The morning after Fidel Castro died, it was quiet outside the Mexico City building where the revolutionary once hid and plotted his return to Cuba, where he led an insurrection that would begin one of the longest grips on political power in modern times.
A few local reporters stopped by the building, at 49 José de Emparán Street, and took pictures of the small plaque commemorating the spot where Castro and Ernesto “Ché” Guevara first met in July 1955. The plaque was installed in 2014. The wall around it was spruced up, repainted dark orange, but other than that the two-story building is run down, with black bars over the windows.
For the reporters, it was one stop in a full day of visiting places and people in Mexico City that make up Castro’s history here.
There’s Antonio del Conde, a gun dealer who helped Castro obtain the famous Granma yacht Cuban fighters used to cross the Gulf of Mexico back to the island. Another stop would be Café de la Habana, big and crowded with wooden tables and large, black-and-white photographs of Havana. It was once a hangout for Mexican journalists, since it was located near big newspaper offices. It was also where Guevara and Castro supposedly plotted their return to Cuba over cortados, steamed milk with a shot of espresso. On Saturday, television reporters did stand-ups in front of the breakfast crowd.
Café La Habana in Mexico City.
Back on Calle Emparán, sisters Guadalupe and Estela Rojas returned from shopping and entered the building where their family has lived for generations. It was like any other day. But they did take time to talk about the building’s historic Cuban occupants.
“They were loud talkers,” Guadalupe Rojas said. “My mother-in-law lived in the apartment above, and she’d tell me how ‘those Cubans’ would be up for hours. She met them, and did wonder what they were doing there. I don’t think anyone here had any idea what they were planning.”
Academics and writers have dug into this. In his book, “Raúl Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-Up View of Change,” political scientist Arturo López-Levy wrote: “July 7, 1955, was the date Fidel landed in Mexico City.” Castro arrived to the capital following his younger brother, Raúl. They were fresh out of prison in Cuba, freed by the Fulgencio Batista government, which no longer saw them as a threat.
Once both brothers were in Mexico City, Raúl introduced Fidel to “Ernesto at María Antonia’s apartment” on Calle Emparán, writes López-Levy. In his biography of Guevara, writer Jon Lee Anderson wrote that the Argentine and Castro “hit if off immediately.” In the days and weeks after, that first-floor, one-bedroom apartment would be one of the places in the capital “where Fidel would organize and train an insurrectionary force that would oust Batista once and for all."
The Rojas sisters say their relatives also remember Mexico’s federal police bursting into their building one day, hoping to jail the Cubans.
“We’re told Fidel and who knows else escaped through the apartment window and hid in a grocery store down the street run by some Spaniards.” That part of the history is hard to verify. What is certainly true is that several of the Cubans, including Fidel Castro, were eventually jailed for a brief time during the summer of 1956, charged with possessing illegal firearms.
After that, they would set off on the Granma, back to Cuba.
There is no sign inside the apartment building of this history. The wooden door to apartment C, at the end of a narrow hallway, is worn. “It’s empty,” says Guadalupe Rojas. “But something historic happened there.”
From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI