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Elian Gonzalez Is Still in Cuba!
by Isabel Lyman
13 April 2000

Isabel Lyman Elian Gonzalez will remain in Cuba, no matter how his custody battle ends. The 6-year-old will either return to the third-world version headed by Fidel, or he'll live in the first-class version governed by Bill. Say what?

I mean, living in Miami's "Little Havana" - even for residents who don't have hundreds of folks staging vigils outside their homes and members of Congress dropping by - is hardly representative of American life.

I know because I grew up in South Florida. My Central American parents left the cold Midwest for the paradise of palm trees when I was 12. Consequently, my view of how Latinos assimilate in the United States, during those formative years, became comically skewed.

I went to dances where Cuban mamacitas, sitting in hard chairs, came to chaperone their daughters. I met middle-aged exiles who spoke English poorly and held jobs as doctors, teachers, and bankers. I ate at restaurants which offered a fare of fried plantains and black bean soup. On street corners, I saw old men who smoked big cigars, played dominoes, and talked incessantly about the revolution. I gossiped on the school bus with Gloria Fajardo, a guitar player who would eventually marry Emilio Estefan.

I did not think it peculiar that little Cuban boys adorned themselves with gold jewelry and Cuban girls had lavish coming-out parties - quinces - when they turned 15. I met people who had read more about Jose Marti than they had about George Washington. I thought every American knew a Bay of Pigs participant. And I never stopped when I drove by a home with a 6-foot San Lazaro - a religious icon - displayed on the front lawn. I figured it was no big deal that my neighbors had names like Olga, Jorge, Marta, Carlos and who thought visiting the Northeast meant going to Disney World.

I received a fascinating, cultural education, but I also moved on. Most of the second-generation Cubans I grew up with have largely stuck around. So, I confess to feeling sad that Elian, after his time in the spotlight ends, may have a sheltered existence, even if he remains in Little Havana. He may never receive a complete picture of the ol' U.S. of A., and discover the wheat fields of Kansas, the Massachusetts of Robert Frost, the blonde surfers of Southern California, and the arch of St. Louis. He may never watch Americans who cheer for the Chicago Bears, read the Denver Post, eat catfish in New Orleans or attend Bible college in Virginia. He may never greet a Washington logger, visit a reservation in Arizona, or hike the Appalachian Trail.

Members of the hard-line Cuban exile community who have threatened to clog main roads in Miami as an act of civil disobedience on Elian's behalf live an insular existence. Their ties to the gringos who live in Miami are shaky. Is it a coincidence that the English-only movement began in Dade County? And the exiles' relationship with Miami's other immigrants - the Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Colombians, Haitians - is also tenuous. Many of these newcomers resent the privileges the exiles have received through the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. The Act allows Cubans to enter the United States without the red tape imposed on other groups and encourages legal residents to apply for generous federal assistance, like Medicaid and food stamps.

More ironically, the adorable-looking Elian may never become acquainted with the hard-working, mind-their-own business, middle-class Cubans who will never gather outside Great-Uncle Lazaro's home to chant "Freedom for Elian!" Those are the moderate Cubans who want the boy to be returned to his father, but would never say so in public.

In short, Elian may leave without ever knowing what makes America America. Or, he may stay, especially if he is the poster boy for the anti-Castro movement, without having the opportunity to learn what makes America America. If little Elian is educated by Cuban-American teachers, I doubt he'll be taught much about the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Given the horrible price that Elian's mother paid for the privilege of being in a nation whose founding documents are a ticket to liberty, well ... that seems wrong.

But maybe my concerns are irrelevant in this media-saturated soap opera. Maybe all that really matters is that the boy-rescued-at-sea receives a permanent, loving place to call casa, sweet casa.

This column appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette on April 13, 2000.

Isabel Lyman lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. A former editorial columnist for the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts, her views have appeared in various national publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Investors Business Daily. She may be contacted via e-mail by clicking here.
Click here for an index of other Isabel Lyman columns.
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