Mothers Mild and Monstrous: Familial Metaphors and the Elian Gonzalez Case
del Carmen Martinez, Maria, Southern Quarterly
A mother is, next to God, all powerful
-The Public Ledger, 1850(1)
ON EASTER SATURDAY of the new millennium, Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was found adrift in the Florida Straits some months before, was forcibly removed by federal agents from the Little Havana home of his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. The boy was flown to Washington, where he was reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. By Easter Sunday, Elian had vanished from our televisions with all the finality of an infernal ascension-a disappearance so complete it was said to inspire a kind of Elian withdrawal or, at least, a wicked hang-over. The siege abruptly ended a media circus and a grotesque spectacle suspended in the modern master narratives of country, Christianity, and consumer culture. "News" coverage of the boy had achieved monstrous proportions, surpassing even the deaths of Princess Di and John Kennedy, Jr. Breathless and alarmed media reports about the Elian Gonzalez case and the boy himself, often couched in the language of the Cold War, provoked dangerous, if predictable, displays of nationalism (both of the exile and anti-immigrant varieties). Incessant press and radio commentary fueled demonstrations, counter-demonstrations and sporadic violence-not to mention obscene displays of political pandering.
Now that the anniversary of the Elian orgy has come and gone, it is perhaps time to examine the case in a sober, critical light. The case, as many noted, did indeed come to resemble a tacky telenovela-aflame with all the gloss and hyperbole of a serial romance. The case, in fact a simple custody matter clearly outlined in US immigration law, hardly merited the disproportionate attention it generated in the press. But neither did it warrant its nearly universal dismissal in intellectual circles both during and after the case. Certainly, the Elian spectacle and the intransigence of the "Miami mob" inspired much head-shaking, but it failed to yield serious academic discussion. The case, involving a contingent of learned people, provoked much commentary, but little analysis. Few bothered to note anti-Hispanic sentiment the case unearthed, despite the Buena Vista socialization of American pop culture. Few noted the obvious gendered and racially marked elements of the case.
However marked with absurdity, the case makes a useful study on several levels. To begin, Camp Elian, at once tract house, religious and nationalist shrine, media circus, and feeble military stronghold, made visible the interstices of power which converge on the so-called private or domestic sphere. The case, described as an anomalous, isolated, inexplicable phenomenon, actually reflects a longstanding set of patterns in US-Cuba relations-a relationship long described in the potent, gendered language of a failed love affair, especially at the turn of the century when the US was first becoming a world power. Indeed, the case made plain the psychosexual force of nationalism, articulating those submerged desires and festering resentments inherent in neocolonial relations.
In the US, debates about the boy's "rightful" place in some ways represented larger anxieties not only about paternal privilege but about race and the Hispanicization of America. Once described as "golden exiles," Miami Cuban Americans have become, in the eyes of the press, an irrational, sweaty and vocal mob or "banana republic." And judging from talk of "wet feet" Cubans have become the most recent mojados or "wetbacks. "It did not go unnoticed that George "W." Bush, in his singularly strange grasp of the English language, continually mispronounced Elian's name as "Alien."
In negotiating the fear of the "Hispanicization" of United States population and culture, responses on both sides of the issue constructed an "ethnic" American identity through gendered terms. In the camera's eye, Elian, with his cherubic smile and golden good looks, reduced what many remember as a Cold War menace to a tiny, somewhat sexualized and consumable poster-child for paternal privilege and US superiority. …