The day Elian came into her life in November was "a miracle," says Marisleysis Gonzalez. Motherless, traumatized by two days alone at sea, removed from everything that was safe and familiar, the five-year-old son of her first cousin in Cuba attached himself to her firmly, she says, and hasn't let go since.
Elian Gonzalez, now 6, sleeps in her room in the two-bedroom house she shares with her parents in Miami and confides in her. She comforts him when he cries.
"When I go to the bathroom, he stands outside the door until I come out," she says.
And in the 11 weeks they have now been together, she says, "at no time" has he told her he wants to go home to his father in Cuba.
These are the kinds of things Marisleysis Gonzalez, 21, says she would like to tell Attorney General Janet Reno. They are, she believes, the kinds of things that people who think they know what is best for Elian should hear. This week, she returned to Washington for the second time to tell her story to sympathetic members of Congress, whom she hopes will make Elian a U.S. citizen and thus keep him away from Reno and the Immigration and Naturalization Service and their efforts to send him home.
Marisleysis Gonzalez and another cousin, Georgina Cid, 27, spoke in an interview yesterday at the Washington office of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the organization that has made Elian's case a front-line battle in its long-standing war against Fidel Castro. The CANF has paid their expenses, and senior organization officials sit with the young women as they are interviewed, stopping them when they veer into legal aspects of the Elian case, instructing them to sit up straight when photos are taken.
Although her father Lazaro Gonzalez's name is on the lawsuit against Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, and on a Florida court petition for permanent custody of Elian, it is Marisleysis Gonzalez who has been the most public face and voice of the Gonzalez family in Miami. Taking time off from her job in a Miami bank, she has appeared alternately angry, sad and tearful in describing the trials her family and Elian have gone through.
To many in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, she is a sacrificing young woman who has turned her life over to her small cousin. To the Roman Catholic nun who last month played host to a 90-minute meeting in Miami between Elian and his grandmothers, she has become a surrogate to whom the boy "has transferred his maternal love."
To others, however, she is a somewhat star-struck young woman taking advantage of the fear and bewilderment of a young child she had never met before Nov. 26. The Cuban government and media dryly refer to her as "the 'cousin' kidnapper" and charge that she and her family have "brainwashed" the boy.
The Elian controversy is being played out on at least two very different levels. To the scores of government officials, lawyers and special interests involved, it is a high-stakes legal, political and foreign policy conflict. But the two cousins of Elian tend to leave the legal and political side to the lawyers and politicians. For them, it is the personal battle between the life they have chosen in Miami and the one they left behind in Cuba that counts.
They are well-spoken young women whose long fingernails tap more and more quickly on the tabletop as they respond to what they say are "lies" and insults that have emanated from Cuba. They say Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, desperately wanted to flee Cuba for the United States. He has strongly denied this allegation.
They are outraged by stories in the U.S. news media--most recently in this week's New York Times--saying Miami family members are in trouble with the law and may be unsuitable surrogate-parent material. Her brother, Cid says, is not in prison as reported. Marisleysis Gonzalez says her father does not have a drinking problem.
Asked what difficulties, if any, the family has had with the law in Florida, they are interrupted by a CANF official. "The attorneys are saying there are factual errors in the New York Times story," he says.
Marisleysis Gonzalez asks why "nobody has gone to see where Elian lived in Cuba," where, she says she has been told, Juan Miguel Gonzalez's house was specially painted by the Cuban government once the foreign journalists started to visit.
"Elian tells me what a difference there is with school between here and there," Marisleysis Gonzalez says. "There, the bathroom was so dirty. He couldn't drink the water, because it was very dirty."
Elian, who Marisleysis Gonzalez says sees a psychologist twice a week, talks to his father twice a day "after he comes home from school. Sometimes, he doesn't even want to. We have to make him."