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La Lucha for Cuba Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami

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Chapter 1

An Ajiaco Christianity

On Thanksgiving Day, 1999, while the United States feasted on the traditional turkey dinner, a small Cuban boy of five was found off the coast of Fort Lauderdale clinging to an inner tube. Within a few days, Elián González's name became nationally known, as the boy emerged at the center of a furious custody battle between the Exilic and Resident Cuban communities.1 Surrounding Elián's new temporary Miami home, Catholics and Protestants, rich and poor, young and old gathered to pray. Signs written in blue beseeched the nation to "Pray for Elián." Exilic Cubans held hands and surrounded the house to recite the rosary. These same worshipers were prepared to unclasp their praying hands and lock arms to prevent the U.S. government from taking Elián. While the world focused on the unfolding political saga of this child, a religious subtext developed. Some worshipers claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary hovering over Elián's Miami home. Others referred to Elián as the miracle child, or Miami's Jesus. Across the street lived a santera, a believer in the African-based Cuban religion known as Santería. For her, Elián was a child of Ochún, the quasi-deity of the sea. She and other followers of Santería believed that Ochún had spared Elián's life to bear witness that she is still the mother of all Cubans.

The Elián story illustrates how religion, politics, and power merge within the Miami Exilic community. The focus of this book is not to determine what Elián's fate should have been, or to review the legal and political battles that surrounded his case. Rather, it is to explore how the powerful Exilic Cuban community in Miami formed a religious response to the Elián story, and how that response unconsciously masks a political agenda designed to maintain and increase the power base of that community. Along the way, it attempts to understand how a community of fewer than a million Exilic Cubans amassed the power to influence the strongest government in the world, confounding for months the U.S. endeavor to return Elián to Cuba.

The Unfolding Saga

What actually occurred in the Straits of Florida before Elián's rescue at sea remains a mystery. According to the official reports, a seventeen-foot aluminum boat left Cardenas, Cuba, for the United States on November 21, 1999, at 4:30 a.m. Stories that Elián's mother was seeking freedom for her child notwithstanding, it appears she probably left Cuba to follow her boyfriend, who had planned the boat trip. On board were fourteen individuals, one of them Elián. Hours before the boy was rescued, the boat capsized off the Florida Keys. Except for Elián and two adults, all the others drowned, including his mother, Elizabeth Brotons. Two Broward County fishermen, cousins, were out on the water when they spotted an inner tube bobbing in the ocean, shortly after 9 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. When he saw a hand move from within the tube, one of the fishermen jumped into the ocean and pulled Elián out of the water. Exhausted by his ordeal, Elián was taken to the hospital for medical treatment. He was released the following day, and the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) gave temporary custody of the boy to Lazaro González, the child's great-uncle, who lives in Miami. This ensured that the boy would be cared for while the agency determined his immigration status. The next day, November 27, from his home in Cardenas, the boy's father, Juan Miguel González, demanded the return of his son. With that, Elián was thrust to the epicenter of a fierce political tug-of-war between the Exilic and Resident Cuban communities.

Four days after Elián was pulled from the water, on November 29, he literally became the poster child for the Exilic community. Because it was believed that Fidel Castro might attend the World Trade Organization meeting that early December in Seattle, posters and flyers were rapidly produced with a picture of Elián on a stretcher under the caption "Another Child Victim of Fidel Castro." Elián's political appeal as a symbol of opposition to the Castro regime was obvious. Yet his true value to the community became apparent only with his transformation into a religious symbol. This rapid metamorphosis was not the Machiavellian formulation of a few individuals with political power, but rather the cumulative effort of the entire Exilic Cuban community in its attempt to comprehend the will of a God who had seemed so silent during the forty years of their "captivity" in Miami.

As a sacred symbol, Elián merged the religious and political hopes of the Miami Cuban community. According to Father Francisco Santana of Our Lady of Charity Shrine, "[Exilic Cubans] were making the connection that this child was like a sign that was sent to us by God, that somehow this was connected to the end of communism in Cuba" (Bikel 2001). How could Elián have become a deific symbol? Sacred language being rooted in symbols and myths, anything secular (a river, stone, star, animal, or human being) can be transformed into something sacred, a marker pointing to something greater than itself (Eliade 1963, 11). Religious people, such as prophets or apostles, or religious objects, such as totems, are not the only or even the supreme representations of Divinity. Anything or anyone can reveal aspects of the Divine (Eliade 1957, 20-65). And Elián, as deific symbol, not only reflected the sacred, but he also came into being in a sacred manner.

Elián's physicians insisted that the child failed to demonstrate any physical evidence of prolonged exposure to the sea, concluding that the boy was in the water for hours, not days. Nevertheless, as the story spread, his few hours in the ocean became two and a half days, in turn raising the question, How can a child survive that long, alone, in the sea? The answer, clearly, was, Only by a miracle from God. As the battle over Elián's immigration status grew fierce, his symbolic worth increased as the Exilic community spoke of him in deeply religious terms. An unconfirmed report, circulated widely within the community, recounted the tale of dolphins circling Elián's inner tube, protecting him from sharks. Dolphins, in the early Christian Church, symbolized salvation: not only was Elián saved, but now he had come to save. Even the Midrash (Jewish rabbinical commentaries) contains stories of how dolphins saved some Israelite children who lagged behind while crossing the parted Red Sea during their flight from Egyptian bondage.

"He's a miracle," said Maria Rodriguez, fifty-five, while attending the annual Three Kings Day Parade, a celebration of the three wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. "The fact that he made it for two days, with dolphins circling around him—that proves he's a miracle." At his great-uncle's modest home, religious candles lined the sidewalk as the Exilic community began to compare Elián to Jesus.2 The day of the parade, January 9, El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish version of The Miami Herald, also linked Elián to the baby Jesus in its headline "The Three Magi Kings at the Feet of Elián."3

The Church was even more open in its comparison of Elián to Christ. During a prayer vigil held on March 29, the clergy assured the crowd that God was on the side of the Exilic Cubans. "In Cuba, some people have made Elián a symbol of the new Che [Guevara], so it is not so unusual that some people in Miami are seeing him as the new Christ," said one of the prayer vigil organizers, the Reverend Gustavo Miyares of Immaculate Conception Church. María Ester Fernández, another organizer of the multiple prayer vigils in front of Elián's house, best summed up the convictions of the Exilic community when she said, "We continue praying that Elián stays, because God wants it. . . . Just as Christ died for us and on the third day was resurrected, so will the Cuban people be resurrected."4

Within a short time, the community began to point out that, like Jesus, Elián arrived just weeks before Christmas, at the end of the millennium, on the day on which thanksgiving is offered to God. Even the year 2000, the sixth millennium since the supposed creation of the earth, turned Elián, like Jesus, into a symbol of hope. Along with likening Elián to Christ, the community also believed him to be protected by the Virgin Mary. As many as forty people attested to seeing the image of the Virgin on the glass door of TotalBank in Little Havana. She appeared, it was believed, to protest Elián's return to Cuba. The bank, on Twenty-seventh Avenue, quickly became a pilgrimage stop for the multitudes that came with flowers. Some rubbed their babies against the windowpane for good luck.5 One woman reported seeing a vision of the Virgin with child surrounded by two giant dolphins.6 These stories are reminiscent of the widespread Cuban tale of drowning fishermen being saved by la Caridad del Cobre (the Virgin of Charity), Cuba's patron saint. Even la Virgen de Guadalupe, believed to have appeared to an indigenous Mexican peasant more than four hundred years ago, made an appearance as a spot on a mirror in the bedroom where the boy slept.7

The Exilic community also created religious rituals to bind the sacred to the secular. On Mother's Day, May 14, 2000, dozens of women and children, vestidos de luto (dressed in mourning black), gathered by the seawall behind the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity to honor Elián's mother. A prayer service was held, culminating in the tossing of roses into a makeshift raft. Ana Rodriguez, thirty-five, a mother of three who participated in the event said, "It's for her and all the mothers that have died for freedom. Not only Cuban mothers."8 Having turned Elián's mother into a martyr, the community continued to honor her memory by naming a street after her (87 Court in Hialeah Gardens) and erecting a shrine to her at the Bay of Pigs memorial on Thirteenth Avenue in Little Havana.

As the sacred and political occupied the same space, the boundaries between the two became blurred in the minds of the supporters who gathered before Elián's house to pray. Jorge Mas Santos, the chairperson of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the most powerful Exilic Cuban political lobbying organization in the United States, helped complete this fusion when he said, "Praying in a religious ceremony is the best way to show our support."9 Despite the fact that the official Catholic Church hierarchy of Miami took a position of neutrality, citing "moral uncertainty," local priests became major players in the unfolding drama.10 The Reverend Francisco Santana, of the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity, literally brought the church into Elián's Miami home. Six nights a week, he celebrated a private mass for Elián's family, and while not specifically praying for Elián to stay—so as not to contradict the Church—he led prayers asking for God to touch Elián's father, Juan Miguel, so that he could love as a father should despite any political pressure received from the Castro regime. 11 Albeit in a roundabout way, those gathered essentially prayed for Elián to stay.

As Miami's miracle child, Elián is credited with forging new ties between Catholic priests and mainline evangelical Protestant pastors, traditional rivals in both Miami and La Habana. Father Santana and fellow Catholic priests, along with Protestant ministers, made ecumenical history when they officially turned the protest for justice in front of Elián's house into a daily vigil. Santana proclaimed, "We are transforming, as of this moment, the cries demanding justice in front of Elián's house into a permanent prayer vigil, so that God can complete the miracle that He himself begun."12 Six Catholic priests and six mainline Protestant pastors (viewed as the twelve disciples of Christ) took turns leading the nightly prayer vigil. On Fridays, they led joint prayer services. Presbyterian pastor Manuel Salabarria said it best: "We have a common ground, a common interest, and a common purpose." To maintain this alliance, the Reverend Santana put aside the devotion to Mary so as not to "offend" the Protestants.13 During one of these massive prayer vigils, tens of thousands of Exilic Cubans marched down Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in the shape of a cross, as both Catholic priests and Protestant ministers joined forces in proclaiming the miracle child.14 As a sacred symbol, Elián had brought temporary healing to centuries of religious rivalry, surely a task beyond the ability of mere mortals.

Using Elián as a symbol was not limited to Catholics and Protestants. Practitioners of Santería also saw religious symbolism in the boy. One of the side stories that emerged during the Elián saga centered on a note that Lazaro González, the boy's great-uncle, wrote to Elián's grandmothers. He entrusted the note to Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, host to the boy's grandmothers in late January 2000 during their trip to the United States. Sister O'Laughlin forgot to pass the note on, finding it in her pocket days later. The note warned that Castro wanted the child so he could make a Santería sacrifice of him. This concern was based on the mos