Vol. 3, No. 2
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing
Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage
What Really Happened in Uganda?
A Religious Right Arrives in Canada
Feeble Opinions On the House Chaplaincy
A Cardinal in Full
Mormon Women in the Real World
Peanuts for Christ
by Thomas Hambrick-Stowe
From the beginning, the saga of Elian Gonzalez was about
politicsof the Cuban community in South Florida, of Cuba itself, and of a U.S.
presidential election year. But the politics were not only secular. For many
Cuban-Americans, Elians cause was religious. Forty-eight hours after the boy was
plucked from the sea on Thanksgiving Day, Spanish radio stations in Miami began to receive
calls attributing his survival to angelically directed dolphins.
In the tidal wave of media coverage, the religious dimension of the story received
ample and notably respectful attention. But journalists did not begin to catch on until
January 10, when the Miami Heralds Eunice Ponce reported a "mythological
fervor that has the boy cast as some sort of Cuban Messiah."
In an article reprinted in the Houston Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star
Tribune, and the Detroit News, Ponce called attention to the title of an Elian
cover story in a Cuban exile magazine"A Cuban Moses." Like Moses, Elian
was found in the water after being abandoned by his mother with the hope that he would
have a better life. And just as Moses led the Israelites back to the promised land, so
Elian would lead the exile people back to a free Cuba.
Drawing on more specifically Catholic religious symbolism, exiles also associated the
rescue of Elian with the story of a Cuban boy who was miraculously saved from the sea 400
years ago by Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba. Writing in the
January 22 Washington Post, Hanna Rosin cited a widespread belief in the
Cuban-American community that Elian had reached out his hand "to an angel floating
above him, described as Our Lady of Charity, soother of panicked seamen."
A month later, the Miami Heralds Meg Laughlin reported that others
"compared Elian to baby Jesus himself, saying that his arrival just weeks before
Christmas and the year 2000 made him a symbol of hope, like Jesus." Noting that
mothers had taken to holding their sick children up to the fence of the garden where Elian
played to be healed by him, University of Alabama English professor Diane Roberts wrote in
an April 22 London Times column that the boy "has become the Messiah
Nor was Elians religious significance only understood in Christian terms.
Devotees of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria also made a place for him in their
Interviewed by Peter Gelzinis of the Boston Herald, Santeria adherent Mary
Rodriguez identified Elian as "the son of Eleggua"the orisha or saint of
opening and closing roads. For that reason, both Mary and her husband Eddie, a Santeria
priest or babalao, "got out the drums and the incense, they lit candles and made
sacrifices of lollipops and Tootsie Rolls, they danced and chanted and drenched themselves
in their own sweat and spilled sacred water on the floor" to appease the gods and
make sure the boy would stay in the U.S.
Santeria, which means "the way of the saints," associates its orishas with
specific Catholic saints. For example, Babaluaye, the orisha of illness and healing, is
linked to Lazarus. The equivalent of Our Lady of Charity is "Ochun, half virgin and
half whore...who shares dominion over the waters," as exile writer Guillermo Cabrera
Infante put it in an April 17 Miami Herald op-ed.
The joined forces of Roman Catholic and Santeria imagery can best be seen in a Miami
folk mural depicting Elians miraculous rescue. In an AP photo published in the
Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer Journal, the mural shows Elian floating on the sea in
his inner tube with Our Lady of Charity (Ochun) and Eleggua in the tube with him. Three
dolphins circle around, while overhead preside the hands of God and a tiny Virgin and
Child. The scene is framed by large scales of justice in which repose the head of Pope
John Paul II on one side and that of President Clinton on the other. In the background
hover two shadowy images of Fidel Castro, a grim-faced Statue of Liberty, Jesus himself,
and an archangel holding another scale.
Why was Castro so eager to get Elian back? Several theories were offered. According to
Cabrera Infante, "Elian is a divine Elleggua...if the boy remains in Miami, Mr.
Castro will fall from power." Babalao Victor Betancourt told the New York Times
that Elian "symbolizes the child who, in the santero oracle for the year 2000,
conquered death when he discovered that the representative of evil owed his power to the
suit he always wore. Therefore, whoever possesses Elian possesses good protection against
sickness and death. He is the chosen one, Im sure about that."
Novelist Francisco Goldman declared in an April 30 Los Angeles Times op-ed,
"[F]rom Cuba came the revelation...that if the boy didnt return to Cuba, Castro
would lose the spiritual aura that protects him from death." Another "old story
in Little Havana," reported Jane Wells in CNBCs Upfront Tonight, "is that
Castro was told by a Santero priest years ago his downfall would come from a child saved
by angels of the sea."
Syndicated columnist Georgia Anne Geyer saw the Santeria angle more in terms of
domestic Cuban religious politics. "Castro is looking at the case as a test of his
standing with the priests, the Babalao, of Santeria," she wrote in a March 11 column.
"If he is unable to regain control of this essentially magical child, Castro
believes, that would be a notable bad sign and could even turn the Babalao against
Geyer explained that the Babalao switched their loyalty from Cuban dictator Fulgencio
Batista to Castro just before Castros triumphant march into Havana in 1959. But 30
years later, the Babalao were horrified at his execution of one of his intelligence
chiefs, who happened to be a twin. "Santeria teaches that you must never separate
To sure, not everyone acquiesced in Elians divine status. "People have tried
to impose symbolism on Elian that is simply unwarranted," Santeria expert Natalia
Bolivar told the New York Times. While Monsignor Agustin A. Roman, the auxiliary
bishop of Miami, called the boys survival "quite extraordinary," Catholic
leaders characteristically declined to pronounce it a miracle.
Moses, Jesus, or orisha, miraculous rescuee or just a lucky kid, Elians
theological identity may have been murky but his political function was clear. For 40
years, Cuban exiles had been latching on to signs that Castro would fall. For them, Elian
was the latest. "That faith has always been open to miracle stories," wrote the Washington
Posts Rosin. "About 15 years ago, for example, a rumor spread in Miami that
[Our Lady of Charity] had been seen in Havana and the local community took it as a
prophetic sign that things were about to change."
Some journalists used the storys religious angle to take pokes at elected
officials. "I, too, think Elian was saved for a purpose, although it is not a
religious one," wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. "It is to
make fools of politicians." When House Majority whip Tom DeLay called Elian "a
blessed child" on Larry King Live, the Star Tribune editorialized: "And
it came to pass that Tom DeLay the Righteous appeared to Larry the King in a dream. And
Larry said unto him, What doest thou make of the boy, Elian, snatched up by agents of the
Emperor, Bill? And DeLay the Righteous said unto Larry, This is a blessed child. Two days
he was in the waters and the great fishes bothered him not. Neither did they devour him.
Nor did the hot sun blister him."
Indeed, the entire story struck the Posts Gene Weingarten as a kind of
religious carnival. In a 6,500-word article published April 7, Weingarten wrote, "In
Havana the little boys grade school desk is turned into a national shrine. In Miami,
he is proclaimed a baby Jesus. Then comes the trip to Disney World. The indignant visit by
the grandmothers. A car chase to the airport. Charges from Miami that grandma is a
pervert. Charges from Havana that Great-Uncle Lazaro is a pervert. Charges and
countercharges of brainwashing. Bomb squads detonating suspicious packages that turn out
to be bars of soap. A human chain-link fence around the boys house. Multiple
appearances of the Virgin Mary."
Weingarten also told how, according to Cuban beliefs, Elleggua had "taken up
residence in the body of Elian," Castro had "thrown coconuts," consulted
snail shells, and sacrificed monkeys and goats and bulls and sheep. "It may seem
far-fetched, but this fear is out there in the Cuban community....Things are getting crazy
Maybe too crazy. After Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents took Elian
away from his Miami relatives April 22, Palm Beach Post religion writer Douglas
Delkin asked, "If the boy was anointed by God...how could he have been so abruptly
and easily taken away?" And on May 25, Alfonso Chardy of the Miami Herald
reported that a doctor who examined Elian shortly after his rescue "told immigration
authorities the boy probably had been in the water less then 24 hours."
Yet even when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request that
the INS grant Elian an asylum hearing June 1, many Cuban-Americans kept the faith. As a
Cuban homemaker told the AP, "It is not over yetGod is with us."
And after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case and Elian
accompanied his father back to Cuba, one man showed up outside the house in Little Havana
carrying a cross with an Elian-sized doll attached and a sign in Spanish that read:
"Clinton, Reno crucified Elian." Said Elians great uncle Delphin Gonzalez,
"He came to complete a mission here, and now hes going to complete it over