December 02, 2016
Jorge Lima once looked his son, Rickie Ricardo, in the eyes and forced him to make a promise: Never grow a beard — at least not while his father was alive.
There was to be no hirsute reminder of the dictator with the bushy beard, the living embodiment of everything Jorge detested, of all he had worked for and lost, of leaving his Cuban homeland and all the pain and suffering endured by his family, and thousands of others, during a despotic reign.
So when Ricardo, the Spanish play-by-play voice of the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Yankees, and talk show host for 94WIP, heard the news late last Friday night that Fidel Castro was dead, he almost drove off the New Jersey Turnpike.
"For some people in this country why they would honor and praise him is beyond belief to me. The world is a better place without the devil breathing on it.” – Rickie Ricardo, Eagles and Phillies broadcaster, on Fidel Castro
Gabe Infante, St. Joseph Prep’s highly successful football coach, couldn't believe the news coming from the island nation, either. For years he had heard rumors of Castro’s demise. This time, however, it was finally true.
For Ricardo and Infante, byproducts of Cuban exiles who escaped Castro’s tyranny, their shared feelings surfaced with other Cubans in Philadelphia, North Jersey, Miami and other places in the United States.
There is a deep, visceral connection between Cuban-Americans. Their love of America is intertwined with great pride in their Cuban heritage, a root they feel was pulled from the earth when Castro took over the largest island in the Caribbean in 1959. The overthrow of U.S.-backed President Fulgencio Batista forced hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees to escape on boats, rafts, indeed anything that could float, to reach the shores of Florida.
Ramon and Barbara Infante, Gabe’s parents, had to get out. The Infantes had deep roots in the deposed Batista’s army. Ramon was in the Cuban special forces under Batista, Gabe’s uncle was a pilot in the Cuban air force and his grandfather was a longtime high-ranking army officer. Their only option was escape. Ramon didn’t think that his family was safe. So he took his wife and two young children, Ray and Barbara, Gabe’s older siblings who were babies at the time, and settled in Weehawken, N.J., before moving to nearby West New York, N.J. Gabe came 11 years later.
Ramon got a job as a factory foreman and Barbara as a seamstress. To make ends meet, the Infantes would clean office buildings at night. They lived in a government-subsided tenement that had one of those misnomers as a name: the Overlook Terrace. It looked over a tough neighborhood and provided an unobstructed view of the New York City skyline. It was the one luxury about Apartment 21L, where the Infantes lived.
Somehow, the family managed. They squeezed seven into a three-bedroom apartment. Gabe and Ray slept on mattresses on the living room floor. The roaches would grow so thick they made the floors come alive at night. To clear a path to the kitchen, Gabe would tip-toe to the bathroom, fill a bucket of water and splash it on the floor to create a pathway.
“It’s a tough thing to fathom, because you don’t want to rejoice over the death of someone,” said Gabe, who has black-and-white pictures of Cuba adorning his office walls at Prep. “For me personally, I understand the way Cubans felt about Castro. He caused so many families to fracture, including mine, and my father in particular. He never got to say his formal goodbyes to his father, my grandfather. I remember being a kid and my father getting the news that my grandfather passed away.
“From that perspective, I always wondered what that felt like to my father. It was hard for him to leave and never get the opportunity to see his father again," he continued. "Those are the things that I think of. I know the pain that Castro caused my family. My brother Ray and I were laughing about it when we heard of Castro’s death, whether or not mom and dad were dancing up in heaven. I’m very proud of my Cuban heritage."
“Castro was very smart in how he turned neighbor versus neighbor, and you never really knew who was on the take for the government and who wasn’t .... He manipulated the Cuban culture and families.” – Gabe Infante, Prep football coach and son of Cuban exiles
Infante said his shock at the news stemmed, partly, from years of rumors in the Cuban-exile community of Castro's death and whether the former leader's death was being kept secret. The coach admitted he won’t have full closure until he goes back to Cuba. He has an uncle still there, in his 90s, dying of cancer.
“I want to go back and find my family, that’s very important to me,” said Gabe, whose team will play in the PIAA 6A state semifinals on Saturday against North Penn. “I lost my dad at a young age. I’m a traditional guy. It’s why I care so much about Prep’s tradition, and my family’s tradition. I derive a lot of strength from my past. I won’t have closure for myself until I go back and reclaim, in my mind, the things that belonged to my family that Castro took.”
Then Infante related a story of a childhood friend who escaped on the Mariel boatlift, the mass emigration of Cubans who traveled from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor to Florida between April and October 1980. The friend would tell Gabe stories about how they tried to indoctrinate the children about Castro when they were in kindergarten. Teachers would tell the kids to close their eyes and pray to God for candy. They would open their eyes and there would be no candy on the desk. Then they would tell the kids to pray to Castro for candy, and they would open their eyes to find candy.
Gabe’s maternal grandmother would tell stories about getting notices from the government about painting the house, different little things to keep people occupied so they wouldn’t congregate.
“Castro was very smart in how he turned neighbor versus neighbor, and you never really knew who was on the take for the government and who wasn’t,” Infante said. “Castro was a very divisive man. He manipulated the Cuban culture and families.”
Jorge Lima, Ricardo’s father, had a growing transportation business when he was forced to leave his beloved Cuba. Jorge, who died a few years ago, drove a bus for a living. He came up with the idea of going to the United States and purchasing a bus to start his own transportation service. Then, he lobbied for a bus route in Cuba. The line was so successful that Jorge made several trips to Brunswick, Georgia, to buy used buses at a good rate. Jorge and his group purchased a small garage to service the buses.
In the 1950s, the Cuban peso was the equivalent to the American dollar. Cuba was looked upon as the gem of the Caribbean. Before there was Las Vegas, there was Havana.
Then Castro came.
One man pulled the rug over an entire country’s eyes, claiming to bring independence to an island that seemed too dependent on the United States. Once in power, he declared himself a Marxist and Communist. He eliminated freedom after freedom – speech, religion, expression, movement – making “a slave nation out of an entire island," Ricardo said. "It’s something that I didn’t live through, since my parents were able to escape from it, but it’s something my father and mother lived through every day of their lives.”
“My father saw the writing on the wall.... They decided the days of prosperity had ended and it’s why I was born in North Jersey. They packed and got out when they still could.” – Rickie Ricardo
During the revolt to oust Batiste, one of Jorge’s most trusted employees, a conductor, disappeared for five days. Jorge grew concerned for the man, who was less employee than member of the family. They ate at each other’s homes. Jorge’s employee reappeared, in a green government uniform and holstered gun on his hip, five days after Castro assumed power.
The conductor explained to Jorge that he had been recruited by the new government, and was returning to ask Jorge, who ran the transportation business, for property deeds to the garage and ownership papers for the buses.
“My father was completely bewildered by this,” Ricardo recalled. “My dad, up until a few days ago, was eating at the same table as this man. My father figured out fast that the guy flipped; he moved to the socialist movement. My father broke out the paperwork and the guy, who had been a close confidante of the business, looked at my father and the other partners, and said, ‘The government of Fidel Castro now owns this business, but will offer you a chance to continue running the company with a salary cut to a 90-10 split for the government.'
“My father saw the writing on the wall. He called my mother and told her to pack everything up. All bank accounts were frozen by the Castro regime, so whatever cash was lying around the house they took and headed to the United States. They decided the days of prosperity had ended and it’s why I was born in North Jersey. They packed and got out when they still could.”
They first went to Miami, then almost a desolate ghost town with no jobs, and then on to North Jersey. One-by-one, those family members that criticized Ricardo’s father for leaving eventually left themselves. Rickie can still remember greeting them as a little kid at the airport.
“I had no idea who they were, but I remember them saying, ‘Jorge, you were right, you were absolutely right; we should have listened to you when you left,’” Ricardo remembered. “Those memories are still as vivid to me as the day is long. I can recall these things like they happened yesterday. I had relatives that were still arrested for speaking out against Castro. If you were a critical voice against the regime back then, you would basically receive a telegram that would say: ‘Consider yourself under arrest.’ You are to report to such a place and such a time, and if you didn’t follow those orders to the detail, you were imprisoned for a lengthy period of time.
Before her death, Ricardo said his grandmother would tell stories about Cubans sitting on their porches late on Saturday nights. Off in the distance, they would hear the firing squads at work. Castro’s men or Che Guevara were rousting people from their homes and taking them out to the middle of nowhere, where they were executed.
"We’re talking about hundreds of people," Ricardo said. "My uncle did five years and never got out of Cuba. He was arrested from speaking out for what they did to my father’s business. It’s why it’s amazing to me that intelligent, informed people in this country can find anything positive about a murderous dictator like Fidel Castro. He’s the No. 1 violator of human rights for the last 60 years. For some people in this country why they would honor and praise him is beyond belief to me. The world is a better place without the devil breathing on it.”
In his later years, Jorge was given a special treat from his son — a tour of Philadelphia. They walked around the city around the time Rickie began broadcasting Phillies baseball. By that time, Jorge wasn’t walking very well, so they took a whole day to see the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, all the great pieces of history in Philadelphia.
“The man cried like a baby, and my father didn’t cry easily, because he was there in the cradle of liberty,” Ricardo said. “There were two things that could bring a tear — if his baseball teams were winners, and they were tears of joy, or if his baseball teams were losers, and they were tears of sadness. Or, if the subject itself was freedom and liberty — and places like Philadelphia, which represented a country that was very good to that man.
“I made a promise to my father that I wouldn’t go back until the Castro regime was gone and it was a liberated Cuba. Raul Castro [Fidel’s brother] said he will be leaving power, but I’ll believe it when I see it," Ricardo said. "At some point, I want to visit where my ancestors came from and see where my roots are. If I violate the promise I gave to my dad, I can do it with less guilt. I spent every day of my life, literally, every day of my life as my father’s son, in one way or another, with conversations about what that man did to us.”
So when Ricardo’s phone exploded with news alerts of Castro’s demise, he pulled over at a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike, got out of his car with a tear hanging in the corner of his eye, and took a private moment to look up to the heavens.
“Dad, I only wish you were here to live and see this moment,” he said.