The Passion of Elian

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2000; 10:50 AM

MIAMI -- It is late at night, but the street is unnaturally aglow, like a baseball game under the lights. For their 11 o'clock feeds, the television stations demand incandescence. In the yard of a house across the street, a rooster greets the synthetic dawn with an uncertain cock-a-doodle. These weeks have been hell on him.

These weeks have been hell on everyone. On this day in the last week of March, talks have broken down. The tension roils. Feds could arrive within 24 hours to take the boy back to his father, and some people here have said, quite seriously, that they will die before they let that happen.

A whoop from the crowd. The crowd is granted at least one appearance a night, and here it comes. The door of the little house opens and the boy emerges. He is in a yellow T-shirt, riding the shoulders of a family friend. Elian Gonzalez looks sleepy. It's nearly 11, and he is 6.

A hundred people start chanting. "Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

There is another boy--Elian's cousin--on another man's shoulders, but Elian may as well be alone. The most famous kindergartner in America smiles and pumps his hands in the air, palms out, fingers limply curled, as he makes a triumphant bouncing promenade around the small front yard. He is awake now.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

This is a very little boy--small for 6--all knees and elbows and ears, with shiny black hair cropped so close it looks painted on. Just at this moment, in this floppy ride, bony arms extended, he more than anything resembles Pinocchio.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

He's got a button nose. He is no liar, this kid. He's too young and too scared to be a liar. When he asserts that his mom is alive, that she did not slip into the waves and gurgle to death before his eyes, that she must have made it to shore but has lost her memory and is trying to find him, that is not a lie. That is something else.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

The crowd is near a frenzy. The man beneath Elian trots him out to the front of the yard, where a Cuban flag and an American flag, each 10 feet high, whip friskily in the wind. It is to the American flag that Elian is carried. He lets it gently spank his face. The crowd erupts.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

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