For almost 20 years, I’ve been thinking of Elián González. He is, after all, a kindred spirit. I, too, escaped to this country across the Straits of Florida, though I came here as part of the Mariel boat lift, which was a controlled enough social experiment to almost guarantee that my four-year-old anemic self would be alive by the time he reached Florida. I lost iron getting here, while Elián lost his mother. He was the only survivor of a group of 13 Cubans to make it to the U.S. when he was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in late 1999. Later, he would say that dolphins periodically kept him afloat whenever he started to lose strength.
I don’t remember hiding in a field with my mother while proponents of the Cuban revolution threw rocks at our home and screamed, “Gusanos!” Nor do I remember being pelted with eggs as my grandfather walked with me off a bus and toward the port of Mariel. Those are truths I’ve received over the years from family. Because of that lack of remembrance, I’ve always felt removed from my experience, but it’s a disconnect that might be preferable to what seems like Elián’s curse of being unable to resurrect an authentic memory because of the way the dueling sides of the seemingly eternal U.S.-Cuba conflict mediated the trauma of his own youth for political leverage.
Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s documentary Elián is itself a resurrection, stitched together primarily from archival footage from the period between November 1999 and April 2000 that saw a little boy from Cuba caught between a rock and a hard place. The film’s triumph resides in the reasoned associations it draws between the putative agendas of the Cuban exile community looking to keep Elián in Miami and the Cuban government seeking his return: The filmmakers see the spectacle of Elián, in Miami, being draped in an American flag and the boy, back in Cuba, parroting the mantras of the Cuban revolution (“Homeland or death! We shall prevail! Pioneers for Communism, we shall be like Che!”) as sides of the same jingoistic coin.
There’s a scene in Elián that shows an African-American man on the streets of Miami voicing his opinion that Elián should be returned to Cuba. This father’s gist is that the bonds of family should trump politics. I share that opinion even today, and the film itself seems to intuitively comprehend the logic of Juan Miguel González Quintana’s desire to be with his son as an essential right that can’t be taken away from him simply because the Cuban exile community believed, and loudly so, that Castro was pulling his strings.
As for the wails of outrage that greet the black man on the street, you can trace them all the way to the rancor surrounding the ending of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, a relic of the Cold War era that gave Cubans the right to political asylum should they literally set foot on American soil. It seems like a matter of fairness for Cubans to (pardon the analogy) be in the same boat as all immigrants wanting to taste our country’s freedoms, yet many in the Cuban exile community remain adamant about the Cuban struggle to escape the grips of communism being so exceptional as to merit unique reward.
That sort of entitlement amplifies the voices of those protestors who silence the African-American in their midst, and it certainly explains why so many Miami Cubans felt that it was their right to keep Elián from his father—to turn him into a pawn without regard for his emotional and psychological well-being. Like Marisleysis González, Elián’s loving cousin, and Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman and former evangelist who rescued Elián from the waters off Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving 1999 and was holding the boy when federal agents took him from the González home in Miami. No one who was interviewed for this film, including Marisleysis and Donato, admits to sculpting or misrepresenting Elián’s desires, but certain archival footage featured throughout the documentary—such as the videos of Elián screaming to a plane in the sky to be taken back to Cuba and a man coaching the boy’s anti-Castro rhetoric from off screen—still tells no lies to this day.
Raúl Esparza provides narration for Elián, and while necessary at times to contextualize some of the footage from the Elián González case on display in the documentary, his words are unnecessary at least at the start, when they too fancifully announce that Elián’s story is one of warring ideologies. That theme speaks loudly enough for itself through the film’s objective correlations, which are so coolly delivered as to make the footage of Donald Trump—from both 2000 and the present—feel especially smug as cheap shots, disconnected as they are from any larger, particularly useful point about Castro’s lifelong mission to defy the presidents of the United States.
Elián’s even-handedness and propulsive montage is remarkable, but a smarter film might have elaborated on the fetishization of victimization that’s almost perversely common between Cuban exiles and the adherents of Castro’s revolution. A richer acknowledgment of that victimization—even of the older Miami Cuban community’s understandable attraction to the self-reliance message of Republican ideals—would have at least made the acknowledgement of the correlation between Elián and the outcome of the 2000 presidential election feel less like an afterthought.
The film, too, rushes through the easing of restrictions against Cuba during the Barack Obama administration and the death of Castro, letting the footage of interviews with Elián and the Cuban press speak nebulously about him being some kind of cog in the communist machine. That, though, is probably the intent of the filmmakers, who see that earnestly melodramatic and distinctly Cuban flair with which Marisleysis spoke to members of the press during the height of the Elián González news craze as being of a piece with, say, the audacity it took for a woman to fall down in a faux faint for cameras as then-Attorney General Janet Reno’s feds took Elián away.
Maybe because the Elián story was almost a precursor to reality television, and this film arrives in the era of “peak television,” it was inevitable that my mind looked for ways that Elián’s unbearable crisis was in conversation with the darkness of our prestige television. Imagine the work that must be required to get a crowd of Cubans to scream in unison, “We are Fidel!” Think, then, of Eugene on The Walking Dead, after being kidnapped from Alexandria and being taken to the Sanctuary, claiming his commitment, like so many others, to the fascistic Negan: “I am Negan!” The question remains, on the AMC show, if Eugene actually believes that. And the question remains, for Marisleysis, if Elián means it when he says that Castro was his friend.
Allow me a final reference point: The Elián who Golden and McDonnell interview in Cuba isn’t the Paige of The Americans, caught between the gospel of American exceptionalism and her parents’ fidelity to the Soviet Union. Elián has already claimed his side: While he says that he doesn’t know religion, he’s already pledged allegiance to god, and the now-23-year-old says that this god’s name is Fidel. He sounds like someone I might have become had I never been given the chance to leave Cuba, someone who’s possibly measuring his words, just in case speaking truth to power comes back to bite him. Today, Elián’s sense of the truth may be received, but it may also be self-evident to him. Elián doesn’t pretend to know which it is, as it has the decency to recognize that only Elián has the right to define it for himself.