April 28, 2000

Elian — The First Cause That Could Unify Hispanics

By Richard Rodriguez

Before Elian Gonzalez floated into our lives, many U.S. Hispanics couldn't stand Cuban Americans. Many non-Hispanic Americans, on the other hand, admired Cuban Americans.

Cuban Americans constitute only a tiny percentage of the total U.S. Hispanic population. But Cuban Americans have, for decades, worn the least complicated face of "the Hispanic." And for good reason: they are among the richest, the best-educated, and (bottled or not) the blondest among us.

It was Richard Nixon's administration in 1973 that gathered the various nationalities of Latin America in this country and labeled us all "Hispanic." Thus did the Guatemalan Indian and the Italian-surnamed Argentine and the black Dominican and mulatto Puerto Rican and the mestizo Chicano find themselves grouped with Cuban Americans.

The population I know best, Mexican Americans (who number nearly 70 percent of the total U.S. Hispanic population) are different from Cuban Americans in an obvious way. We had an ambivalent relationship to America; they never did. "We" never liked "them." Or so I've heard. They are pushy, racist, arrogant, vocal. And we hated their accent.

There was jealousy at play, in some of this. For example, Mexican Los Angeles, by virtue of numbers, should be the true Hispanic capitol of the United States. But the exodus from Castro's Cuba was largely upper-middle class and professional. Thus, by virtue of Cuban-American dollars and know-how and connection, Miami because the gaudy and glamorous Latin American hub of Los Estados Unidos.

But there was more than jealousy involved in this story. Until Elian, Cuban Americans, alone among Hispanics, never portrayed themselves as "minorities" or "victims" in the United States. Just the reverse: Cubans described America as rescuing them from victimization.

It's not enough to observe that Cuban Americans in the majority tend to be Republican. It's more important to observe that, unlike Puerto Rican or Chicano grievance, the Cuban-American hymn to America celebrated the freedom this country gave them, not any restriction.

For this reason, Cuban Americans have probably done more than any other group to reconcile non-Hispanics to U.S. proximity to Latin America. Ironically, Cuban Americans have thus made us all less afraid of Castro's Cuba.

Elian is changing everything. For weeks, the national media portrayed the story of Elian as the story of a Cuban neighborhood's stubborn resistance to the national will, as described by the law and polls.

On the other hand, in recent days, Puerto Rican and Dominican flags began joining the parades through Little Havana. And in the cyclone fence in front of the house of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, someone planted the flags of Brazil and Mexico.

Democratic congressmen and editorial writers and psychiatrists advised the federal-istas to get on with it as Janet Reno tried to play a reverse Statue of Liberty (Shoo, little boy) while officials from the World Council of Churches babysat Elian's father. Then came last weekend's climactic raid by federal agents who seized Elian at gunpoint from the fisherman who rescued him and flew him to Washington.

All this is exactly what many U.S. Hispanics — from Colombians in Hartford to Salvadorans in Seattle — have been seeing. We have been watching a tiny population of Cuban Americans go up against a vast opposition. For the first time, we have been seeing Cuban Americans as minorities.

From the 19th century gringo romance, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a kid on the raft, who runs away from home, turns into a national hero. (Americans never wanted to see Huck returned to his Pap!)

In today's Hispanic romance, a neighborhood of Cuban-American immigrants, standing up to poll numbers and politicians, assumes heroic cast.

My suspicion is that, whether Elian stays in the U.S. or returns to Cuba, Cuban Americans are coming to see themselves in a more adversarial way toward America. The assurance or arrogance that had always separated them from other Hispanics is diminishing.

Hispanics could end up being unified by the Elian story, even at a time it is clear that most Americans are no longer afraid of Latin America. Indeed, even some Republicans probably think the kid would be raised better in communist Latin America than in Cuban-American Miami.

Richard Rodriguez is author of "Hunger of Memory" and "Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father."

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