THE BRONX — It was supposed to just be a press release — and a thumb in the eye of Rudy Giuliani.
In 1995, Julio Pabón, a Bronx activist, businessman and erstwhile City Council candidate, was upset over the former mayor's decision to not invite Fidel Castro to a dinner for heads of state who were in town for the 50th anniversary celebration of the United Nations, and he wanted to let the controversial Cuban leader know that he was still welcome in The Bronx.
"Since The Bronx is majority Latino, Mr. Castro, if you want, you can come to The Bronx," said Pabón, who was vice president of the National Puerto Rican Business Council at the time. "He can come to The Bronx and eat. That was it. It was over, that's it, send the press release out."
Soon enough, however, that press release turned into an actual visit from Castro to Jimmy's Bronx Cafe in University Heights, a tumultuous experience that Pabón is now writing a book about.
He has been working on the project, called "Knockout: Fidel Castro Visits the South Bronx," for roughly two years and hopes to release it by October to coincide with the 21st anniversary of Castro's visit.
The number 21 is particularly significant for Pabón, as one of his other major projects is helping lead an effort to have Major League Baseball retire the number in honor of Roberto Clemente.
"That number follows me everywhere, so that would be perfect," he said. "It would be like a double whammy, you know?"
Pabón said the press release started gaining traction after he convinced the National Puerto Rican Business Council to sponsor it due to the publicity and validity it would give the young organization, and he was able to convince Jimmy Rodriguez of Jimmy's Bronx Cafe to provide the venue.
Rodriguez and the business council both initially told Pabón he was crazy, but he got their support in part by downplaying the likelihood that Castro would actually show up, he said.
"I kept on telling everybody 'This is just a press release. This is not going to happen,'" he said.
However, Pabón recently traveled to Cuba, where he found out that Castro actually received a copy of the press release himself thanks to the Cuban mission to the UN and U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano's office.
Serrano said he got a lot of pushback for his involvement with inviting Castro to The Bronx in 1995 and was amazed at how far relations between the two countries had come since then, particularly the recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties.
"It’s unbelievable compared to that time when the criticism was so strong for us inviting Castro to The Bronx," he said.
Castro was very flattered when he got the release and decided to make the trip, according to Pabón.
"When they gave Fidel the press release, he looked at, it read it, and said...'Tell my Puerto Rican brothers that for me this is like winning a Nobel Prize. I’ll be there,'" Pabón said.
"That created an incredible whirlwind," Pabón continued. "That’s what changed my life."
The dinner took place around 7 p.m. at Jimmy's on Oct. 23, 1995, and although Serrano said they had initially expected a crowd of about 65 people, more than 300 showed up, according to Pabón.
Castro spoke for roughly 40 minutes about Cuba and its history, emphasizing its close ties to the United States and defending the actions of the 1959 revolution.
"Everybody felt like they were in a college class," Pabón said. "This guy educated the s--t out of us."
The event also included some controversy about the 1995 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, as Castro had said he was rooting for the Braves, while many people in attendance supported the Indians because of their Latino players like Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar, according to Pabón.
Serrano called the baseball gaffe one of Castro's "few verbal mistakes," but noted that he had a good sense of his audience overall, as his speech was fairly conciliatory toward the United States despite decades of tension between the countries.
"He knew where he was. In other words, he wasn’t there to beat up on the U.S.," he said. "He could’ve said some nasty things about how we had treated him over the years, but he didn’t."
The dinner was followed by a private reception, where Pabón said he received an autograph from Castro reading, in Spanish, "From one daring person to another daring person."
Castro has been an incredibly controversial leader throughout his lengthy career, and the Cuban government continues to repress dissent through arbitrary arrests, beatings and public shaming, according to Human Rights Watch.
However, Pabón said he did not have reservations about inviting the Cuban leader to The Bronx and was very impressed with his performance at the event.
"He has this special energy, man," he said. "An incredible energy."