Tuesday, November 24, 2009

El niño milagro

A photograph I shot of Elián González and his great
uncle Delfín González, shortly after Elián's arrival in Miami.

Pick up any newspaper on the day after Thanksgiving and you're almost certain to find a story chronicling the start of the holiday shopping season.

Ten years ago this week, on Friday, Nov. 26, 1999, the Miami Herald's front page carried the obligatory "holiday shopping" story.

And there was a story on the start of the criminal trial connected to the 1996 Valujet crash and one about the Miami Dolphins' humiliating 20-0 loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Dallas Cowboys.

There was also a story about three Cuban migrants found clinging to inner tubes in the Atlantic Ocean on Thanksgiving day.

The three were the only survivors of a group of 14 migrants whose 17-foot aluminum boat broke apart and sank after leaving Cuba.

One of them was a five-year-old Cuban boy named Elián González.

The Herald's 1600 word story on page one that Friday mentioned Elián just once.
"Rescued off Fort Lauderdale, the boy, Elián González, was listed in stable condition."
But in the days and months following his rescue, the saga of "el niño milagro" - the miracle child - would dominate the Herald's news pages.

Speculation about his future would fill hundreds - perhaps thousands - of hours on TV and radio station news programs and talk shows.

Elián's story captivated not just South Florida, but the nation and the world.

An angelic young boy fleeing a country ruled by a ruthless dictator is plucked from the ocean on Thanksgiving day and delivered to grateful Miami relatives who want him to live in freedom.

"God wanted him here for freedom and he's here and he will get it." Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elián's cousin was quoted as saying.

But a few days later, Elián's sweet story of freedom turned sour when his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and the Cuban government demanded the return of the boy.

And soon, Elián's plight would divide Miamians like no other story before it as it morphed into one of the more bizarre events ever connected with the Miami-Cuban diaspora.


Given custody of Elián, his Miami relatives wasted no time in showering the boy with all that capitalism had to offer: Happy Meals from McDonald's, a Nintendo game, gold jewelry, designer clothes, sunglasses, a puppy, and of course, a pre-Christmas trip to Disney World. They also enrolled him in a private school.

Two months after his arrival in the US, he landed on the cover of Time magazine.

Before he was returned to Cuba, he would be on Time's cover two more times.

On January 5, 2000, U.S. officials told Elián's Miami relatives that the boy belonged with his father in Cuba. That edict touched off a 3-month tug-of-war between various federal government agencies and the Miami family.

In the meantime, the street in front of the relative's home at 2319 N.W. Second St. turned into a staging ground for local, national and international media.

And soon they would be joined by hundreds of supporters who kept a 24 hour vigil vowing to block any attempts by the government to seize the boy.

The jousting between the Miami family and Janet Reno's justice department would continue until the early morning hours of April 22, when immigration officials arrived and snatched the frightened boy from the house in a raid that took just a little over two minutes.

The effects of the Elián saga would continue to touch some, even after his return to Cuba.

In the 2000 presidential election, angry Cuban exiles abandoned Al Gore and voted 80 per cent for George W. Bush, which helped to deliver his 537-vote margin of victory in Florida despite his defeat in the national popular vote.

In 2001 the Miami Herald would win a Pulitzer Prize for its "coverage of the pre-dawn raid by federal agents that took the boy."

Photographer Alan Diaz would also win a Pulitzer for his amazing pictures of the actual seizure of Elián.

Photographer Alan Diaz at the home of Elián Gonzalez

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