Her mother adored him. Her grandmother called him the devil. She herself soon learned to dislike the man who would lead Cuba for nearly five decades as a dictator.
Alina Fernandez Revuelta knew early on that Fidel Castro would never be a regular father. Her young life was defined by Castro's revolution that has alienated the island nation from the U.S. since 1959.
"I come from a country in which the revolution is endless," said Revuelta Thursday to a packed audience at the Lily Reid Holt Memorial Chapel at Lake Forest College.
Revuelta got her first glimpse of that revolution while sitting in her kiddie rocking chair in diapers, when the American cartoons she was watching on television suddenly vanished, replaced by images of jubilant crowds proclaiming a free Cuba.
Revuelta, 52, painted an intimate portrait of Castro's Cuba and shared personal tidbits of her life story, including the love affair between Castro and her mother, who was then married to another man.
She also talked about her estrangement from her dictator father, of whom she has been a critic all her life.
Revuelta witnessed public executions in Cuba, the banning of Christmas, which was dubbed a capitalistic celebration by the Communist regime, and watched as fear engulfed her country forcing many families to flee.
"As I was listening to her, the fact that she brought herself in an open and honest way and shared her history, I think shows that no matter what circumstances you face in life, there's always room to turn them into positive things," said Kim Braden, co-president of Latinos Unidos, a student group at Lake Forest College. "I didn't know a lot about Cuba, I think, because of the closed-off (image) it's had, more than other Latin American countries."
The political practices of her father's regime eventually drove Revuelta out of Cuba in December of 1993, when she disguised herself as a Spanish tourist and escaped to Spain. She now lives in exile in Miami and hosts a daily radio show on Cuban issues.
She called that period in Cuban history the "biggest children exodus of the 20th century."
"Every economic and social mistake was blamed on America," she said. "All institutions were systematically destroyed."
But Revuelta also knew Castro as the man who made her mother happy, who would visit them nightly and help her with her homework.
"Fidel Castro was overwhelming," she said. "By the time I was 10 years old, I was told the night visitor was my real father. I continued to grow, trying to live a normal life. I think I wasted a big part of my early years escaping social control."
Revuelta became a political enemy of the state when she joined with dissidents in 1989. Even if she wanted to, she said, she probably couldn't visit her ailing father, who resigned the presidency last month and handed control to his brother, Raul.
When asked why she chose to come to America, Revuelta said it's because the United States is the only country that gives Cubans papers, and she was able to bring her daughter here.
"Cubans are more pro-American than Americans," she said jokingly.
That statement resonated with Margaret Neely Wilhelm of Lombard.
"I think it was helpful that she explained how she grew up and how she sees Cuba today," said Wilhelm, who teaches at the College of DuPage and is a Lake Forest College alum. "Americans tend to criticize our country and take things for granted and see our faults. But it's good to be reminded that people are dying to get here."