During the past day, thousands across the country celebrated the death of long-standing Cuban leader Fidel Castro -- that includes Cuban Americans here in West Michigan.

Mario Leon was just 6 years old when he left Havana under Castro's rule.

"He changed the whole course of my life, really," Leon said. "My dad was a political prisoner, a lot of his friends were shot by a firing squad.

"They used to come and raid our house, all the time, just wasn't a good way to live."

It was remembering that way of life that sparked the smile on his face, when he got word Friday night of Castro's death.

"When the news was breaking, I burst into tears," he said. "Tears of joy, again, not a nice thing to say, but it's true."

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It was a similar reaction for many across the country. Crowds flooded the streets of Little Havana in Miami as the news spread.

Not all are celebrating the death of Castro, however. Students and professors from the University of Havana came together to grieve his death. Castro studied law there in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"I know for millions of Cubans it was a pretty emotional day today," Alexi Corona said.

Corona was born in the United States two weeks after his parents arrived from Cuba.

The Corona (top right, bottom left) and Leon (top left, bottom right) families both escaped Castro's rule. Today, they are elated to hear the death of the long-standing Cuban leader.

"My father saw big changes coming," Corona said. "He wanted to come to the U.S. and in order to do that, he had to work in a labor camp for seven years to bring himself and the family over."

It's a parents' sacrifice told many times in the Cuban American story.

"If he hadn't worked in that labor camp, I may still be there today," Corona said. "Freedom and the rights we have here are something I, myself, have never taken for granted."

"I hope freedom comes to Cuba, where it's a democratic society, where there's opportunity for people," Leon said.

His father died two years ago. It was Leon's wish for his dad to witness this moment. When WZZM 13 asked what Leon's dad would have said, if he were alive, he said that's one of the first things he thought about -- Friday night.

"I kind of looked up at the sky and talked to him a little last night. He would be happy and really angry," he said with as his eyes glistened. "Just that, all these years."