What would you do if you meet a man who was an eyewitness to a revolution that’s been in the history books for half a century already? Ask the witness questions, I believe.
And perhaps inquire if he’s ever been interviewed before. “No, I haven’t,” he may tell you—in his own language, Spanish.
Juan Gonzalez Castillo has lived his entire life in the Cuban mountain village of Santo Domingo. Many a time I’ve sat in a rocking chair in his living room watching a Cuban baseball game, or on his porch, or at the table on the dirt floor of his kitchen.
Juan and I toyed with the idea for several years that I’d bring a video camera to his Sierra Maestra Mountains. Juan’s incredibly good memory would be recorded for history. We envisioned that Juan’s son Miguel, now a guide at Fidel Castro’s 1958 secret command post, would facilitate the interview about the Cuban revolution of the 20th Century.
Would the plan ever be executed? No, not promptly. But it was accomplished in the year 2019. “Before it is too late,” I was urgently advised a year earlier by American poet and writer Andy Anderson.
Juan, Miguel and I sat around the open doorway of Juan and his wife Maria’s house. Not just for an hour or two, as I expected, but day after day, always starting around 4 p.m., because Juan, just shy of his 70th birthday, is the same hardworking all-day farmer that he’s been all his life.
Juan farms the land near the Rio Yara that belonged to his grandfather Lucas, who befriended Fidel Castro, Celia Sanchez and Che Guevara in the late 1950’s. The revolutionaries were hunted with a vengeance by the massive forces of corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista.
These three revolutionary leaders survived. Lucas himself was murdered by government forces, but not before he could play a key role in the defeat of the dictatorship in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
Juan was not yet nine years old. But he remembers all.
Fidel, Celia, Che and other fighters congregated frequently in Lucas’s house, where Juan was growing up. Lucas and others spirited tons of food, as well as medical supplies and other necessities, further up the mountain by mule to the command center, La Comandancia.
“Juan, did Fidel Castro ever sleep overnight in your house?” I wonder as my camera is rolling. “Yes, he did,” Juan answers. Juan explains much more on camera, and in the stories titled A Village in the Mountains and Advance Man, chapters in my book The Other Worlds: Offbeat Adventures of a Curious Traveler. (Keep an eye out for a little movie of Juan’s incredible memories that I’m producing. Or even get in touch with me on this site’s Contact page.)
“Did you fear for your life?” I also ask the eyewitness to a revolution. “All of us villagers did,” Juan explains. Juan, then eight years old, heard the feared Air Force planes. He watched as they circled above Santo Domingo, looking for anything that moved. He and family members who happened to be outdoors hugged the trunk of a large mango tree, staying hidden from the bombers. “When the planes circled around, we moved around the trunk,” Juan tells us, “trying to stay out of their view and survive.”
On camera, Juan has explained much more, like how Che Guevara, the former doctor from Argentina who befriended the exiled Fidel and Raul Castro in Mexico, devised a new-fangled Molotov cocktail that shot out the barrel of a gun.
Juan stood just feet outside his house with Che, Celia, Fidel and others as they test-fired the weapon for the first time. The adults all roared their approval as the bomb exploded against nearby hills. Juan thus realized the device was a success, and was happy, too. Has this story of Che Guevara’s weapon ever been told before? Perhaps not.
Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, you may recall, recount his coming-of-age adventures as a 23-year-old through five South American countries in 1952. Months later, Che spent six weeks in Guatemala City. He lived in the tiniest of rooms in that large Central American city.
A story now told for the first time is my night in Che’s room. Have a fun—and historical—read of The Other Worlds: Offbeat Adventures of a Curious Traveler. The account of Che’s Room 7 in Pension Meza is told in the book’s Voyage to My Private Sauna, which follows hard on the heels of Voyage to My Private Island.
Join me on these adventures, and many more on four continents, all in the book I never intended to write. But did! This website will present more and more, but may go silent the three or four weeks a year I am in Cuba—absorbing cultural and historical information, and acquiring more photos and videos—for all of us!