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In Miami, they have themselves to blame

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000


Nice people are not supposed to tell these jokes, even though they are a staple of Florida conversations:

Would the last American to leave Miami turn out the lights?

Or, in another variation . . . take the flag with him?

We've had it drummed into our heads over the last several years that telling jokes like these is a sign of insensitivity.

Oh yes.

Jokes like these give aid and comfort to those blockheads in the English-only crowd.

Absolutely.

They belittle the cultural contributions of the thousands of fine and decent people who risked their all, and left everything familiar behind, when they fled Castro and resettled in Miami.

For sure.

I, too, have been a dutiful student and have swallowed whole these pieces of contemporary etiquette.

So how come I can't get those jokes out of my head?

Because Alex Penelas, the mayor of Miami-Dade, has mistaken himself for an archduke.

And because guys like Al Gore, George Bush, Bob Graham and Connie Mack are behaving like footmen for Penelas' golden coach.

Last week, Penelas was jumping up and down, all but threatening riots if the federal government took 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez away from his Miami relatives and returned him to his father in Cuba.

And last weekend, our esteemed Sen. Mack, for instance, was among those bleating that maybe Juan Miguel Gonzalez was an unfit parent.

You can understand Gore and Bush. Not relate. But understand. A man with a lust to be president can get quite unashamedly craven. Same with Graham, although maybe you get just half as craven when you want to be vice president.

But what does Mack want? An ambassadorship from Bush if he helps Bush carry Florida while aiding and abetting in the current frenzy?

It began to look Monday as though the lunatics were falling away from the front of the parade. Elian's Miami relatives finally began to talk with immigration officials about how, once his father lands in the United States, to turn the boy over.

Without riots.

But even if Elian's story ends as peaceably as a fairy tale, the damage has been done.

To too many people in the rest of the country, people ignorant of language, appearances and customs they don't comprehend, the hysteria over Elian Gonzalez only enriches the stereotypes in their heads, about how South Florida is its very own banana republic.

The rest of us are responsible for the way we think.

You bet.

But Alex Penelas and the hardliners who have been screeching since the moment Elian Gonzalez came ashore four months ago are responsible for the way they behave.

And they've behaved like a mob.

I've tried to argue myself out of thinking this. Told myself that if I were living in Miami-Dade County, not Hillsborough, I'd see the other side up close, get my hands around it, see, smell and taste it and identify with it.

But it doesn't work.

Cubans aren't the first to suffer and die on the way to the United States. And the contest for greatest human tragedy is a heat. Let's talk to other recent arrivals, like the Bosnians, the Vietnamese, the Nicaraguans, the Haitians, the Romanians, the Mexicans, the Chinese. Let's find out what happened to the families separated, the parents killed, the little boys lost, and why no American city has ever been on the verge of erupting for any of them.

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