Elian Gonzalez lost his mother at age six when the small boat they took to flee communist Cuba sank near Miami, leaving him at the mercy of nature and politics. Today we can see how being raised by his father under Fidel Castro’s regime shaped his worldview.
While much is being made over Elian’s anti-American statements blaming US policy for his mother’s death, I want to focus on the words he allegedly learned from the man who came to see him on every one of his birthdays – father of his nation – Fidel Castro.
"I always remember what he told me: That I was already somebody, that the whole world knew who I was, and now what I had to do was be good at something, that's what he asked of me," Gonzalez said of Castro, according to a state run media interview.
He adds, "He never cared which path I took ... the intention was that I be good at whatever I did."
Whether Castro actually said this or the young man, who was raised by his father and military schools in Cuba, is parroting a state-generated media spin is hard to know.
However, the advice is sound and resonant. It’s good parenting even if that parent is the state.
We know for certain that the path Elian took was harrowing.
Back in 2000 the riveting tale of the boy who lived was everywhere. Then the story became a political issue, as his father, back in Cuba, demanded his return from the Miami relatives who had taken him in.
The Miami relatives argued that the parents were divorced and the boy’s mother had died to bring him to freedom in the US.
In the end President Clinton ordered the boy returned to his father. When the relatives refused, the world watched in horror as federal agents raided the Miami home, taking the child by force.
For my family this story was riveting because I was pregnant with son number three, had a six-year-old son of my own in my arms, and a five-year-old son beside him.
We had just moved to New Jersey after spending five years aboard a sailboat in southwest Florida. Politics aside, I sided with the Miami relatives, my husband with the father.
Gonzalez, now 20, is in Ecuador this week as part of a 200-member delegation to the 23rd World Festival of Youth and Students.
He attended a military academy and is now studying industrial engineering at University of Matanzas “Camilo Cienfuegos,” according to CBS.
However, what Gonzalez is now “good at” today is the same thing he was great at in 2000, igniting debate and focusing attention on the Cuban state and our policies toward it.
Little Elian may have been pulled from the water all those years ago but he is, by his very existence, a fire starter.
In 2000 my heart ached for his dead mother and how her sacrifice had apparently been for nothing.
However, seeing this quiet, shy, yet strong-willed young man take the media lens – like a boy might hold a magnifying glass over an ant in the sun – and burn himself back into our memories would make any mother proud.
In Peru, Gonzalez boldly said of his mother, "Just like her, many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it's the U.S. government's fault. Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba," according to CNN.
That statement says more than meets the eye.
It tells me that while we may want an easier, safer, freer path for our children, the more difficult way is often what makes rather than breaks them.
Elian’s mother and Castro had a lot in common. Neither knew that the boy they were protecting would become such a politically ambiguous and powerful symbol of freedom.
We must have faith that our children will be carried by life to the shores where they can be free to find their purpose.