From news highlights to highlighting hair
MIAMI -- Inside a narrow storefront between a pawn shop and a Cuban cafeteria is perhaps the most recognizable hair stylist in South Florida not known for cutting hair.
Marisleysis Gonzalez, who took center stage in her family's seven-month campaign to keep her cousin Elian in the United States, opened the doors to her own hair salon Friday. She drew customers curious to meet the young woman who cast herself as the Cuban boy's surrogate mother.
The 24-year-old spent most of the last two years since Elian was returned to Cuba shunning the news cameras and reporters that for weeks were perched across from her family's Little Havana home. She avoided speaking publicly about the boy even as her relatives remained eagerly quotable and converted their old home into a shrine in the boy's honor.
Wearing black dress pants and a red and black blouse, Gonzalez was again before news cameras Friday. She showed she hasn't forgotten the lessons gleaned from countless news conferences and talk show appearances, and gracefully, unemotionally, talked about life without Elian.
"I've overcome (it)," Gonzalez said. "You put that outside and you keep it in your heart but you do have to move on in life. He's alive, and I thank God for that."
Still, she said, Elian looks unhappy in the photographs and television footage she's seen come out of Cuba, where Elian lives with his father, stepmother and half-siblings.
"He has a very sad face," Gonzalez said. "I don't think he's doing very well."
Photos of a happy Elian are nowhere to be found in the freshly painted hair salon, which occupies a space that formerly housed a martial arts studio. There isn't a single Cuban flag, anti-Fidel Castro bumper sticker or any of the samples of amateur art created by Cuban-American well-wishers depicting Elian as a heavenly icon.
Gonzalez said she wants to keep it that way. Her family already built the boy a museum, after all.
"My place is my business," she said.
Gonzalez said she's wanted to be a hair stylist since she was 16. She began cutting her mother's hair and then practiced on other relatives' and friends' hair. She put some time in at a hair salon, then got a job at a bank. That's when Elian came along.
Since the saga ended in June 2000, Gonzalez resumed cutting hair out of her parents' home. She said she cultivated a customer base and saved enough money to finally open her own shop.
Her relatives helped with getting the space ready.
"My family members did the tile . . . my dad paints," she said. "It wasn't a lot of money because all I actually paid for is materials."
Gonzalez scoffed at suggestions she could capitalize on her fame to draw customers.
"I had three walk-ins that weren't my clients from before and not one of them had asked me (about) Elian," she said. "Even though you have a very popular name . . . if you didn't do a very good job, they won't come back."
Alyson Rey, 17, walked into Marisleysis Hair Design Friday morning with her mother and sister after hearing about Gonzalez's new business on local news.
"We connected with the name, but we liked what we saw on television, the people she was working on, and decided to come in," said Betty Rey, Alyson's mother, as Gonzalez prepared to dye the teen's hair. "We haven't talked about the Elian thing. That's not why we're here.
Gonzalez said attempts to contact Elian and her other relatives in Cuba have been rebuffed.
"They don't even allow me to talk to him and I don't think I did a bad thing," she said. "I took care of him and he loved me very much, so I guess I did a very good job."
Still, Gonzalez said she hasn't given up on seeing Elian again.
"Nothing lasts forever and he's still young and I'm still young," she said. "Someday Cuba will be free, and if not so, I'll go visit him sometime. But I will see him again."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire