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Sandra H. Necchi

"Why doesn't anybody believe me when I say all I want to do is get my son
and take my family back to Cuba?" --- Juan Miguel Gonzalez

(as reported by Bill Press, CNN website, 4/28)

Now that the Elian Gonzalez news frenzy has disappeared from our screens, just a few journalists and commentators have stopped to take a deep breath and consider this case with the kind of soul-searching and quiet analysis possible only after such a dramatic news story is finally over. Much has already been commented upon, with many pundits focusing on how the case affected the 40-year old American embargo against Cuba, or how it forced a national debate on America's contradictory immigration policies, or the profound impact the case has had on South Florida's complicated ethnic and racial politics.

For me, there were a great many things that struck me about this case. Among them was the ease with which the "family values crowd” so easily forgot those same values in favor of votes and retrograde political ideologies. My father died before I was born because he could not fit into the society imposed by a U.S. supported dictatorship in Brazil. I grew up weaving fantasies about him miraculously appearing into my life. Watching the Miami zealots turn a child into a religious icon and keep a father and son apart for political reasons was one of the most disgraceful chapters in American history. And, for me, it was personally wrenching. All I could think of was how Elian would grow up with no father or mother, even though his father desperately wanted him back. There was also the astonishing arrogance of those who believed they knew exactly what Elian and his mother wanted, secure in the knowledge that they could speak for them. They cried out in anguish when the boy returned to Cuba, professing concern for his< welfare. Yet these same people continued to support the economic blockade against the island.

But there was another element in the saga that I found particularly striking. As an immigrant from Latin America myself, and one whose life has revolved around immigrants for most of my life, it was fascinating to watch the American public become acquainted with someone who--when given the opportunity for a good life here with no immigration obstacles in his path--firmly rejected it in favor of his own country. And not just any country, but one that the United States has for decades demonized and caricatured beyond recognition.
* [See note below.]
I have travelled around the world for almost 15 years, working for human rights organizations, teaching English and writing freelance journalism. I have also taught English to immigrants in the United States. In the U.S., I have worked alongside immigrants and foreign visitors in various types of venues. I have always lived in immigrant neighborhoods. My family and I came to the U.S. from Brazil in 1964. While I am well acquainted with many different immigrant groups, my primary experience is with immigrants or visitors from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Growing up in the U.S., I have often noted that there exists a discord between the dominant myths about how immigrants to this country view their new society and what I am accustomed to hearing these immigrants actually say about their new home. History texts, popular culture and punditry generally speak of immigrants to the U.S. as people who are quite happy to be here, who have no desire to go back to their home countries. I am also used to hearing Americans blithely claim "everyone wants to come here." Certainly, some immigrants are quite satisfied with their new lives here. They do not wish to return to their home countries except perhaps to visit. But for many others, their feelings are quite mixed, and some are downright hostile. Most Americans have no idea that a large number of immigrants come here planning to return to their home countries as soon as they can. Many Mexicans, for example, cross the border intending to make a lot of money here in a short amount of time, hoping to quickly return to their families. They don't want to live here permanently. I have heard many immigrants from Latin American countries express similar goals. "I just want to work here for a couple of years, make about $30,000 and go home to set up my own business." That is one of the most common sentiments I have heard among immigrants. What many do not realize is that life here is much more difficult than they realize. Earning that $20-30,000 takes a lot more than working hard for 2 years, no matter how much they sacrifice. They are then forced to stay here longer than they had originally intended, becoming unhappier as the years go by.

Still, I have personally known immigrants who have worked here for 5-15 years, sacrificed every possible luxury, sharing quarters with several other immigrants in tiny apartments, and left for their home countries for good. They were glad of the opportunity to earn and save good money, but were relieved to return home. They never looked back. And while they were here?
Sit around a table with some of these immigrants and hear them talk about American society. You quickly learn that they think very little of this country. They don't like the food, the politics, attitudes they perceive as arrogance, racism and ignorance about countries outside US borders. They spend hours picking apart many aspects of American culture and romanticize so much of what they miss back home. "This country's only good for making money, that's it," they often say. Some of the criticism is petty and sometimes hypocritical. A typical complaint is about the rampant level of violence in American society. Yet many of these people come from societies

My point is that many immigrants come here completely indifferent to the vaunted political freedoms in American society. And these include people from totalitarian dictatorships. They come here simply to work extremely hard and make a life for themselves that they could not do otherwise back home. And for many of them, life in the U.S. is not something they would otherwise choose. If they could live well in their home countries-dictatorship or not-- they would never come here. The decision to risk everything and leave their loved ones is one forced upon them by the economic situation in their countries. They do not necessarily come here because they have any particular appreciation of American society in and of itself. In fact, many do not.

There are others, however, whose feelings are a contradictory mixture of hostility and appreciation. One of my dear friends, a Brazilian woman who has lived here for 10 years, alternates between condemnation and admiration of American culture. Each time I see her, I never know what mood she'll be in. She's quite vocal about her opinions about this country, and never misses an opportunity to make some observation about some particular feature of American society. The last time I saw her she was glowing with admiration for American laws guaranteeing access to people with disabilities. For the first time she had seen a person in a wheelchair board a public bus. She had watched the entire process in fascination. She described how the platform was lowered and raised, how the bus driver got out to assist the person. "I wish I could see that in Brazil," she said. But that was last week. Next week, she might well be railing about something else, and shouting that she can't wait to go back home.
Then there are the people I've met in third world countries like Cuba, Angola, Kenya, Nicaragua, Tunisia, my own native Brazil and even very closed societies like Iran and Romania under communist rule. In each of those societies, I met people who had no desire to come to the U.S. An Iranian woman I once interviewed lives a very precarious existence and was once almost beaten to death by her former husband because she went out of the house without informing him. Impoverished since her divorce, she has begun working with a local group of women to discuss the violence they are subjected to from brothers, uncles, husbands and sons. I once asked her privately if she had any desire to leave Iran. She vehemently shook her head. "Where would I go? To the United States?" She dismissed that with a wave of the hand. "This is my country, this is where I belong." She did not find anything about the U.S. particularly desirable.

In all my travels, with almost no exception, the most profound commonality among the people I have met has been the deep connection to family and place. Americans are known for being the most transient and mobile of the world's populations. Throughout the 20th century, Americans have lost what used to be a profound sense of connection to community and family. I am often astonished when I meet people in this country who do not communicate with family members for years and become even more astounded when I discover that there has been no particular conflict to have caused this rift. They simply have lost touch. But throughout the world, such connections are an essential part of people's identities. Especially in areas where life is so hard. I have visited Cuba four times and have seen how deeply the people there are attached to their families and their children. There is a saying in Cuba: "In Cuba, children are kings!" Cuba is the only third world society I have ever seen where so much effort is directed toward children. My native country, Brazil, is one in which you become accustomed to seeing clusters of dirty street children sniffing glue, begging for money and food, running from police and stealing from vendors.

When you travel extensively throughout the third world as I have, and then step off a plane in Cuba, it is an experience that leaves you speechless. Vainly, I search for street children, filthy dirt roads, neighborhoods without sewage, and the smells of open garbage dumps where the poor live. It's a futile search. In the early 90s, when Cuba lost its Soviet sponsor, times were especially difficult for Cubans, but not so for the children. Adults often went hungry, but not their children. Adults were rarely able to purchase milk for themselves. Instead, all available milk was given to children. All resources were diverted to the priorities of children. Seventy percent of Cuba's budget is devoted to education, housing and medical care. Cuba is the only government in the world that guarantees milk to every child until the age of 7. In better times, that age is raised to 14. No other communist regime has ever implemented such a policy as rigorously as Cuba has.

During my visits to Cuba, I met many people who wanted to leave. Many of them despised the Castro regime because of the economic difficulties in their lives. Most of them were not especially political. They simply wanted to take advantage of the affluent American economy and make a better life for themselves in the U.S. Yet many, upon arriving in the U.S., find it difficult to adjust to the reality of paying for their health and housing needs. A few do return, but most choose to stay. I also met plenty of Cubans who did not want to leave. One young man I met said point blank "I want to go to one of the National Arts Schools and learn dance. I can do that for free in Cuba. And my family is here. Everyone I love is here." He then waved his hand across the oceanfront where we were standing. "Look at how beautiful it is here! Why should I leave? I don't need to be rich."

The CIA estimates that, of the 11 million people on the island, 1-3 million would like to leave, while 8-10 million freely choose to stay. The reasons? A refusal to part with their families, fear of change and of the political and physical dangers involved. And a genuine love of and loyalty to their homeland. For the Miami Cubans (who often condemn Cubans on the island for not leaving) and their supporters, this is a concept that simply cannot be registered on their ideological meter.
A colleague of mine went to Cuba in January and was stunned by how the Elian Gonzalez case had energized so many people, even among the young, whom Castro has failed to reach for years. Cubans felt deeply insulted by the implication in the U.S. that they were unfit parents because of where they lived. This included dissidents like Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba's best-known opponent of the Castro regime. Sanchez expressed great dismay that the Miami Cubans had handed Fidel such a great propaganda victory by offending every Cuban on the island.

As to Juan Miguel Gonzalez, he arrived in this country to retrieve his first-born son on April 6. He left with his wife and two sons on June 28. Throughout his entire stay here, and especially before his son was returned to him on April 22, Gonzalez watched U.S. television every day and night, both on the Spanish and English-language channels. In particular, he watched whenever the cameras were trained on his son playing in the yard of his Miami relatives. On a daily basis, he would see a huge crowd of strangers making passionate statements about his son, calling the boy a "little Jesus," and hurling threats at any attempt to return his son to him, including the oft-repeated and ominous "We're ready for another Waco!" Below is a very brief and incomplete list of events that took place in these United States during the time he was here and watched television. These events were widely disseminated on TV news, including the Spanish-language channels.

* The first anniversary of the Columbine shootings. Television news covered this story for days. Note that this story was widely disseminated on TV and newspapers during Gonzalez's very first week in the U.S. Interviews with parents and footage of the children and teachers fleeing from the school building were replayed over and over again.
* A teenager went on a shooting spree at the National Zoo, injuring 6 children and killing one.
* A teenager in Florida killed his high school teacher.
* A group of young men in Central Park attacked and sexually assaulted over 50 women.
* Two men went on a shooting spree at a Wendy's fast-food restaurant in Queens, New York, killing 5 people.

The above events occurred in the space of a little over two months. And this is by no means an exhaustive list of similar incidents of violence occurring while Gonzalez was here. The rational (and correct) argument is that this is not a fair representation of American society and that Juan Miguel got a very truncated view of the United States while he was here. But perhaps the above can illustrate how unfair such limited and selective images of one society can distort one's views of a foreign country. It's a particularly resonant concept for immigrants living in the United States. They are so often forced to confront distorted views of their native homelands from Americans whose only exposure to those societies is from such limited television images.

The images Gonzalez saw on U.S. television while he was here reinforced all his notions about American society that he had learned about in Cuba. Many commentators noted how Gonzalez did not make himself available to the press for statements and interviews. Perhaps one of the reasons that he kept himself scarce was that he did not want to speak too much about his feelings about the United States for fear of giving offense to his hosts, and to so many Americans who supported him.
When Dan Rather interviewed Gonzalez on 60 Minutes, Juan Miguel vehemently declared that he loves his country. When Rather asked him why he would not consider living in the land of the free, he explained that in Cuba, he can go to work without worrying about any possible violence in his son's school. He explained that he could walk on the beach at night without worrying about being assaulted. He explained that he does not have to pay for medical care or education costs in Cuba. That is how he defined freedom
In one of my advanced English classes, I assigned my students the task of watching the 60 Minutes interview with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The students had little trouble understanding his point of view. While some of them disagreed with his choice--some quite vehemently--they had no trouble understanding the concept of someone preferring to live in his own homeland, no matter how difficult life might be there. And they were deeply offended by the suggestion that people in poor, undemocratic countries were unfit parents. Some took this personally. One Chinese woman came close to shouting in class, struggling through her English, arguing that just because her parents lived under a communist dictatorship, and chose to remain there when they had the chance to leave, didn't indicate they were bad parents. And Gonzalez's reference to violence in American society resonated deeply with them. "I wouldn't want to live in Cuba," one of my students said. He was a man in his 50s from Turkey, an engineer finding it difficult to adjust to life here. "But I understand why he decided not to live here."
I then asked them rhetorically "What sort of person would turn down $2 million, a home and a guaranteed job in this rich and free nation? Doesn't the whole world want to live here? Surely Juan Miguel Gonzalez was coerced. Either that, or he is so deeply brainwashed that he just doesn't know what he's missing." I got a lot of indignant responses. They were appalled at how easily Americans equated freedom with toys, money and Disney World. One Korean woman in my class asked, "Is that all that freedom means here?" A young man from Iran said "That boy didn't have freedom in Miami. He had a lot of toys, but how was he free?"

As someone who has grown up in a country whose dominant ideology declares that this is the only country worth living in, and that looks down on other societies for not being "as good" as we are, I appreciated watching a foreigner declare on American national television that he preferred his own society to this one -- especially a society that American ideology insists is never to be taken as a viable choice for anyone.

But what I found even more satisfying was watching the majority of the American public ultimately accept and understand Gonzalez's choice. Many did not. Yet a large majority did not find his choice too difficult to grasp. I do not believe this would have been the case if we were in the 1950s, when the absolute superiority of American society was unquestioned. I think the American public in the year 2000, including the most patriotic of them, have some very mixed feelings about their own society. In the end, Gonzalez himself seemed to have softened his views of Americans. His last statement to the press was a gracious one in which he described how he had met many "beautiful and brilliant" people here. He even told the student exchange group whose Washington house his family lived in that he would welcome the chance to send Elian to the U.S. on an exchange program when the boy was older.
Hopefully by then, more Americans will have become better acquainted with the unassuming dignity and sincere patriotism of Cubans like Juan Miguel Gonzalez, rather than the unbridled arrogance and hysteria of the Miami Cuban exile community.

* I will not waste time discussing whether or not Juan Miguel Gonzalez was "coerced," as the right-wing in this country assured us he was, with no credible evidence. Just as they assured us that Elian's mother, Elizabeth Brotons, fled Cuba seeking "freedom" -- an assumption for which they had no proof. In fact, there is ample proof that Elian's mother came here for much simpler, apolitical reasons -- to be with the man she loved who, in turn, like most Cubans, came here for economic reasons.

As for Juan Miguel himself, as Tim Golden of the NY Times and other journalists have documented, over the years, he has consistently declined to come to the U.S. when urged by the Miami branch of his family to do so. He and his father have always insisted on remaining in Cuba. Juan Miguel's father, a retired police officer, has remained loyal to the Castro regime while his siblings have rejected it and emigrated to Miami. Over a year ago, Juan Miguel dissuaded his younger brother from applying for a visa to join the Miami branch of the family.

While he was here in the U.S., not only did Juan Miguel meet privately with Janet Reno at least twice, he also met privately with INS commissioner Doris Meissner at least once. Gonzalez met privately with many U.S. politicians and other Americans. He and his wife had a private dinner with Republican congressman Steve Largent from Oklahoma without any Cuban diplomats around. On the night before the INS agents took his son, Elian, from the home of the Miami relatives, he, his wife and infant son were having a private dinner with (among others) CNN correspondent Bill Press. Again, there were no Cuban diplomats around. Juan Miguel, his wife and infant son spent 3-4 hours with Dan Rather for an interview for 60 minutes. There were no Cuban diplomats present anywhere in the building. Gonzalez had plenty of opportunities to defect if he so wished. Indeed, he could have come to the U.S. years ago to join his Miami relatives. He has always preferred to stay in Cuba.

© Sandra H. Necchi - writer, teacher in New York


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