MIAMI — Carolina Nunez Plasencia was sound asleep early Saturday morning when she got the call from her daughter telling her the news: Fidel Castro was dead.
"Is it real?" Plasencia asked. "Is it confirmed?"
Once Plasencia turned on the TV and realized that it was not another rumor, she raced to Little Havana to join the thousands of other Cuban-Americans who took to the streets to celebrate the day they had all waited so long for.
In every corner of this Cuban-American city, people waved Cuban flags, honked their horns, banged their pots and pans and hugged each other late into the night. Police departments blocked off roads to allow people to have their moment.
There were Cubans who left the island shortly after Castro took power in 1959, expecting that his rule would be short-lived and they'd be back home soon. There were Cubans who have poured out of the island in the decades since, fleeing political persecution and economic ruin.
Plasencia, 86, left in 2000 after her husband spent 25 years held as a political prisoner and died, leaving her alone with their two daughters. The three of them made their way to the U.S. — the daughters smuggled into the country on boats. On Saturday, they found themselves on a street corner in Little Havana, hugging and crying as a makeshift band marched past.
After their long hug ended, the youngest daughter, Virginia Perez Nunez, tried to explain the emotions that people felt in this southern city.
"We're not celebrating the death of a person. That would be morbid," she said. "We're celebrating the beginning of the end of a dictatorship, of a genocide."
That was a common theme for many dancing in the streets on Saturday. They know that Cuba won't suddenly change overnight, that Cuban President Raúl Castro remains in charge and that the powerful communist government the brothers put in place will not suddenly topple.
But Joseph Valencia said Fidel's death was the first crack, the first tangible sign of hope that communism could end in Cuba and a new era of democracy could finally take hold.
"It's the first step on the road to change," said Valencia, 59, an architect and former U.S. Army pilot who left Cuba when he was 13. "The change could be fast, it could be slow, but this is the start."
Luis Iznaga, 77, watched quietly as jubilant people bounced past him. The Havana native who left the island in 1972 said he struggled with the idea of celebrating any man's death.
But Iznaga said Castro deserved a different kind of treatment. He listed off his friends who were forced to flee the communist island. He talked about other friends who couldn't get out, forced to stay and survive there. He spoke of friends who left their parents behind, never to see them again.
"This is different because Castro affected so many people," Iznaga said. "There's so much misery and sorrow that he created. Pain accumulates. It must be released."