MIAMI — Most polls leave room for the "don't know" category, but here in Florida's Dade County the case of Elian Gonzalez's future has turned even Miami's fifth-graders into polemicists.
Here, where 16 pages of the phone book are filled with the name Gonzalez, now nine-year-olds are grappling with arguments, pro and con, over returning young Elian to the island his mother fled.
From the platinum neighborhoods of Biscayne Bay to Little Havana, the subject has become more popular than Pokmon. Children of all ethnicities and backgrounds are discussing it in class and on the playground. What they say reflects not only innocence, but also an Art Linkletter frankness about culture and an awareness of Miami's role as an American melting pot.
"It's his choice, his life, and here in America we're for free will. Yeah!" yells Sheena Stocker, 9, while walking to school, almost swallowed in her hulking backpack.
This week, Cuban President Fidel Castro increased pressure on the US to return Elian to his father in Cuba. But for many youths in Miami's tonier suburbs, like Sheena, the decision is one that should be left to Elian, and Elian alone.
"I think he should stay here, unless he wants to go back to his father," says Sheena, striding down the palm-lined streets of south Miami Beach in pedal-pusher pants and tennis shoes. "Maybe they could allow him to visit his father. I don't know if Cuba would let him, but if his aunts and uncles turn out to be really nice, as I said, let him stay for a while and decide."
She says she doesn't know any Cuban kids: "I mostly know Portuguese kids, or kids from Guatemala. I've heard my mom say a couple of bad things about Cuba - never anything nice about it. Except for maybe the houses, 'cause she likes old furniture, but that's beside the point."
Like Sheena, many elementary and middle-school students here say they're interested in following Elian's story.
"I think about him most of these days," says 11-year-old Julian, who is enrolled in private school on one of Miami Beach's island communities.
"I think it's kind of a miracle, the boat sinking, those people all died, and the little boy six years old survived. He was surrounded by dolphins when they found him, I heard. I'm not sure how long he was out there; I'm not allowed to watch TV on weekdays."
Might Elian be swayed by all the toys and affection lavished on him by Miami relatives? Julian thought for a moment. "By going to Disney, he will get the idea it's fun here, and that these people care about him. I'm still not positive if he should go back or not; I have reasons for both. It should be partly the law that decides, but they should listen to his side of the story," he says. "Disneyland might make him happier for a little while but wouldn't count in making a humongous decision."
For Tyler Wuerfel, who goes to school with Julian and is also 11, the trip to Disneyland served another purpose. "I think they took him to Disneyland to reward him a little, to keep him from thinking about his mom."
Old enough to decide
As for six-year-old Elian being old enough to make his own decisions, Sarahi Garcia scoffs away any doubts. "He's big now!"
Sarahi, whose mother is from Honduras, says she learned about Elian from television. "I don't see the news that much. I have a lot of homework."
But the 10-year-old knows enough to say Elian will have to make a wrenching decision. "I don't know much about Cuba," she says. "It'll be hard if he misses things over there, his grandmas."
"I think they sent him to Disneyland 'cause he may have to leave, so he'd go back and remember Miami, all the good things," she says. "But people are more important, and he should be the only one to decide."
That any child would decide to return to Cuba seems preposterous to recent emigres from Cuba like Eric Bravo. "The law should decide, but the law should say he stays here," insists the 10-year-old.
Eric attends a "normal middle school," understands English but does not yet speak. He came over from Cuba a year and a half ago with both parents. "Here he can study. You don't learn in Cuba. There's no food. Here he can become a director, a lawyer. And there's fun here."
In an unsolicited testimonial that would make Disney CEO Michael Eisner blush, Eric talks about when he went to Orlando's main attraction. "I went there, I saw them: Pluto, Mickey Mouse, es un otro mundo [it's another world]. It's not that those things are more important than his father, but here there's a future."
Eric pauses in the phone conversation, there's some whispering in the background before he resumes his arguments. "He should get a visa for his father to come here. I know Elian's father wants him in Cuba. I hear the father is a Communist. It said so on Canal 23 [a Spanish-language cable television station]."
Alberto Carmenates says his family, which arrive from Cuba recently, is still traumatized by economic persecution on Cuba.
"At home, we talk a lot about that stuff," the 14-year-old says wearily. "At school with my friends, we never talk about that stuff because they wouldn't want to hurt me and can barely believe what I know to be true. I left Cuba when I was 9. Friends at school can't believe when I tell them I was followed by police after school at that age. Because my mother was already here, sending us money, I could stay healthy over there. But we were spied on, my sister in the university also. So I know Elian's father is absolutely terrified to speak his mind. They could kill him, or put him away."
Alberto's premonitions of Elian's future are somewhat fatalistic. "Deep inside he knows he's going back, he's trying to enjoy every single moment. Castro is going to exploit the fact that the dad is the only legal guardian. If Elian goes back, he'll be happy to see his dad, and I bet Castro will give him a little house or something. Once he grows up, he'll be really mad at Castro, and realize he used him."
Another recent Cuban exile, 13-year-old Linnet Blandy, agrees that America would be better for Elian. "Many kids come here without parents. At first they feel bad, but after two years, it passes. They are seeing how it's better for them," says Linnet, who came to the US five years ago with her mother. "If they send him back, we will all be very badly affected down here."
To Isabella Glaser, 11, and Katrina Ciraldo, 13, all the media coverage was a bit irksome.
"It's stupid for this to go public. It should be between Elian and his dad," says Isabella, who attends a private international school first heard of Elian in social studies class. "It made me think, here we go again. There's always news of someone trying to float to Florida. We talk about Cuba way too much, Cuban kids are fed up with it too."
Young view of media
Katrina, who is not Cuban either, notes that "reporters who are Cuban tell it in entirely a different way than American newscasters. Americans don't fully understand, they have less history and background. They kind of say, 'OK, next story.' So their news is more realistic. Cuban American newscasters here add comments, which make you think it's so sad."
Katrina, who attends a Catholic school in Coconut Grove, has observed quite differing opinions among Cuban students there - and has strong views herself. "If I were him I'd want to stay here. Now he's been exposed to malls, being able to go to church, they're showing him what he's been deprived of."
'I think it's stupid for this to go public. It should be between Elian and his dad.' - Isabella Glaser, 11, north Miami Beach
'The law should decide, but the law should say he stays here.' - Eric Bravo, 10, South Miami
'It's his choice, his life, and here in America we're for free will. Yeah!' - Sheena Stocker, 9, south Miami Beach
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society