Try this for a scrap of bittersweet trivia: Did you know that Elián Gonzalez's name was originally conceived by his mother Elisabeth and his father Juan as a picture of their own undying love for each other-their hope that Elián would forever be a picture and a symbol to everyone of their own oneness?
For a thousand reasons, it didn't quite work out that way. Elián became Eli-an, then Eli-an, and the gap got bigger and bigger. The huge irony that drapes the whole agonizing episode is that everyone everywhere has wanted to talk about what a family ought to be, while precious few actually have demonstrated the right to do so.
Certainly not Elián's mom and dad. Much as we all believe in parental rights, Elisabeth (she actually went by Elisa) and Juan Miguel had long ago forfeited any real claim they might have had to this little boy. Married very early (she was 16, he was 17), Elisa and Juan Miguel were regularly frustrated in their efforts to have a baby. While she miscarried half a dozen times over as many years, both of them are said by New York Times reporter Tim Golden to have done more and more partying along the beaches of north Cuba just east of Havana. It wasn't even elegant partying, though. Elisa scrubbed floors while Juan Miguel, sometimes as a pimp, took tips from tourists. As the two drifted apart, Juan Miguel more and more consorted with other women. He and Elisa parted ways, got back together just long enough to conceive and bear Elián, and then split for good. It is hardly the kind of family portrait you or the Gonzalez clan itself would offer as a model.
For that matter, Elisa hadn't had much of a model herself from her own mother. Raquel Rodriquez had been divorced while Elisa was young, then remarried-but was known in the neighborhood for showing up at social events with her current husband on one arm and her former husband on the other. Just what a young girl needs to see to prepare herself for motherhood.
Nor could Elisa, Juan Miguel, or their growing son Elián look to Cuba's Comandante in Jefe to tell them what a family ought to be. Fidel Castro, after all, has for 40 years insisted that children belong not to their parents but to the state. Indeed, many children in Cuba are regularly separated for months at a time from their parents to be indoctrinated about the glories of the communist model. Do such children ever hear an opposing point of view, suggesting that maybe it's exactly that model that keeps their parents so destitute? Or do they hear of Mr. Castro's habit of regularly commandeering Cuban women at will to be his sexual companions? Adults throughout Cuba speak of it cynically and openly.
So it would be convenient, just based on all these sordid factors, to say how much better off Elián would have been escaping with his mother to the United States, a place where he might discover anew what a family really ought to be. It would be wonderfully convenient-but it would, of course, also be utterly false.
For the record seems to show, first of all, that Elián's mother had no strong ideological reasons for wanting to flee to America. She was apparently persuaded instead by her live-in boyfriend, a fellow with a modest criminal record who wasn't really sure which side of the Florida Straits he liked most. In America, our cultural teachers in the media and academia have little use for family values. Our divorce rate and our rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancy are proof enough that many Americans have been eager students.
But wouldn't governmental leaders in the United States do what Fidel Castro couldn't, and help Elián discover what the family is ideally meant to be? Leaders like Bill Clinton, who has squandered high proportions of his presidential energy just defending himself against charges of his own unfaithfulness? Leaders like Janet Reno, whose reckless policies allowed her own agents to kill women and children in the maddening raid at Waco? An administration that has championed the rights of abortionists and of homosexual activists? Or even from the National Council of Churches, that long-time advocate of almost every anti-family value, which has sought so vigorously to get Elián back to Cuba? From such people, Elián is supposed to learn the nuances of family togetherness?
Oh, Elián! Why should a little boy, such handsome fruit of a young couple's love for each other, have his own name-a name intended to shout of their naïve and immature commitment to each other-come now to be a symbol instead of their failure? Why should both your name and your life have been savagely ripped apart by virtually everyone who should be out there protecting, teaching, loving, and nurturing you?
And even worse, Elián, why must you then also haunt us all by reminding us how many millions more just like you there are throughout the world-the fruit of family failure? Lip service to the wonder of what God meant families to be is the easy part; we all do that. Making such families happen is something else again.