Shipwrecked on Dry Land





By Gabriel García Márquez
March 29, 2000 New York Times Op-ed
On Friday, when Juan Miguel González went to school to pick up his son Elián for the weekend, he was told that Elizabet Brotons, his ex-wife and the boy's mother, had taken Elián 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 Cárdenas: Elián'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: Elián, 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 González, 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 Cárdenas -- where all the protagonists in this drama were born, and where they lived -- until she fell in love with Lázaro 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 Elián 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 Lázaro 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. Lázaro'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 Fernández, 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. Cárdenas 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 Elián 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 Cárdenas, 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; Elián, and perhaps his mother, held onto the other. Nobody knows what happened to the third. Elián 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 -- Lázaro González 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 Elián, 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 Elián's medical history. Juan Miguel learned to his great joy that Elián himself had given his father's name in the hospital, and his phone number and address in Cárdenas.

The next day Juan Miguel talked to Elián. Troubled, but in a steady voice, Elián 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 Elián 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 Rodríguez and Marcela Quintant, Elián'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 Elián. 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 Elián'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 Elián did not take place on the high seas, but when he set foot on American soil.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel laureate in literature, is the author, most recently, of "News of a Kidnapping." Edith Grossman translated this article from the Spanish.

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