A Cuban Boyhood, Considered on the Anniversary of Elián González Rescue

Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez and Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the sea, in a bedroom closet as federal agents enter the Miami home of Elian's relatives. © Associated Press / Alan Diaz (via WikiMedia)
Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez and Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the sea, in a bedroom closet as federal agents enter the Miami home of Elian's relatives. © Associated Press / Alan Diaz (via WikiMedia)

On this day (November 25) in 1999, little Elián González was found clinging to an inner tube by two sport fishermen off the coast of Florida. In trying to escape with him from Cuba to the United States, his mother and nearly a dozen others drowned at sea. The five-year-old whose face we would grow to know so well was the only survivor.

With millions of American families glued to their television sets over that Thanksgiving weekend watching every development, the tragedy that would eventually involve a cast including Janet Reno, Al Gore, Elián’s relatives in Miami, and his father Juan Miguel González back in Cuba continued to unfold.

After months of U.S. federal court and state department proceedings, in April 2000, Elián was seized in a pre-dawn raid by armed U.S. federal agents from the home of his Miami relatives who were petitioning to keep him in the country. Amid protests and politics he couldn’t begin to understand, the traumatized boy was returned to Cuba to live with his father, where he remains.

Now nineteen years old, González spoke out recently about his time in the United States. “They were very sad moments for me, that marked me for life,” he said in Spanish during an event, the Castro-controlled Cuban newspaper Girón recently reported, according to NBC. González also made political statements denouncing Cuban exile groups, asked President Barack Obama to free the five Cuban spies convicted of espionage in Miami, and, in relation to his own traumatic sea journey, mentioned “Operation Peter Pan” (or “Pedro Pan”) of the early 1960s, in which 14,000 Cuban children were sent without their parents from Cuba to Miami to escape the government of Fidel Castro.

It’s that link which brings us to Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, winner of the 2003 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Eire, currently a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, was born in Havana and grew up there in an upper-middle class family during the early years of Castro's revolution. His memoir is an intimate account of that time, rich with vivid images as perceived through the eyes of a child. In 1962, at age eleven, Carlos and his brother arrived in Miami as part of that airlift known as “Peter Pan.” His mother eventually made it to the United States, but Eire never saw his father again.

His collective story, continued in his 2011 follow-up Learning to Die in Miami, which picks up where Waiting leaves off, serves as a sort of alternate history to the Elián González saga, in terms of the basic circumstances at the foundation of both dramas: a Cuban boy and his relation to the United States just ninety miles from home against an overwhelmingly complicated socio-political backdrop that even many adults struggle to understand.

While the “alternate history” designation between González and Eire’s realities doesn’t fit the genre as neatly as fiction created in that tradition -- like Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, about a man who travels back in time to prevent the JFK assassination, or Sliding Doors, the 1998 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a Londoner whose two potential fates hinge on her catching or not catching a train -- it does ask the same basic question posed by stories of that kind: What if?

What if González remained in the United States with his extended family? Would his life have unfolded in ways similar to Eire’s, who speaks candidly about merging his Cuban, American, and even European identities, and speaks fluent English without any trace of an accent? The parallel universes of these two central characters don’t necessarily intersect -- Eire has never returned to Cuba, and he doesn’t mention González in Waiting, since it’s a nonfiction account of his childhood -- but the similarities and differences in their stories give us pause. We speculate on how their lives, and history, might have been altered had their circumstances been reversed.

In Eire’s emotionally charged acceptance speech for Waiting’s National Book Award, he said, “Had I written this book in my native land, I would be in prison. As we sit here enjoying this dinner, there is one country on earth, Cuba, which is dead set and has been dead set since 1959 on repressing thought, repressing expression. There is no freedom to write, there is no freedom to read…There are actually several people who are in prison for establishing libraries. Hard to believe but true, nonetheless. It is these very, very brave men and women that I would like to dedicate this National Book Award to, the people in prison who cannot speak their minds without paying the heaviest price of all.”

It is in that context that we have to consider González’s recent statements in Cuba. Is he still being used as a symbol, or a pawn in a political game, just as when he was an innocent little boy? That's just one of so many questions raised by these divergent stories, and we may never know the answer.