The exiled Cuban community's response during the Elian custody battle was all the more intense because the issue was not only political but also religious, according to a new book by Dr. Miguel De La Torre of the Hope College religion faculty.
De La Torre is author of "La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami," published recently by University of California Press. He considers the 1999-2000 controversy surrounding young Elian Gonzales as a reflection of the way that opposition to Fidel Castro's regime and subsequent residence in the U.S. have for exiled Cubans become a religious struggle - "la lucha"--against evil.
He writes both as a scholar of religion, specialized in Latino/a theologies, and from personal experience with the community. As a child, he left Cuba with his family in the first wave of immigrants after the 1959 Castro revolution, his father having worked for the Batista government. In the U.S., his uncle became a political broadcaster opposed to Castro. After living first in New York, De La Torre lived and later also worked in Miami from the early 1970s through the late 1980s.
He discusses how Exilic Cubans, once a marginalized group, have risen to power and privilege in the United States, a status that distinguishes them from other Hispanic groups in the nation, and the relationship of exile and religion to the process.
"In Miami, the longing for Cuba, or the 'rhetoric of return,' has become the unifying substance of the Exilic Cuban's existential being, yet this aspiration is slowly being replaced by a stronger desire to adapt to and capitalize on residence in this country," he said.
"They render 'el exilio' a sacred space, making morality synonymous with nationalism. Living in exile is a sacrifice constituting a civic duty, representing a grander moral standing," he said. "Religion is understood as a moral mandate to rid the island of the atheist's regime."
The community's impassioned effort to seek asylum for young refugee Elian Gonzales, De La Torre feels, reflects the way that religion runs through the exiles' experience and their understanding of their exile.
Elian was rescued at sea by U.S. fishermen on Thanksgiving in 1999 after the boat carrying him and others fleeing Cuba capsized earlier in the day. Several aboard died, including his mother. Custody of the boy was temporarily granted to his great-uncle in Miami, but Elian's father in Cuba wanted him back. Such a return was opposed by the Exilic community, to which, De La Torre said, Elian became a symbol.
"Within a short time, the community began to point out the fact that, like Jesus, Elian arrived just weeks before Christmas, at the end of the millennium, on the day on which thanksgiving is offered to God," De La Torre said.
A story circulated, he noted, that while adrift Elian had been protected by dolphins, a symbol of salvation in the early Christian Church. Some attributed his rescue to Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, who was said to have saved drowning fishermen. A rumor circulated in Little Havana that Castro had been forewarned of a child saved by dolphins in the sea who would overthrow his regime and that he had to acquire the boy to prevent the fulfillment of the prophecy, casting Elian as Jesus to Castro's Herod.
"Exilic Cubans have interpreted the sacred as a civil religion that supports, gives meaning to, and provides hope for 'el exilio,'" De La Torre said. "The demonstrations of religious fervor on the streets of Miami over the fate of Elian were not an attempt by the community to manipulate religious sensibilities or beliefs to justify a political position; rather, the religious sentiments of the Exilic Cuban community facilitated their political stance."
Luis Leon, author of "La Llorona's Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands," has praised the book as "the first major study of popular religion in Miami's community of exiled Cubans" and for capturing "the intimacy and flavor of a spiritual movement that crosses moral and theological lines." Laura Perez of the ethnic studies faculty at the University of California at Berkeley has called the book "a daring and careful expose of the political and religious right-wing discourse circulating among Cuban exiles."
De La Torre, an assistant professor of religion, has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1999. Last September, he was named the 2002 recipient of the "Outstanding Hispanic Educator" award by the Michigan Hispanic Legislative Caucus. In May of this year, he received a first-place award in the "Educational Books" category from the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada for his 2002 book "Reading the Bible from the Margins" (Orbis Books).
In addition to "Reading the Bible from the Margins," his books since joining the faculty have included "The Quest for the Cuban Christ: A Historical Search" (University Press of Florida) and "Introducing Latino/a Theologies" (Orbis Books). He has also written six book chapters and eight articles published in professional journals since coming to Hope.
He has five other books enroute to publication: "Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America" (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), "Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation" (Chalice Press), "Doing Ethics from the Margins" (Orbis Books), "Rethinking Latino/a Religion and Identity" (Pilgrim Press) and "Handbook of Latino/a Theologies" (Chalice Press).