Elian saga not forgotten in community

Raid on Miami home was 5 years ago Friday

April 24, 2005|By Madeline Bars Diaz | Madeline Bars Diaz,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

MIAMI - The Little Havana home that sheltered Elian Gonzalez during his five months in Miami is still scarred from the swift raid in which armed federal agents stormed the house to reunite the boy with his father.

Elian's Miami relatives didn't repair the holes created when, five years ago today, authorities kicked in the bedroom door. It is a reminder to visitors that a Border Patrol officer confronted family friend Donato Dalrymple as he tried to hide in a closet with the boy, an image captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press photograph.

An enlarged version of the picture is part of the makeshift museum and shrine to Elian's tumultuous saga in the United States. It is joined by display cases full of Elian's toys, the clothes and costumes he wore, photo montages and the race car bed the family said federal agents broke during the raid.

"Since this was a historic event, I thought it was necessary to have this as an homage to the community here, for all that they've done," said Delfin Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, who bought the home and made it into a museum.

Gonzalez, 67, said he will never forget the throngs of people who camped out in front of the house as another of Elian's great-uncles, Lazaro Gonzalez, and the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, waged an international custody battle. For months, the crowd prayed and held demonstrations on Elian's behalf.

The morning of the raid, federal agents sprayed tear gas on or knocked down many of the demonstrators while rushing the home. Today, when some of those people come to the house, they break down crying, Delfin Gonzalez said.

"They get depressed," he said. "They cry. They feel very close to what happened."

Sylvia Iriondo, president of Mothers Against Repression, is among those with painful memories. Iriondo, who was at the Little Havana house when federal authorities took the boy away from his relatives, thinks of Elian often and laments the circumstances of his departure.

"I can still see his face and I'm sure that everybody that was there and everybody that was caught in that probably feels the same way," said Iriondo. "We didn't want for the process of law not to happen, but we didn't want that process of law to be interrupted."

The early-morning raid was the climax of a battle that pitted the young Cuban castaway's relatives against Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Their attorneys fought for months in state and federal courts, but momentum swung toward the father after a Miami-Dade circuit judge threw out a custody claim Lazaro Gonzalez had filed in family court, saying she had no power to hear the claim because it was an immigration matter that only the federal courts could decide.

Elian was 5 years old when he was found clinging to an inner tube in the ocean off Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving Day in 1999. Cuban exiles nicknamed him the "miracle child" for being among the survivors of a shipwreck that killed his mother and several others after they left Cuba.

After the raid, Elian went to live with his father at the Rosedale estate in the Cleveland Park section of Northwest Washington. He returned to the island in June 2000, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the custody case, letting stand a federal appeals court ruling that federal officials had the authority to determine that only the boy's father could speak for his son.

Delfin Gonzalez tends to the memory of Elian's time in Miami. The two other relatives who received the majority of media attention during the custody battle have gone on with their lives, more or less quietly.

His brother, Lazaro Gonzalez, 54, who cared for the boy, is a bus-body technician with Miami-Dade Transit.

Lazaro Gonzalez and his family are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against six agents who they say used excessive force during the raid. The case is on appeal before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Lazaro Gonzalez's daughter, Marisleysis, considered Elian's surrogate mother by those who wanted to keep the boy in the United States, runs a beauty salon in Southwest Miami. According to public records, she married in 2003 and divorced a year later.

Her father has participated in the occasional news conference or Elian-related commemoration. Marisleysis Gonzalez, who was hospitalized several times for stress-related ailments during the Elian saga, has shied away from the spotlight.

At Marisleysis Hair Design on a recent afternoon, Marisleysis Gonzalez was in the middle of coloring the hair of one of the handful of patrons inside her small shop. Dressed in a black apron and wearing disposable gloves, she politely declined to comment.

"I really don't want to talk about it," she said before returning to work.

She has said little else publicly in the five years since the raid.

Last year, Marisleysis Gonzalez told People magazine that she had suffered years of depression and abdominal problems as a result of the Elian conflict and had sought relief in acupuncture.

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