Shipwrecked on Dry Land
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 5 Apr 100 22:55:53 -0700
Subject: Shipwrecked on Dry Land
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Shipwrecked on Dry Land
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
On Friday, when Juan Miguel Gonzalez went to school to pick up his son
Elian for the weekend, he was told that Elizabet Brotons, his ex-wife and
the boy's mother, had taken Elian at midday and had not brought him back
in the afternoon. In his routine as a divorced father, this seemed normal
to Juan Miguel. From the time when he and Elizabet had separated two years
earlier, on the most amicable terms, the boy had lived with his father and
spent every other day at his mother's house. But Elizabet's door was
padlocked over the weekend and on Monday as well, and Juan Miguel began to
make inquiries. This was how he learned the bad news that was already
becoming common knowledge in the city of Cardenas: Elian's mother had left
with him for Miami, with 12 other people, in an aluminum boat 5 1/2 meters
long, with no life preservers and a decrepit motor.
It was Nov. 22, 1999. "My life ended that day," Juan Miguel said four months
later. After their divorce, he and Elizabet had maintained a relationship
that was cordial but rather unusual: they continued living under the same
roof and sharing their dreams in the same bed, hoping to produce as lovers
the child they had not been able to have as a married couple. It seemed
impossible. Elizabet would conceive but miscarry in the first four months
of pregnancy. After seven miscarriages, the child they had longed for was
born. They had decided on a unique name for him: Elian, composed of the
first three letters of Elizabet and the last two letters of Juan.
Elizabet was 28 years old when she left with the boy for Miami. She was an
amiable and hard-working chief housekeeper at a hotel in Varadero. Her
father says that at the age of 14 she was already in love with Juan Miguel
Gonzalez, and married him when she was 18. "We were like brother and
sister," says Juan Miguel, a calm, deliberate man who works as a cashier.
After their divorce, Juan Miguel and Elizabet continued living together
with their son in Cardenas -- where all the protagonists in this drama were
born, and where they lived -- until she fell in love with Lazaro Rafael
Munero, a neighborhood tough. Juan Miguel subsequently married Nelsy Carmeta
and had a son, who is now 6 months old.
Juan Miguel did not have to waste time finding out where Elian was, because
in the Caribbean everybody knows everything -- "even before it happens,"
as one of my informants told me. Everyone knew that the leader of the
adventure was Lazaro Munero, who had made at least two clandestine trips
to the United States to prepare the way. He had the contacts and nerve to
take along not only Elizabet and her son, but also a younger brother, his
father, who was over 70, and his mother, who was recovering from a heart
attack. Lazaro's partner in the enterprise took his entire family. At the
last moment, because each of them paid $1,000, three more people came on
board: 22-year-old Arianne Horta, her 5-year-old daughter, Esthefany, and
Nivaldo Vladimir Fernandez, the husband of one of her friends.
An infallible formula for being well-received as an immigrant in the United
States is to be shipwrecked in her territorial waters. Cardenas is a good
departure point: it is close to Florida, and its coves are protected by
mangrove swamps. Moreover, the regional art of making small craft for
fishing in the nearby Zapata Swamp and Del Tesoro Lagoon provides raw
materials for illegal boats, in particular the aluminum pipes used for
irrigating citrus groves. People say that Munero must have spent some $200
and an additional 800 Cuban pesos on the motor and the boat's construction.
The result was a kind of lifeboat, with no roof and no seats. Three inner
tubes were put on board as life preservers for 14 people. There was no room
for more. Before they left, most of the passengers injected themselves with
Gravinol to prevent seasickness.
It appears they set out on Nov. 20 but had to go back when the motor broke
down. They remained hidden for two days, waiting for it to be repaired,
while Juan Miguel thought his son was already in Miami. This first emergency
convinced Arianne Horta that the risks were too great for her daughter,
and she decided to leave her with her family, to be brought over later by
a safe route. It has been said that Elian also became aware of the dangers
of the crossing and screamed to be left behind.
They finally set off at dawn on the 22nd, with favorable seas but a wretched
motor. The stories the survivors recounted in the Florida press after their
rescue, and expanded on in phone calls to their families in Cardenas,
revealed terrifying details. According to them, at midnight on the 22nd,
the men in charge dismounted the hopeless motor and dropped it in the ocean
to lighten the weight. But the unbalanced boat flipped over on its side,
and all the passengers fell into the water. This may have broken the fragile
soldering on the aluminum pipes and caused the boat to sink.
It was the end, in darkness and an inferno of panic. The older people who
did not know how to swim probably drowned immediately. The Gravinol, which
causes drowsiness, must have worked against most of them. Arianne and
Nivaldo clutched at one inner tube; Elian, and perhaps his mother, held
onto the other. Nobody knows what happened to the third. Elian can swim,
but Elizabet could not, and she may have let go in her confusion and terror.
"I saw when Mama got lost in the ocean," the boy would later tell his father
on the phone. What is difficult to understand, though it deserves to be
true, is that she had the presence of mind and the time to give the boy a
bottle of fresh water.
His information was erroneous, but Juan Miguel had a premonition of the
tragedy. He called his uncle several times -- Lazaro Gonzalez has lived in
Miami for years -- and asked about clandestine arrivals or recent
shipwrecks, but was told nothing. At last, at dawn on Thursday, Nov. 25,
the news broke in a sequence of events. The body of an older woman was
discovered on the beach by a fisherman. Later, Arianne and Nivaldo were
found alive. Not long afterward a small boy appeared in the water off Fort
Lauderdale, unconscious and badly sunburned, lying across an inner tube,
face up. It was Elian, the last survivor.
When he heard the news, Juan Miguel was determined to speak to the boy on
the phone but did not know where he was. On Nov. 25 a doctor in Miami called
him to ask about Elian's medical history. Juan Miguel learned to his great
joy that Elian himself had given his father's name in the hospital, and
his phone number and address in Cardenas.
The next day Juan Miguel talked to Elian. Troubled, but in a steady voice,
Elian told his father he had seen his mother drown. He also said he had
lost his backpack and school uniform, which Juan Miguel interpreted as a
symptom of his disorientation. "No, Baby," he said. "Your uniform is here,
and I have your backpack ready for when you come home." But it is possible
that Elian had had another pack at his mother's house, or that one had been
bought for him so he would not insist on returning to his house. His
fondness for school, as well as his desire to return to class, were clearly
demonstrated a few days later, when he told his teacher on the telephone,
"Take good care of my desk."
>From the earliest calls, Juan Miguel realized that someone in Miami was
disrupting his conversations with his son. "You should know that from the
very beginning they've done everything they could to sabotage us," he told
me. "Sometimes they shout at the boy while we're talking, or turn the volume
all the way up on television cartoons, or put a candy in his mouth so it's
hard to understand what he's saying." These kinds of stratagems were also
suffered in person by Raquel Rodriguez and Marcela Quintant, Elian's
grandmothers, during their turbulent trip to Miami. Their visit with him,
scheduled to last two days, was reduced to 90 minutes, with all kinds of
intentional interruptions, and they said they spent no more than a quarter
of an hour alone with Elian. They returned to Cuba shocked at how much he
had changed. "This isn't the same boy," they said, saddened by the timidity
of a child they remembered as lively, intelligent, and with a remarkable
talent for drawing. "We have to save him!"
Nobody in Miami seems to care about the harm being done to Elian's mental
health by the cultural uprooting to which he is being subjected. At his
6th birthday party, celebrated on Dec. 6 in his Miami captivity, his hosts
took a picture of him wearing a combat helmet, surrounded by weapons and
wrapped in the flag of the United States, just a short while before a boy
of his age in Michigan shot a classmate to death with a handgun.
In other words, the real shipwreck of Elian did not take place on the high
seas, but when he set foot on American soil.
© 2000 Peter Langston