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On Thanksgiving Day 1999, a six-year-old boy, Elian Gonzalez, was found floating on an inner tube three miles off the Florida coast. He was reportedly surrounded by dolphins and, more surprisingly, in spite of being in the water for three days, he was not sunburned at all. The U.S. Coast Guard spotted the boy, along with the two other survivors of a vessel that had been carrying fourteen passengers from Cuba. The other eleven, including the boy's mother, had apparently drowned. The Coast Guard immediately transferred Elian to Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital. The two other survivors were rescued after they swam to Key Biscayne, a few miles from downtown Miami.
Two days after the boy was found, Elian's father in Cuba declared that he wanted his son back. Under normal circumstances, the sole surviving parent's wishes are the last word on such matters. However, there is nothing normal about dealing with Cuba or Cuban Americans. Miami Cubans passionately argued that Elian's mother had died to give the boy freedom from Castro's dictatorship and that he should be permitted to stay in Miami with hisgreat uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. After a considerable delay and interviews in Cuba with the boy's father, on January 6, 2000, Janet Reno announced, "This little boy, who has been through so much, belongs with his father." It was not only the little boy who went through so much during those six months; the community where the events unfolded would never be the same either. The drama preceding and following this decision cemented, in the eyes of the nation and the world, Miami's reputation as a city deeply divided along ethnic lines, where ethnicity and immigration combine to create an unstable fulcrum of power and prejudice, and where new arrivals to this country, rather than being disenfranchised, are empowered enough to be regularly accused of prejudice against long-established residents. In this type of community, sometimes heralded as a preview to twenty-first-century United States, Elian's saga served as a magnifying glass, highlighting and at the same time kindling the tensions that have been building up over the past forty years of mass immigration into Miami.
The story of Elian Gonzalez is worth recounting here, at the beginning of our volume, because it brought even the most peripheral citizens of the region face-to-face with profound issues of identity, power, and prejudice. For nearly everyone, African Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and many other immigrants, the overwhelming question raised by the months of taking sides over whether Elian should stay or go was, "What does it mean to be an American?" For Cuban Americans, even those who never held tightly to the typical anti-Castro dogma, the question became, "What does it mean to be a Cuban in America?"
After Reno announced the Justice Department's decision, Miami's Cuban community declared that it would unleash massive protests. "Let's take action immediately with the objective of paralyzing Miami and paralyzing the airport," urged Alberto Hernandez, a director of the Cuban American National Foundation, speaking to other leaders of the Cuban exile community at a meeting following the announcement. On January 6, hundreds of Miami's Cubans blocked intersections throughout the urban center and cut off access to the Port of Miami and the airport. The "political correctness" of Miami's Cuban community in demanding that Elian stay in the United States was transmitted throughout the world by Miami-Dade County mayor Alex Penelas, who proclaimed at a press conference that county law enforcement officers would not cooperate with the federal authorities in reuniting Elian with his father. If violence broke out, he warned the Clinton administration, "We hold you responsible." The county mayor's comments particularly alienated Miami's non-Cuban communities. At a Town Hall Meeting organized by ABC-TV's "Nightline" on the campus of Florida International University, a non-Cuban speaker from the audience chastised Mayor Penelas for his comments by reminding him that "he was elected to represent all of the citizens of Dade County."
Ultimately, the issue was resolved by force. Before the sun rose on Saturday, April 22, the day before Easter, agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) stormed the house of Lazaro Gonzalez to retrieve Elian. The small number of observers on the scene fortunately gave only token resistance to the well-armed strike force. Pictures of the raid circumnavigated the globe via internet, television, and newspapers. A few hours later, Elian was reunited with his father.
The Miami Cuban community vilified the U.S. government. A Miami Cuban professional in his late twenties exclaimed, "It's a betrayal. They betrayed us. We've been the most loyal supporters of the U.S. How could they do this?" A sobbing Bertha Garcia, a Cuban American who had lived in Miami for thirty-eight years, proclaimed, "I thought it was the most unbelievable thing that I've seen in my life in the United States done to a poor family with a poor house." Cuban American pop stars Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia expressed their support for Elian remaining in the United States. Even moderate, broad-based organizations like the Cuban-American National Council, criticized the government's strong-arm tactics in a public statement: "We know no precedent for such an extraordinary operation, and cannot understand why the Justice Department deployed a commando tactical force, armed with semiautomatic weapons, face masks, and tear gas, that broke into the home of an innocent American family, the same family that the Justice Department itself had previously entrusted with Elian's care." Seventy Cuban-American leaders of twenty-one exile organizations called for a citywide strike on the following Tuesday to "send a message of pain to the federal government and the nation about Elian's seizure." They sought to turn Miami into a "dead city." Throughout the Latino sections of Miami, they had a dramatic effect. In the heart of Little Havana, along Calle Ocho, nearly all businesses were closed as they were in Hialeah, the most thoroughly Latino municipality. Crowds gathered on the sidewalks, and long convoys of vehicles slowed traffic, especially at key intersections. Vitriolic anti-government placards condemned the raid, calling Clinton a communist and Reno a lesbian. Cuban flags were everywhere; many also displayed the U.S. flag but flew it upside down.
"We are staying away from work as a way to express our outrage, not only over Elian but also against what we see as a major change in U.S. policy-one that indicates an improvement in relations with Fidel Castro," declared Carlos Rodriguez Nunez, a retired paint-store owner who was one of the few pedestrians on Calle Ocho (officially Eighth Street), the main street of Little Havana. A Cuban American pediatrician closed his practice for the day. One of his sick patients visited a non-Cuban pediatrician for treatment. The non-Cuban pediatrician called the Cuban American pediatrician for information on the case. The Cuban pediatrician took advantage of the call to assail for nearly an hour the non-Cuban pediatrician for working that day, passionately declaiming that no one did or could understand the hurt and pain of exiled Cubans.
About one-third of the students in public schools stayed home in a district that is over fifty percent Latino. At Florida International University, the local campus of the state university system, which has a student body that is more than fifty percent Latino, about seven hundred administrative and support workers participated in the stoppage-including President Modesto Maidique, a Cuban American. At least a few businesses closed out of fear after receiving threats of bombs or boycotts. Two Hialeah businesses-Denny's and Kmart-received bomb threats for staying open. Denny's closed after the second threat. Kmart remained open, but had police sweep the store. A Winn-Dixie grocery store in a mixed but primarily Latino neighborhood was evacuated after receiving a bomb threat. Even one church had to close because of threats. St. Kieran's Catholic Church, a mostly Latino congregation in Coconut Grove, closed after the church secretary received an anonymous call saying that the church would be bombed if it stayed open.
Miami's Cuban Americans had believed that the United States supported them in their efforts to defeat Castro's communist regime. They viewed themselves as the most stalwart of all Americans in opposing communism and thus supporting U.S. interests. They further viewed themselves as strongly contributing to U.S. society both by being successful economically and through their intense civic engagement, as reflected in their high rates of naturalization and their ability to elect Cuban American officials locally. Moreover, they strongly believed that living in the United States away from one's parents was preferable to being in Cuba, even with one's parent(s). They pointed to the "successes" of the Pedro (Peter) Pan project, sponsored by the Catholic Church in the 1960s, in which Cuban parents voluntarily sent their unaccompanied children to the United States because they feared that the Cuban government would take them away and "brainwash" them. They claimed that Elian's father was under duress when he asserted that he had freely decided that he wanted Elian to return to Cuba. Given the widely documented human rights abuses of Cuba's Castro regime, they had been confident that the U.S. government would not force Elian to return to his father, and they were shocked when the INS forcibly removed Elian from his Miami relatives' home. For all these reasons, they saw the U.S. actions as a "betrayal," a breaking of the implicit contract in which they not only were staunch anti-communists but also had successfully integrated economically and politically.
The mayor of the City of Miami, Joe Carollo, condemned the INS raid and in its wake succeeded in obtaining the resignation of the non-Latino white city manager along with the police chief. Cuban Americans replaced both. The mayor of Hialeah, Raul Martinez, the most heavily Latino municipality in Miami-Dade County (and the United States), announced that Cubans should not allow themselves to be stepped on by other minorities and that they should consider forming their own political party. He asserted that Cubans had worked hard to build the community and they had nothing to apologize about. He went on to demand that the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Penelas, stand up to the black community. "The time has come to say: It's like this. How many federal programs have been put in place, how many state programs have been put in place, to help the blacks and the blacks haven't done anything. And the so-called black leaders have taken the money."
In contrast, non-Cubans viewed the Cubans as ungrateful immigrants who had been allowed to enjoy the freedoms of the United States and then attacked it by flying the U.S. flag upside down and condemning U.S. authorities who only wanted to reunite a small boy with his one surviving parent. Cheryl Lynn Conrad declared, "Janet Reno did what she had to do-uphold the law. The raid was very well executed. They were in and out very quickly with minimal risk to the child." She added that the defiance of the Gonzalez family forced the hand of authorities. Others in immigrant communities took the opportunity to highlight that the INS behaves similarly in hundreds of immigration cases every year and no one takes a second look-until the victims are Cubans.
Accordingly, the strike following the raid had little economic impact outside of the Latino neighborhoods. The county's two major economic engines, Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami-Dade, remained open. While the airport saw no signs of the strike, the port slowed down, as hundreds of truck drivers stayed home. County transit buses and Metrorail operated regularly but carried fewer passengers than usual. Reportedly, only one out of ten Miami-Dade County employees stayed home. At lunchtime, the only major evidence of a strike along Ocean Drive in South Beach was the closure of Lario's on the Beach, the restaurant owned by Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan.
Nevertheless, the strike upset many non-Cubans. Potter Walker, an African American, declared that Cuban Americans who closed their businesses were being "ungrateful to our government by not working today." The following weekend counter-demonstrations emerged in non-Latino neighborhoods. These counter-demonstrations brought together an unlikely alliance of good ole boys waving confederate flags and proudly holding signs exhorting authorities to "send them all" back, next to African American families reminding Mayor Penelas that "you represent us too, mayor." Within a week, flag stores in Miami claimed they were running out of both American and Cuban flags, especially the small ones that people mount on their cars. The Miami Cubans were chastised across the board by non-Latinos as ungrateful, unforgiving, and unpatriotic. "Why are they waving Cuban flags?" said a colleague from New York. "If they are so adamant that he stay here since this place is so much better, why not wave American flags?"
The Elian case even affected the 2000 election. It was an election in which African Americans in South Florida, as in the state as a whole, turned out in record numbers to vote for Al Gore, the Democratic Party candidate. It was equally an election in which Cuban Americans turned out en masse to vote against the Democrats. Ever since President Kennedy ordered the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Miami's Cubans have overwhelmingly voted Republican. Democratic presidential contenders have never won Miami Cubans' votes. Bill Clinton did make inroads, capturing as much as 40 percent of their votes in 1996. However, in 2000, in the wake of Elian's forcible return to Cuba, more than 80 percent of Miami Cubans voted for Bush, who won Florida, and thus the presidency, by only a few hundred votes.
Interested and disinterested observers watching these events must have asked themselves, and any who would listen: What's with Miami? What's with these Miami Cubans, perhaps America's most successful immigrant group, certainly the most successful Latinos, complaining about the U.S. government betraying them? Are they a bunch of ingrates? Some interpreted the behavior of Cubans as par for the course, the arrogance that has characterized the most successful Latino immigrant group since the beginning of its mass arrival in the United States in 1959. Cubans, as equal citizens of this country, should be respectful, if not accepting, of its laws.
Excerpted from This Land Is Our Land by Alex Stepick Guillermo Grenier Max Castro Marvin Dunn Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Becoming American: It's Not a One-Way Street||1|
|2||Competing Elites: Cuban Power, Anglo Conversion, and Frustrated African Americans||34|
|3||Working in the USA: Ethnic Segregation and Bureaucratizing Interaction||89|
|4||Just Comes and Cover-Ups: African Americans and Haitians in High School||114|
|5||Making It Work: Interaction, Power, and Accommodation in Inter-Ethnic Relations||138|