NORTH SALT LAKE — For Christina Rojas, the daughter of Cuban-born parents who came to the United States to make a new life to escape Fidel Castro's rule, the revolutionary leader's death is something to celebrate.
"Hallelujah. I wish my mom could be able to see it. We waited so long for it," Rojas said Saturday, the day after Castro's death at age 90 was announced. "If they're not Communists, every Cuban feels this way. This is a very big day for us."
The owner of La Cubana, a business that serves authentic Cuban sandwiches and other foods at farmers markets and soon, from a food truck, she said she and her four siblings were raised to despise the dictator.
"His name was a bad word for us growing up. We were not even allowed to mention him," Rojas said. They did, however, hear many stories of hardships Cubans suffered after Castro overthrew the island nation's government in 1959.
Both of her parents were able to leave Cuba for the United States, where they eventually met, married and raised a family in Florida. They made sure their children would never forget what Rojas called "a horror story" of life under the regime.
Rojas said her late mother, who was just 8 years old when she came to this country, told of being jailed briefly before she left because her grandmother was caught peeling a Russian flag emblem off a sidewalk.
"When I find somebody who doesn't know, it's hard to keep my emotions down," Rojas said, describing Cubans as "full of energy. We're passionate about everything. And especially passionate about the injustice we've had to endure."
Their mother, who had hoped to die in Cuba, had forbid anyone in the family from going there as long as Castro was alive, Rojas said. She said she can't wait to visit her family's homeland for the first time.
Jorge Delgado, Rojas' brother, said he plans to return their mother's remains to Cuba if recent efforts to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba continue to improve living conditions.
"I'm going to honor my mom's wish and spread some of her ashes there and visit some of the places she told us about," Delgado, a plumber, said. "He's gone. It's time to celebrate. Things are going to change. As far as how quickly, I don't know."
Natalie Gochnour, an associate dean at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business who writes a column for the Deseret News, said she saw "a lot of excitement" over the renewed relationship when she traveled to Cuba last May.
"It was my experience that the people of Cuba very much wanted and desired a stronger relationship with the people of our country. I think they admire our country and I think they have felt left behind," Gochnour said.
She said the death of Castro, who turned over power to his brother, Raul, and formally resigned as president in 2008, is largely symbolic at this point, and "maybe closes a chapter."
The trip Gochnour took included other business leaders and included meetings with entrepreneurs such as private restaurant owners, along with students and artists. She said she "felt a lot of pride" from the Cubans she encountered.
"I felt a need for engagement. I felt separation is not in the interest of the Cuban people, and it's not in the interest of our country," she said. "After 50-plus years of hostility, it's probably a good time to figure out a different strategy."
Rojas said she believes Cuba will have to open up more now that Fidel Castro is gone, but it will take time.
"That kind of mental abuse doesn't go away," Rojas said, comparing Cubans under Castro to battered women afraid to leave their abusive husbands. "They were trained to be scared."
But without Castro, "the invisible chains he put on my people aren't there anymore," Rojas said. They are already getting "a little taste of freedom. … they're going to want more."