Sunday, April 18, 2010

Elian gone but not forgotten by Cubans

Elian gone but not forgotten by Cubans
10-year anniversary of controversy
By Carlos Frias, The Palm Beach Post
10:15 a.m. EDT, April 18, 2010

Thousands of white blooms on Delfin Gonzalez's avocado tree are starting
to become fruit, and that means he'll soon have a new reason to visit
his neighbors.

They all know him, and not just because he's lived on this Little Havana
block for nearly 10 years, handing out avocados. Gonzalez is famous here
because of a woman he never met, but who changed his destiny and
unforgettably altered the lives of the residents of Northwest Second Street.

People may have forgotten her name — Elizabeth Brotons — but no one here
will ever forget her son: Elian Gonzalez.

It was 10 years ago this week that the world watched U.S. Border Patrol
agents storm the Gonzalez home on this humble block and seize the
6-year-old refugee boy at gunpoint.

Elian, subject of an epic tug of war between Havana and the boy's Miami
relatives, was snatched from inside a closet in the wee hours of April
22 and delivered to his father, who waited with Castro government
escorts in Maryland. Two months later, after a family battle in the
court, the boy's father took him back to Cuba.

Elian was the boy whose story hit Miami with the force of a Category 5
hurricane, the boy whose mother died at sea when their boat sank in
their escape from Cuba. Adrift alone, the boy clung to an inner tube for
two days before he was rescued by fisherman. He came to live with his
closest living relatives, the Gonzalezes of Northwest Second Street.

A decade after Elian was taken away, his former neighbors still convene
as a sort of group therapy.

Delfin Gonzalez's neighbors stop by his house to bring coffee. He visits
the elderly widow across the street to see if she needs any help around
the house. The renters in the apartment next door call him Abuelo,
Grandpa, and are always asking to borrow his tools. And he can't help
but marvel at how the granddaughter his neighbors across the street
raised has become such a young woman, at 15.

And that's right about the time their conversations routinely —
eventually — turn to the boy who could be her schoolmate.

On this stretch of Miami road named after the refugee boy's mother,
between 23rd and 24th avenues, they know him as Delfin. To the world
outside, he'll always be Elian's great-uncle.

There are new faces on this block, people who have only heard the story.
But many remain who lived the ordeal.

Tale of biblical dimensions

Elian came to this block to live with his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez
(Delfin's brother) and cousin Marisleysis. But the story of a boy,
protected by dolphins at sea, rescued on Thanksgiving Day, gave his
story an almost biblical dimension. Soon, there were photo ops and local
politicians stopping by, a trip to Disney World and a grade school
scholarship — and Havana took notice.

A matter normally reserved for family court mushroomed into a six-month
political battle of wills between Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the
U.S. State Department, with Miami's Cuban exile community as the theater
of war.

That fight transformed this stretch of road — blocked to traffic by
police at both ends as throngs came daily to visit the Gonzalez home —
into Little Havana's only unofficial gated community.

The ordeal concluded before sun-up on Holy Saturday, April 22, 2000,
when a U.S. Border Patrol tactical squad — infamously photographed with
machine guns in hand — stormed the house and screeched away with the boy
in custody, firing tear gas to break up hundreds keeping vigil.

That morning, that episode, left lasting effects on Miami Cuban
politics, local and national. In fact, the Elian backlash is often
credited for helping swing the 2000 presidential election in favor of
George W. Bush. But on a smaller scale, it left an indelible mark on the
lives of those who lived sequestered on this once-quiet Miami block.

"We all fell in love with the boy," said Alberto Davila, whose front
lawn, across from Gonzalez's, became impassible with demonstrators and
journalists from around the world. He displays an aerial photograph of
the front of his and Gonzalez's house overrun with scores of people,
signed by the CBS news crew that camped out on his lawn.

Back then, his wife made the reporters Cuban coffee and let them use
their bathroom. But in the months after the boy was repatriated, as tour
buses made routine stops out front, weary neighbors retreated.

Now, the Davilas' front yard — once a media parking lot — is enclosed by
a 6-foot iron gate and dotted with "no parking" signs. Gates have gone
up in front of most of the other houses, too.

Back then, Elian's other great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, lived in the
rented home where the boy stayed. There, Elian grew particularly close
to Lazaro's daughter, Marisleysis, who became a mother figure at age 21.
But the raid, the relentless questions and even the ridicule cast on his
family by outsiders forced them from the home, says Delfin.

"A family needed its rest, its privacy," he said.

A shrine to Elian's mother

Delfin took a different tack. He sold his home and lobster-trap business
in Marathon Key and bought the Miami home six months after the boy was
sent back to Cuba. He has preserved the front half as a free museum, and
lives in a two-room efficiency behind it.

In his front yard, he has built a shrine to Elian's mom, captured in her
youth in a photo carefully framed above a rose bush.

Gonzalez has resisted selling the museum to private parties. The boy's
toys are interspersed with thousands of pictures, letters of support,
paintings and statues of Catholic saints in glass-enclosed shelves
around the home.

Dust has settled over and around the shoes and toys in Elian's closet.
His uniform for the Lincoln-Marti School hangs next to his karate
uniform. A guest book shows visitors from as far away as Spain and Germany.

The tourists don't stream in like they used to, but just about every day
someone stops for a picture of the house. Davila, the neighbor, sees one
man come every week to leave fresh flowers at the shrine to Elian's mother.

In the stream of years since Elian, the neighbors have turned their
attention to caring for each other. But they still talk about what they
call "the days of Elian."

Jose Rodriguez lives near the other end of the block. The morning of the
raid, demonstrators rushed into his yard, their eyes burning from tear gas.

He recalled the Elian days while visiting his neighbors, Silvio and
Nancy Perez.

"We'll find ourselves saying, 'Remember when Elian did this or that?' "
Nancy Perez said.

There are fewer to recount those stories nowadays.

Cachita Mondelo, who lived on the corner with her husband, sold her home
after he had a stroke. The old couple two doors down from Delfin moved
away after the home they were renting fell into disrepair and was

New families move in and they don't always notice the tilted green
street sign that bears Elian's mother's name. But it's not long before
they, too, become part of the story.

Maximo Garcia lived through the Elian saga in Cuba, and remembers the
government-issue T-shirts with the boy's image. Posters covered all
public places, and the topic was always on television.

"You went to bed and woke up with Elian," said Garcia, who has lived
here for eight years. "In Cuba, we were told one story. But when I got
here, I learned the rest of the story.",0,5418888.story?track=rss

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