On July 7, 1955 Fidel Castro abandoned Havana, exiled to Mexico by Fulgencio Batista. He boarded Mexicana de Aviación Flight 566 and landed in Mérida, the largest city in the Yucatán peninsula.
He arrived in Mexico as a tourist using the name “Alejandro González.” He would leave as Fidel Castro, insurgent.
From Mérida, he continued to Mexico City to rendezvous with other revolutionaries. During the eighteen months he spent in exile in Mexico, however, he would return to Mérida, at first on reconnaissance missions, and then because he met a young woman with whom he fell in love: Lía Cámara Blum.
She was eighteen years old, a young teacher. She spotted him at the bus station in Valladolid. Fidel Castro was traveling throughout the peninsula, careful to evade Batista’s spies who were everywhere. He had traveled to Cozumel, near Isla Holbox, and throughout the mainland of the peninsula. He wanted to determine if the Yucatán was suitable for launching an attack on Cuba. Having concluded that leaving from either Cozumel or the ports of the Mexican Caribbean would be too risky, he was taking the bus to Mérida.
When he boarded that bus on a Saturday afternoon in Valladolid, Lía Cámara Blum, a passenger, stared at Fidel Casto as he walked down the aisle. She was a teacher in the provincial town of Tizimín and was going home to visit her family for the weekend.
“He’s not from here,” she told herself, drawn to the Cuban exile the moment they first made eye contact.
She smiled at him. He smiled back.
Then he sat next to her, introduced himself as “Alejandro González,” and, after finding out she was a teacher, asked if she minded talking about history. “Of course,” she said. Then he began to ask her about the Mexican Revolution.
They immediately liked each other.
He found her intelligent and well-spoken. She found him polite, well-educated, and inquisitive. She told him the history of the Mexican Revolution, and the men—Zapata, Madero, and Villa—who shaped Mexican revolutionary thought.
He told her that Cuban liberator, José Martí, had spent considerable time in the Yucatán and was enamored with the Maya civilization. She told him there were plans to dedicate a library in his honor at the Park of the Americas uptown.
When the bus stopped in Piste, near the Maya ceremonial center of Chichén Itzá, they disembarked to stretch their legs. They shared sandwiches and soft drinks. They then boarded the bus and continued in their conversation for several more hours.
When the bus arrived in Mérida, she told him she lived on Calle 61 in the city’s historic center near the zoological park. He told her he would be staying at the Hotel Reforma on Calle 59. He asked if he could have her telephone number. She consented. He wrote her telephone number on a box of matches and he invited her out on a date.
She said she would be delighted and that he could come by that evening.
He arrived at her family’s home at 9 PM. She answered the door, ready to continue their conversation about history and philosophy. Accompanied by her mother, Socorro Blum de Cámara, the young couple went out for dinner.
In 1955, the Tulipanes was one of the most popular places in Mérdia. It was a restaurant that showcased popular bands and dancing. Alejandro González, like most Latin Americans who parents had emigrated from Galicia, Spain was not a great dancer; Lía had to show him the moves as they danced to the music.
Apart from the music and dancing, they enjoyed venison and she introduced him to regional appetizers that reflected Maya cuisine. In the course of the evening, he confessed he was divorced and had a son. She said she didn’t care.
Her mother was impressed with his manners and demeanor. “Es muy galán,” her mother observed to her daughter, meaning he was very gallant.
As he walked the ladies back home, Lía him what she could offer him to thank him for a wonderful evening. He hesitated, then replied he would accept a chocolate.
“I’ve been told that chocolate is originally from Mexico,” he told her, smiling.
She replied that he had been told right.
Lía Cámara Blum recounted, decades later, that she knew “something big was going to happen in his life.”
She loved his smile, his intellect, and his charming way.
They stopped at a shop where she bought three chocolates. After they reached her family home he thanked her—and her mother—for a lovely evening and left.
The following day, Sunday, he showed up at her home after breakfast. Pedro Cámara Lara answered the door. The Cuban exile asked if he could have permission to take his daughter, with his wife as chaperone, to the port of Progreso.
Don Pedro was impressed by this polite Cuban visitor and agreed.
He intended the trip to be a final reconnaissance of the facilities at the port of Progreso; his being accompanied by two Yucatecan women would be a great cover. He was concerned that Batista’s spies, who wanted him dead, were following him.
Lía, for her part, thought they were simply going on a picnic at the beach. Her mother had packed refreshments—and chocolates, remembering the young man’s preference for chocolate.
The Cámara Blum family did not appreciate the danger they incurred by being in his company until years later when Batista’s secret files were opened and their names were included in secret reports.
They spent that morning and early afternoon driving around the beaches along the Yucatecan coast, from Progreso to Chicxulub. They enjoyed a seafood picnic near Progreso’s beachfront malecón, returning to Mérida in time for Lía to catch the late afternoon bus to Tizimín. She had to be back at school for Monday morning classes.
Alejandro González made a good impression on the family. He would drop by the Cámara Blum household whenever he was in Mérida.
He and don Pedro became friends. Alejandro González admired Mexico and the Mexican Revolution, he would tell Lía’s father. Decades later, Fidel Castro would write: “Mexico was a country that had carried out a great revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century, a revolution that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking and a stable government. Every other nation in the region was ruled by tyrants.”
Ridding Cuba of a tyrant, Fulgencio Batista, would be the purpose of his return to Cuba once his preparations were finalized. Don Pedro dismissed such talk as nonsense, the exuberance of a youthful dreamer. He believed the young man, so enamored of his daughter, was a “crazy idealist”—and advised him against wanting to change the world.
Socorro Blum de Cámara, for her part, tried to change the topics of conversation away from politics whenever the discussions became animated or heated. She would offer coffee and talk to Alejandro about life and love.
Amid smiles and friendship, and a growing love for Lía, Alejandro González felt at home in the company of this Mexican family that came to embrace him as a son.
In Mérida Alejandro fell in love with Lía. As lovers have always done, they would go out to dinner, have ice cream in the park, see movies at the Cinema Mérida, and enjoy chocolates at the cafés.
He loved Mérida, he told her, because it reminded him of Havana. He was right: Before Night Falls was filmed in Mérida in 1992, the city passing for Havana of the 1960s. He loved walking its streets, meandering through the Historic Center.
The lovers would stroll from Mejorada Park to the Church of Santiago. He marveled at the twin houses Mérida’s first chocolatier had built for his daughters on Calle 59 between 72nd and 74th Streets. Today, one of those buildings is Casa Catherwood!
Lía Cámara Blum in 2015.
They visited the port of Progreso several more times. Lía and Socorro both accompanied him to the ruins of Chichén Itzá where he climbed the Castillo pyramid.
But it was in the darkened Cine Mérida movie house that he declared his love for her. Lía told him she was in love with him as well.
He told her his love was true.
But he also told her his love for his country was equally strong—and so was his commitment to securing his nation’s freedom. Alejandro told Lía he had obligations to take care of first, his love for her notwithstanding: He would have to leave Mexico, but he would send for her.
When she asked why he had to leave, he quoted José Martí: “We light the oven so that everyone may bake bread in it.”
She smiled and said little more. He promised again he would send for her.
Lía was stoic. She was also aware that he was busy, meeting with other Cuban exiles, befriending other Yucatecan families.
It would not be until he overthrew Fulgencio Batista, months after he returned to Cuba—and his photograph was flashed in headlines around the world—that Lía learned Alejandro González’s true name: Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.
Not until he consolidated power in Cuba, did he send Lía a note inviting her to travel to Havana.
It was a thrilling prospect. Her parents, however, counselled her to be prudent.
She arrived in Cuba in 1960 for the Encuentro de Juventud Latinoamericana, or the Latin American Youth Summit. She was welcomed as a “revolutionary” and she traveled throughout the island as a dignitary. On at least one occasion Ernesto “Che” Guevara introduced her as the future First Lady of Cuba.
All the while, however, she knew her parents were right, especially as the Revolucion began to take a more sinister, authoritarian turn.
Lía could not be part of Fidel’s Revolution; she could not stand the possibility of a public life in a foreign country next to man whose heart she loved but whose thinking she no longer trusted or understood.
Had he forgotten everything she taught him about the principles of the Mexican Revolution?
“I cannot be your Eva,” she told Fidel, a reference to Eva Perón, the loyal wife to Argentine dictator, Juan Perón. “I cannot stay with you in Cuba,” she said. She also quoted José Martí: “A selfish man is a thief.”
She kissed Fidel Castro one final time.
It was now Lía’s turn to break Fidel’s heart. She left Cuba, leaving Fidel behind.