Elián's choice

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.

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.

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Lisa Singh
Contact: Lisa Singh

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