Little Elián’s Still Not Safe From the Sharks

Some winter days are so bleak I feel as if I am the groundhog’s shadow willing itself to be visible. The afternoons grow dark early, not mysteriously dark as if it were December (no miracles waiting) but dull gray, cotton-mouthed dark, thick-tongued dark, blurred in fog and cloud. I think about what it must be like under the Caribbean Sea.

I consider the shark that swam there beneath the tire that floated day and night with a 6-year-old boy strapped to its top–tied crossways so he wouldn’t slip into the flowing waters. I consider that the shark has needs, too, pure primal desire for food, and the food he wants is Elián, child of Cuba, Daddy home waiting, mother already consumed, stepfather already broken down into waste product and nutrient, and child drifting aimlessly with the tide, child who will be tipped by a wave, or slip a delicious small hand into the cool water– snap! –child that must be drying. Dried food is all right. Thirsty, the child might lean toward the water and the shark could do its shark thing, with open mouth and full teeth and jaws that rotate on bone spurs in the back of a long throat. Swimming silently under little Elián, this shark waited and waited for his meal, circling, ever hopeful, flat consumer eyes following a bargain across the shimmering mall–shark wanting his fast food, shark fulfilling his environmental niche just like our Republican Congressmen, doing what comes naturally.

The shark was disappointed, thwarted by people with no antishark agenda, just doing what people can do sometimes, rescue one another. But what can sharks do with disappointment? Unlike humans, they cannot write it down in a journal, tell it to their shrinks or call their mothers. They have to swallow disappointment, whole. Think positively, shark, take it one day at a time. Sharks don’t call up newspaper reporters or issue summonses or claim each chew is a virtuous chew, a strike for freedom. In the light of the news from Miami, the shark is beginning to seem like a very fine fish indeed.

Who would go for a dip in the waters with the Miami Cubans who have spirited Elián off to Disney World, diverted him with Game Boys and puppy dogs? There is something coarse, vulgar even, about making a child the object of capitalism’s seductions. At best, it’s too easy, a cheap trick with no second act. The shark, with its fine white bone and sloping jaw, is more dignified than those strumpeting across the public stage dressed as champions of the cause of democracy. In this new millennium, who is more anticommunist than whom is an old song and dance, a funny drum to beat, an unattractive pose to strike, rather like sticking your tongue out for the class photographer or mooning a bus of passing nuns. Fidel Castro is a dictator, communism is not the most efficacious or happy of political systems, democracy will win out every time if people are given a choice. But does any reasonable person think that all Cubans are miserable and all Americans joyous in their freedom?

We are the best, of course, the most powerful nation in the world, but what are we compared to a daddy for a child who has lost his mother? The Republican senators who are supporting the Miami hysteria are grandstanding for votes as well as exposing themselves as family-value types who devalue a family if it comes from the wrong place or lives under the wrong system: These are the very senators who have voted to keep immigrants out of this country, to return them if they so much as once shoplift a lipstick, to lock down our borders to the poor and the hungry from countries all over the world. These are the senators who don’t find Haitian or Mexican or Colombian or Asian 6-year-olds cute at all.

Even the political issue is more nuanced and poignant than the Miami right-wing Cubans admit. The truth is that if Elián should need expensive health care, he might be better off in Cuba where everyone is covered. If Elián should want expensive clothes and two television sets, he will definitely be better off in Miami. If Elián should grow up to be a poet or a writer or an artist or a politician, he will be far better off in Miami, but if he should grow up to be a fisherman or a cook he might be better off in Cuba. The unknowns multiply and blur the easy answer. One thing is sure: If King Solomon were to offer to cut the child in two, the Republican senators and their clients would not be the first to withdraw. They are more interested in winning votes than in the happiness of the child. On these grounds alone they should lose.

It is an odd fact that a child who falls down a well can attract the attention of the world while hundreds and thousands of nameless children who are hungry or threatened by war will certainly be ignored. It is also an odd fact that one child’s story can change our perspective and shock us into response, e.g. Anne Frank. However, when Elián’s story is told, (will he tell it himself one day?), it will not make Americans proud of ourselves. We bend to political pressure, we posture and take photo ops, we wave flags, but we are not such nice folks after all.

What if this were a German child whose mother died and whose German father was an officer in the SS? What if this were a Jewish child whose Jewish father wanted him home in Berlin and the year was 1938 and his American relatives tried to keep him? Would I want him returned to such a vicious and dangerous place? I doubt it. I understand that Elián’s Miami family views Fidel Castro’s Cuba the way I would Hitler’s Germany. Ah, but just because we may be condemned to repeat the history we do not know doesn’t mean that we can avoid much calamity by knowing our history. Reality lies outside of epigrams, never repeated so neatly, so certainly. Shadows fall and cloud the issues.

If I could come back to the world after my death, I would appreciate returning as a shark with a fearful, sharp, black dorsal fin–at least it seems like an honest, unpretentious way to put food on the table. Deep in those waters, gliding past the coral reefs, gold-and-yellow, blue-and-silver fish swimming by my side, tides ebbing and rising, storms passing overhead, winds making the water choppy, I would be content. Hang in there, shark–there are more children where this one came from. Little Elián’s Still Not Safe From the Sharks