South Florida's Fidel Castros Find It Isn't Easy Sharing a Name With a Despot
For the past 18 months, Fidel Castro has searched for a job driving vans or small trucks. He has a clean driving record, and his résumé includes more than a decade behind the wheel. "I know every alley in this fucking city," Castro declares, his upper lip quivering indignantly. "I don't need a GPS. I am a GPS."
But he's rarely called back for interviews — even when referred by friends to potential employers. So he continues delivering flowers for a wholesaler for 20 hours a week. The 47-year-old from Hialeah struggles to make his $350 monthly rent for the apartment he shares with two other former balseros.
He's come to believe his name is the problem. Potential employers assume he's either a prankster, insane, or a mouth-foaming Commie. It's like trying to find work in New York's Chinatown when your name is Mao Tse-tung. When his parents, who lived in Cuba's Pinar del Rio, named him after the young leader in the first years after the revolution, they apparently didn't consider the boy's employment prospects upon defection to the United States.
"I am not a Communist dictator," the van driver insists. He's scrawny and slightly bug-eyed, resembling a Latin Steve Buscemi, and wears a grubby white T shirt and a Velcro-clasped Yankees cap. "I think Fidel Castro is shit, like everybody else. Why else would I be here? But it's my name, man. I'm not going to change it for nobody."
White pages list about 150 people named Fidel Castro across the United States, with 15 of them in Florida. Only one lives in Broward and Palm Beach counties; the Fidel Castro on SW 49th Court didn't return a message left on his answering machine, which doesn't mention his name.
Florida corporate records reveal that Fidel Castro owns 24 businesses in the state, from Pernia & Castro Inc. in Dania Beach to a computer-programming operation in Tampa. In South Florida, guys bearing el jefe máximo's name are ready and willing to tow your car, install your drywall, and revamp your corporate image.
Fidel Castro has been a defendant in at least five lawsuits filed in South Florida and a plaintiff in three. He has been sued for not paying his credit card bill and has inherited money from his aunt Teresa. In 1993, the parents of a minor Fidel Castro sued the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners for vehicular negligence, a case that was settled out of court.
In 2001, a broke, Hialeah-residing Fidel Castro — not the van driver — declared bankruptcy, jilting such creditors as Sears, Ford, and Banco Popular.
At least one Fidel Castro has removed himself from the ranks. In 1995, he changed his first name to the less-despotic Christian.
Perhaps the difficulty of life with the name of a hated dictator can lead to antisocial behavior. That would explain a veritable Fidel Castro crime wave in the past two decades. Since 1981, 11 local men with that name have been hit with criminal charges.
Fidel Castro has been booked three times for begging and once each for sleeping in a public place, disorderly intoxication, consumption of alcohol in a store, and marijuana possession. In 1999, a wild-eyed, mentally unstable 65-year-old Fidel Castro threatened two Miami cops with a piece of brick. He dropped it only after they pulled their guns, and he spent 364 days in prison for aggravated assault.
In 2007, Fidel Castro, a homeless Puerto Rican man missing all of his teeth, fled and fought back when cops tried to cuff him for aggressive panhandling. They found a crack pipe in his pocket.
And in June 2008, cops charged Fidel Castro with cocaine possession after they watched the 54-year-old bearded Cuban man, who boasted an Afro and "dirty" teeth, according to a police report, drop a small baggie of crack on the street.
South Florida's Fidel Castros tend to be transient, making them elusive interview subjects. New Times called every one in the local phone book, first asking for them by only their first name.
Conversations generally continued this way: "Quién?"
Exasperation and dead dial tones often followed.
"Fidel Castro está en Cuba," one man patiently explained. New Times was called an "idiota" after asking for him at the Cuban Food Market on Calle Ocho in Miami, which is listed as his work address in the White Pages.
But not all South Florida Fidel Castros are reclusive. A Miami Lakes house, identified by the SUV parked out front with the "El Comandante" novelty license plate, is the site of Fidel Castro-on-Fidel Castro bonding, Fidel-on-Fidel screaming matches, and, occasionally, Fidel punishing Fidel for incurring a speeding ticket in the family vehicle. It is the home of the only Fidel Castro father-and-son duo in South Florida.
The oddity's genesis came in May 1956, when the revolutionary Castro was still a dark-bearded, charismatic guerrilla leader traipsing through Latin America with BFF Che Guevara. His name was not yet synonymous with heavy-handed oppression and imposed poverty.
So Ramon and Oilda Castro, two peasants in the Cuban province of Matanzas, paid homage by naming their son Fidel. They would later christen a younger son Raul, after the dictator's brother, the current Cuban president.
The Matanzas-born Fidel defected to South Florida in the early '70s, bringing his parents with him. He got a job driving semitrucks and wasn't exactly ashamed of his name: His rig's CB radio code was "El Comandante," and he bought the matching license plate.
But there were myriad unexpected disadvantages of being named after a notorious despot. In the mid-1980s, he was driving a truck through Texas when a state trooper pulled him over. The stone-faced cop reached for his cuffs as soon as the truck driver told him his name. He spent a few hours in jail, the family lore goes, before cops discovered that their prisoner really had lost his license as he had claimed.
In 1990, the truck driver and his wife, Maria, had their first son. At the time, Oilda Castro was dying of cancer, so she was given the honor of choosing her nieto's name.
She struck again. Fidel Denny Castro was typed into official existence at Mount Sinai Medical Center. The kid even shared a birthday, August 13, with the Cuban dictator.
Now age 19, Fidelito recalls attending Barbara Goleman Senior High School, where he was elected everything from homecoming king to best-dressed. "Kids that didn't even know me would vote for me," he recalls, "just to be funny."
But there are the drawbacks. "I applied for months to a Starbucks where my friends were working," he says. "The managers always threw out the applications, thinking it was a prank."
Worse, his Facebook account was abruptly deleted last year. Site administrators demanded documents proving his identity. Rather than deal with the invasion of privacy, he changed his online name to Fidel Castro-Germanotta — adopting Lady Gaga's surname.
Castro has bounced between Florida International University and Miami-Dade Community College as a journalism major. He thinks his byline might help a career in print. "If you were reading a newspaper where there was a story written by Fidel Castro next to one by, say, Sarah Rodriguez," he ruminates, "you'd probably think, Let me see what Fidel Castro has to say."
But, he adds, the name stops here: "I would never curse another child with this stigma."
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