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The family that won't keep it in the family

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000


There was a brief period when I thought I had no business talking about the Elian Gonzalez saga.

I viewed this melodrama across the divide that most Americans did. I am not Cuban. I lacked the experience of being forced out of my homeland and having my family divided by politics as well as the sea.

But this was, and regrettably still is, a you-gotta story. As in, I told myself you gotta say something. This kid's picture had been plastered more places than the dead Princess Di's. If I kept my mouth shut on Elian, I'd look like the press bus had passed me by.

So I jumped aboard. I wrote what most Americans, who also aren't Cuban, think: Politics has no more to do with this than Pokemon cards. The kid belongs with his dad.

Being a good American, I then began to fret about what I had written, and whether I had been brutish and unfeeling about the emotions that pack the Cuban-American experience.

The days passed. With every one came a new hiccup in the struggle over whither and wherefore Elian. Finally last Saturday, those federal agents kicked in the door of the home of Elian's great uncle Lazaro and yanked the boy.

I was shocked, too -- back to my senses.

This is not a Cubans-only story. It is wholly American.

It is an example of our sense of disproportion. It has gotten as much attention as the Cuban missile crisis. That involved the threat of nuclear war. This is a child custody dispute.

It is a circus, in which it is hard to tell if reporters are the ringmasters, or the horses and elephants performing mindlessly on cue. Elian's Miami relatives, those who want to keep him here, learned overnight how to work journalists. They spoke in bilingual sound bites. They hired lawyers. They shoved Elian in front of the cameras.

What if they hadn't let that freelance photographer into the house so he could take that picture of Elian staring down the barrel of a government-issued automatic weapon?

What if Marisleysis Gonzalez held a news conference to cry about her derechos, her rights, and nobody came?

Responsibilities, particularly those of Marisleysis and her father, Lazaro, to obey the INS order to turn over the boy, hardly get a mention.

But Janet Reno certainly takes a shellacking. Over and over again. She is second only to the president on the enemies list of the paranoid and patriotic, the same people who are still convinced Vince Foster did not commit suicide.

Now, God help us, the Republicans and Bob Graham are talking about investigations and hearings. You watch. Paula Jones will come forward to stand by little Elian.

There is a sidebar to this story that not many people seem to have noticed. That is almost certainly because it hasn't gotten much ink.

The warring Gonzalezes are members of the same family. Lazaro Gonzalez now has the modifying phrase, Elian's great uncle, permanently placed ahead of his name. He is never described as the uncle of Elian's father, Juan Miguel. Nobody seems to have given much thought to what personal spleen might exist between uncle and nephew that helped make possible this melodrama without end.

Believe it or not, Elian has a few American relatives who think he belongs with his dad. One of them, Manuel Gonzalez, told Times reporter David Adams in January: "I wanted to speak to all the family and have a big reunion to decide what to do, without anyone else intervening. But they wouldn't accept that."

With the exception of this man, one of Lazaro's brothers, the Gonzalezes are the dysfunctional American family on parade and in two languages. They shouldn't be on the phone with Janet Reno. They should be on the phone to Jerry Springer's producers.

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