Elián's choice

St. Elian: This mural in Miami, near Elian's home, virtually deifies the boy. It includes images of angels, Jesus, the Pope, the Statue of Liberty, and, somewhat improbably, President Clinton.

By now, it hardly matters whether Elián Gonzalez wants to return to Cuba. The law has spoken. He's going back.

But well before Attorney General Janet Reno upheld the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruling, everyone -- from politicians to pundits to people on the street -- knew, it seemed, what would best serve this child at the center of a most nasty, publicly waged custody battle.

Amid all the heated words ricocheting between Cuba and Miami, hardly anyone seemed to hold much stock in little Elián's view of where he should stay. Or, at least not enough for his wishes to serve as the final arbiter of his destiny.

Somehow, I thought, if Elián were given time away from the glare of the cameras and the opposing political forces in Havana and Miami trying to snatch his soul, he would be able to decide what's best for his future. His family and the world owe him that much.

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I know there are those who would dismiss that assertion as preposterous, claiming a 6-year-old doesn't have the mental ability to make such decisions. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters said as much herself -- unflinchingly, arrogantly -- proclaiming on CNN, "This business about Elián deciding what to do can't possibly be taken seriously."

But I know she's wrong. She's as wrong as she can be.

Maybe Rep. Waters doesn't have much faith in a child's ability to choose where he is most comfortable living, but I do. I've felt that way for a long time, because when I was 6, my father abducted my sister and me and took us to his native India, to the village of his birth in Rajasthan, a state in the northwest part of the country. Shri Amar Pura, as the rural expanse was called, was a far cry from my home in Richmond, Virginia. There, the small, box-shaped houses made of cow dung and straw served as home to his family, and my sister and I often divided our time between our aunt and grandmother there. We didn't speak a word of Hindi at first, but my grandmother tried her best to make us happy, often cupping her hands before her mouth as the only way she knew to ask whether we were hungry.

Despite her best efforts, I knew in my gut that I didn't want to be there. I didn't need anyone to convince me one way or the other. The overwhelming answer came from within. I was sick of the lice scurrying, eating at my scalp. Sick of the bug-infested blankets. Sick of using a tree branch to clean my teeth. Sick of crouching at the edge of the fields when I needed to go to the bathroom. Sick of seeing stray, black dogs eating people's excrement. I longed for America and its comforts.

When, after a year, my father moved us to a small university town in Rajasthan called Pilani, where he taught, he enrolled my sister and me in a local school. There, we learned to read and write Hindi, which we had already begun to speak and understand through our time in the village. But my sense of loss and alienation only grew. At the school, beatings were routine. Rulers across the knuckles. Heads bashed against walls. I missed home. I missed my mother. And after school, I often stared out the window of our apartment, imagining, praying, hoping that I would see her image appear, walking down the street.

Maybe Elián realizes the same thing that I did when I went abroad for the first time at 6 -- that America offers unparalleled freedoms, or, at a 6-year-old's level of understanding, that it just feels more comfortable. Sure, rural India may be worse than Cuba, but neither is a paradise. Cuba's medical system is in decay; its educational system is running short of chalk and pencils. And with a dictator at the helm, thousands risk and often lose their lives to reach the U.S. mainland on jerry-built crafts. Elián's mother was one of them.

Given that fact, I'm surprised that the many privileged Americans most vehement in their resolve to send the boy back to Cuba are so incurious about the conditions to which he'll return. Is it such a stretch of the imagination to assume that he might be one of the thousands, millions of emigrants who think this country will offer a better alternative to the life they left behind?

It's a question the press seldom considers, focusing more on how this child has stirred the passions not just of Cubans here and abroad, but of other Americans such as myself who haven't the slightest ties to Castro's country.

I write now of Elián not because I have deep-seated feelings for Cuba. Or even because I wish to express my outrage that he is being sent back to a Communist land. I write of him because from the moment I saw his story unfold before the eyes of a gawking public, I couldn't help but remember what my life was like when I was 6. It was then, on Thanksgiving eve of 1982, that my father kidnapped my sister and me. It would take some two years for my mother to get us back.  

Now, nearly 20 years later, on another stage, in a different setting, is another 6-year-old whose rescue on Thanksgiving Day has ushered in a contentious custody battle.

And as I look at the TV images of people marching through the streets of Cuba with his picture emblazoned on their T-shirts, as I read of people in Miami, including his own relatives, who have virtually deified the boy, I wonder. I wonder whether his own voice will ever rise high enough to overpower those who speak, even shout, his name on behalf of their respective, self-serving causes.

Before anyone knew Elián's name, he was just another child of a broken home, a child whose parents had agreed to share custody. Then, one day, his mother broke that agreement, and with her boy and 12 others, she boarded a small, ramshackle boat headed for Miami. The vessel's flimsy motor proved insufficient for the trip and, along the way, she and 10 other people died at sea.

In the midst of such horrifying loss, a boy nearing his sixth birthday became a survivor when, after 50 hours of drifting at sea, he was found lying in shock across an inner tube. He had survived shark-infested waters and sunburn and the sickening motion of the waves. But on land, another tug-of-war would soon unfold.

And as I joined the millions who watched this international story deepen, I tried to remember once again what it is like to be 6, to be at that age when you're wholly dependent on and trusting of adults, of your own parents.

I was that way once. I loved my father. He had a temper, sure. The years haven't erased my memory of those terrifying moments when he would hit my mother. On some level, I'm still loyal to him, though. Most children never stop longing for a parent's love, even when they're perceptive enough to know that that parent isn't worthy of it.

Before he was my father, Ram Singh had come to America from the small village in Rajasthan. As with many other Indians, he came here to pursue an education, in his case a doctorate in computer science. Along the way to getting his degree, he met my mother, a librarian at Florida State University. Like him, she was an immigrant. She had come to America as a child -- a survivor, along with her parents, of the Nazi persecution of Jews. In him, she saw not only a man of accomplishment who had received a master's degree by the age of 20, but also someone who felt a deep connection to his large family back home. For someone such as my mother, who had lost most of her relatives at Auschwitz, that loyalty to kin seemed to mesh with her own Jewish tradition, which values family above anything else. More than a year after meeting, they married. Then, in 1974, my sister was born. I followed two years later.

But by then, the marriage had floundered. Perhaps he never really wanted to stay in America. My mother says that he had never recovered from the guilt he felt over his own father, who he learned had died back in India. She's offering a kind explanation. The truth is he would bully her, hit her.

In America, he never struck me, though, and I adored him. He could be very affectionate and, like a play pal, would often engage me by singing Hindi tunes.

When, after a lengthy legal battle, my parents divorced, the courts granted my father weekend visitation rights.

It was supposed to be just another weekend with "Papa" when, on Thanksgiving eve of 1982, he traveled from his apartment in Washington, D.C., to pick up my sister and me at our school in Richmond, Virginia. As he drove us to his home, he broke the monotony of the 90-minute drive.

"How would you like to go to India tonight, girls?"

India? Sounded like an amusement park.

"Yeah!" I said.

My sister, then 8, didn't share my enthusiasm. "I don't think it's a good idea."

"It's two against one," my father said. "We're going."

And, he promised, we would return in two weeks.  

That very night, my father left behind his apartment. His car. And with only our clothes for the weekend in tow, my sister and I boarded a plane with him headed for India.

Along the way to his land, the plane stopped over in Canada. There he took us to a store, where he treated us to a cart full of toys. Today I can't remember what he got us, except for one item: a toy airplane that I loved to hang from its string and see fly.

But the happiness that the toys brought me didn't last. The awakening came when we arrived in India. My first memory of that country is Calcutta, of my sister and myself standing next to my father as a bunch of men bargained with one another about who would load our few bags into a cab. I couldn't understand them. Overwhelmed, scared, I felt lost among faceless people, throngs of whom pushed their way through the streets, while beggars without legs wallowed on street corners, cupping their hands before the crowds.

We stayed at someone's home whose name I don't know. I remember the anger I felt when I saw a boy take my toy plane and chew on its plastic wings. I cried out of frustration, out of my inability to know the Hindi words that would condemn him for his violation. There, in the house, a woman dressed in a sari saw my tears, and she cradled me in her arms. Then, she reached for a batch of bananas beside her. For some reason, she must have thought that bananas would cure my grief, because one by one, she stuffed them in my mouth. I felt sick and shackled and scared at not knowing how to tell her to stop.

I missed my mother. I asked my father when we were going home. "Soon" was all he ever said.

My mother never imagined that my father would kidnap us. That first week we were gone, she slept in the downstairs of our apartment, hoping that he would drive up to the door with us in tow. Then, a week later, she received a telegram from India. "MOTHER SERIOUS COME IMMEDIATELY." The message was ambiguous. Whose mother? A state representative's office traced the address listed on the letter and told her it led to an abandoned warehouse in Calcutta. My father, she realized, was taunting her, trying to lure her to a dead end by getting her hopelessly lost in one of the world's most populous cities. She knew then that he had taken us to India. And for the first and only time, she cried.

Still, she never missed a day of work as a clerical aide at a law firm. She knew that if she ever gave in a little, she would give in a lot.

In a country as vast as India, my mother wouldn't have known where to look. Nor did she know the address of his family's village. She called some of my father's friends. The wife of one hung up on her. The other told her nothing. She realized that no one would get involved in an abduction. And so, one day she called Florida State, telling a clerk that my father had died and that she needed to notify his family. The sympathetic woman gave her the address.

Throughout the next year, my mother tried every possible avenue to get us back. She contacted the State Department, telling them that two U.S. citizens, her two daughters, had been kidnapped. They didn't offer much help, other than referring her to a private investigator in India. Undeterred, she prepared for her trip and asked Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond for money, anything to help. They gave her nothing. But the law firm that had supplied her yearly salary of $15,000 raised $1,000 on her behalf. And her father, Martin, would give her a few hundred dollars every month, all of which came from his savings and the pension he collected as a retired steelworker.

When she arrived in India, she worked with the investigator and filed abduction charges in the district court of Rajasthan against my father. Four months into her stay in India, she dropped the investigator because of his repeated sexual advances. She continued her struggle alone, obtaining the exit visas needed to get my sister and me out of the country.

In the six months she was there, the custody battle dragged through India's court system, and news of my parents' legal fight was reported in the Indian press. I remember the vulnerability I felt when people would point at my sister and me as we walked through the streets.  

As the months passed, my mother was granted custody. My father lost patience with the system, and in his most desperate attempt to discourage my mother from reclaiming us, he took my sister and me away, this time to what we could only describe as some monastery in the Himalayas. I still don't know what it was. Neither does my sister. All I remember is beige stone everywhere, and tiny Hindi letters, the name of a god, scrawled on every inch of a small, bare room. Ultimately, my father realized he had to return to face the courts, if only because my mother told his neighbor in Pilani that if he didn't return, she would petition the court to put a lien on his property in the village. He got the message. When he did return, my sister and I became wards of the court.

We were placed at a hotel in Rajasthan, flanked by guards who protected us against either of our parents, in case either decided to seize us before the hearing. In those days I spent with my sister, I had time to think. I understood by then that my father had lied to me all those times he said we were going home "soon." I knew in my heart that I wanted to go home, to America, to be with my mother.

One day, my sister and I went to the court in Rajasthan, where two judges asked us to decide our fate. With whom, they asked, do you want to live?

I looked around. Looked at the door and saw one of the guards who had been protecting us at the hotel. I was scared he would tell my father what my answer had been -- he later did just that -- but I spoke anyway.

With my mother, I said.

My sister said the same.

The courts granted our wish, and we moved to a hotel in New Delhi to stay with our mother. My father, though, wasn't through, and he threatened to take the case to India's Supreme Court.

My mother was running out of money. And she was weakened from the hepatitis she had contracted in India. She took matters into her own hands. Forging our exit visas, which had already expired, she boarded a plane with my sister and me in the early morning hours. I haven't seen my father or his family since. Nor has he written more than three letters to me, all in brief reply to my own.

To this day, I know that I was fortunate, at least among those children caught up in a custody-case abduction: I had a mother who actually understood what I wanted. And that was to be with her.

I have read that Elián didn't want to make the trip to America. The famed novelist Gabriel García Márquez -- who happens to be a friend of Castro's -- wrote in The New York Times that the boy screamed to be left behind.

The press has attributed several contradictory statements to Elián. Most notable has been the controversy about his comment on Miami's Channel 10 news: "I want you to take me back to Cuba," he said. But others say they heard him utter, "I want that they not take me back to Cuba." Later, during a ride home from school with a family spokesman and an Associated Press photographer, Elián's great-uncle Lazaro González asked the boy, "So what is it that you said last night?" And Elián responded, "That I don't want to go back to Cuba."

Whether he wants to stay, I don't know. But the truth isn't going to come out by cornering him in a car with a reporter.

Then there was his talk with ABC's Diane Sawyer, in which he said that he believes his mother is still alive and that he does not want to go back to Cuba. Whatever he wants, it can't possibly help his emotional well-being to have the media pick and prod. A child's words should be heard and understood, but not by a hungry press most interested in spinning a particular angle.

These days, in a climate of opposing extremes, where people take everything Elián says and dissect it for their own agendas, it's a shame that no one has backed off long enough to give the boy the space and the time to digest the situation and to decide what he really wants. I can only hope that Elián doesn't learn as early as I did that most people are out for themselves and that each and every one of us is expendable. But given the depth of his tragedy and the exposure of his case, I think Elián may already know the world's harsh truths.  

One of the few voices of reason has come from Sam Ciancio, the Pompano Beach man who jumped in the water to rescue Elián that day.

"I want to hear that child say, 'I want to go back with my father,'" Ciancio told the Miami Herald. "And if he does, the people of Miami should respect that. But if he says he wants to stay, then so be it, and that should be the end of it."

Elián won't get the chance to be heard before an impartial body. It could have happened that way, perhaps, if Al Gore's suggestion had been implemented -- that is, if this case were presented before a family court. Even if Elián's wishes wouldn't have sealed his fate, his words would have been heard in a civilized forum, away from the frenzied crowds here and in Cuba.

Regardless, those in power hold a different view. As one Justice Department official told CNN, "Elián is 6 years old. He does not have the legal capacity to make those kinds of decisions. And beyond that, I don't think he's old enough to make those kinds of decisions."

It's curious to me that while the Justice Department takes the moral high ground by professing to act in the best interests of a child at the center of a high-profile, international case, it doesn't show an iota of concern for the American children who are kidnapped and taken overseas. In such cases, the Justice Department often fails to file international warrants, calling them domestic-custody disputes rather than criminal activity.

Its sister branch, the State Department, displays the same apathy. In recent testimony before both the Senate Foreign Relations and the House International Relations committees, numerous parents described the inability of the Department of State to help in returning their children from abroad.

Now, in the midst of all the heated rhetoric surrounding Elián's case, I can only return to one of the first questions that occurred to me when I saw his image flash across the TV screen. Would his voice ever rise high enough? Could it?

How on earth, I wondered, would he ever overcome the various mobs seeking to claim him as a trophy for their own impassioned, even fanatical causes? In the midst of all these self-serving parties, I thought -- and still do -- that he should be allowed to choose where he can best live his life. And if this country thinks so little of his words and returns him to Cuba against his will, then we might as well admit that the solution we have chosen is no different from kidnapping.

I can only wonder what the future holds for Elián. If nothing else, I hope that he never faces the same distrust, the same questioning of people's motives that plagued me when I was kidnapped by my father. It's a feeling you never really shake.

When my mother came back to the States with my sister and me, she agreed to let a local newspaper tell our story. My mother wasn't media-savvy, just exultant that she had managed to get us back safely. But I was still shell-shocked that my father wasn't here, that he never would be here because of the federal warrant for his arrest, issued in case he ever thought of returning. There would be no more weekends at his apartment in D.C. No more Hindi songs to sing together. No more Sunday-morning breakfasts at McDonald's. I was glad to be home, but I still wanted "Papa."

When the reporter came by, my mother began telling how my father hit me, which only began in India.

"Mama," I said, "let's not talk about the abuse. It's too scary." In adult jargon, that was the closest I could come to saying, "This is off the record."

My request didn't register. The reporter printed my words. They made her story.

A photographer was also there. He wanted to take a photo of my mother with my sister and me. I hated the intrusion. I wanted to mourn the loss of my father alone, away from people, whom I had now come to distrust. Before complying, I went upstairs to my room and grabbed two dolls. When I came downstairs, I readied myself for the camera by shielding most of my face from the lens' glare. That was the best I could do to protect myself.

I feel for little Elián now, because for him, there is no place to hide.

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