Summer 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing Football

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

Go Down, Elian

by Thomas Hambrick-Stowe

Elian .gif (278471 bytes)From the beginning, the saga of Elian Gonzalez was about politics—of 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, Elian’s 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 Herald’s 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 Herald’s 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 personified."

Nor was Elian’s religious significance only understood in Christian terms. Devotees of the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria also made a place for him in their distinctive pantheon.

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 Elian’s 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, I’m 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 didn’t return to Cuba, Castro would lose the spiritual aura that protects him from death." Another "old story in Little Havana," reported Jane Wells in CNBC’s 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 him."

Geyer explained that the Babalao switched their loyalty from Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista to Castro just before Castro’s 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 twins."

To sure, not everyone acquiesced in Elian’s 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 boy’s survival "quite extraordinary," Catholic leaders characteristically declined to pronounce it a miracle.

Moses, Jesus, or orisha, miraculous rescuee or just a lucky kid, Elian’s 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 Post’s 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 story’s 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 Post’s Gene Weingarten as a kind of religious carnival. In a 6,500-word article published April 7, Weingarten wrote, "In Havana the little boy’s 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 boy’s 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 here."

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 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 yet—God 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 Elian’s great uncle Delphin Gonzalez, "He came to complete a mission here, and now he’s going to complete it over there."