroundings and schooling, as I watched a generation leave me. First my great-aunts and -uncles and then my grandparents. The stories of Cuba would stop there, and what I had been told was all I would get. Every photo in the family albums had a story that went with it, but that was it, there was no more to tell. My parents, in most of these photos, too young to tell me the deeper stories and the textured details I now craved once I knew I could no longer have them.
And yet Fidel remained alive and in power.
Finding out that I had booked my Broadway debut was a moment that I truly will never forget. Finding out that it would be telling the story of the Estefans is a moment that had me crying so hard on the phone with my mom that we both had to get off the phone for a moment to catch our breath and find words once again.
My mother’s side of the family was full of artists that were never able to fulfill their potential, whether by self doubt or the limitations placed on them. Painters and poets, laying carpet in hotels instead of laying out their soul and passion for the acclaim that their work deserved. My Abuela’s beautiful soprano voice never able to live onstage, as it should have, because cabaret singers were considered whores and her family simply wouldn’t allow it. I’d hear pieces of it in the air as she sang along softly to music that was played at parties when I was a child, but never the full breadth that my mother spoke of. And here I was, in 2015, the first person in my family that had made a career in the arts and was about to achieve the goal I had worked 33 years for…Broadway.
The process of On Your Feet! is now a slew of visual memories and feelings that come in waves of high emotion for me. A giant wave of moments, fragmented and scattered.
Meeting the Estefans for the first time. Looking at all the last names on our cast list, knowing we were the largest Latino Broadway cast ever. Gloria coaching us through a phrase of her music. Opening a new musical that was unabashedly and unapologetically Latin. Seeing my Tia’s watery eyes after meeting Gloria and Emilio. Watching my parents interact with the Estefans on multiple occasions and how my father and Emilio got along like old school buddies. Being a part of a cast that are not only now like family to me, but reminded me of how rich my background was and how damn proud I was of my nationality. The feeling of walking to my opening night and knowing that all of my ancestors were right behind me and that I had them as close to me that night, as I had when they were still physically here.
I recently played my final performance in On Your Feet!, but the moment I heard of Castro’s passing, I was right back there on the Marquis Stage. I kept thinking of what it would be like to feel the power of this historic moment while telling this historic story. I could hear our cast singing, “Quiero mi Cuba Libre,” as the audience cheered because we are one step closer to a free Cuba. The symbolism of an oppressed people has died and so now we hope and pray that diplomacy and arduous work will use this momentum to allow the Cuban people a freedom they haven't seen in almost 60 years.
There is a great musical phrase in the show, just as the curtain rips away, that has always served as a reminder of where we have been and where we still have to go. The words aren’t sung, but the melody is, blasted by the brass section in almost a command to the audience.
“Noventa Millas vienen, Noventa Millas Faltan”…which in a rough translation tells you that Ninety Miles have come, but there are still Ninety Miles yet to go.
And now more than ever, those words ring true.
This coming summer, my family will travel to Cuba for the first time since my family fled. My niece and nephew will have both just turned two, and their little feet will walk barefoot on those mythical white sandy beaches that I was told about when I was their age. The new generation will no longer dream of their homeland and what it could be like, as it will be right there within reach. They will shape the course of my family’s future and pass on the stories as I was taught to do.
“Que siga la tradicion!” …may our traditions live on.