While psychologists have been exploring just how traumatized Elian Gonzalez was by that rifle-wielding Border Patrol agent, I've been reading about another little boy, Elio. He lives in the South Bronx, surrounded by gunfire, families being evicted, hungry people begging in the street. His mother works at a drugstore near St. Ann's Church; his father is "upstate" -- South Bronx shorthand for prison.
Elio's story can be found in Jonathan Kozol's moving new book "Ordinary Resurrections." Elian's story is, of course, everywhere -- it's been All Elian, All the Time. Every nuance of his existence -- from the length of his hair to the breadth of his smile -- is noted and analyzed. He has logged more airtime than Regis Philbin, and political leaders of every stripe are vying to prove who cares for him the most. "Frankly, Tim, I can feel for Elian," gushed Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, on "Meet the Press."
As a culture, we need to ask the question: Why do we feel so much for Elian and so little for Elio? Why are we doing everything we can -- trips to Disney World, Nintendo games, playmates flown in from Cuba -- to make Elian happy, while leaving Elio to fend for himself?
In his book, Kozol analyzes Elio's smile in a picture taken in the kitchen of St. Ann's, where he attends an after-school program. "It conveys some of the tension that is present in his eyes on days when he's been struggling to keep his spirits up ... balanced about halfway between cheerfulness and something like the vaguest sense of fear."
Most of the time, Elio and his friends are placed in impersonal categories -- inner city, Hispanic, poor. But, in fact, as Kozol guides us into Elio's world and the world of Ariel, Pineapple, Raven, Isaiah and the other children in "Ordinary Resurrections," we begin to feel for them and to see just how much of their existence cannot fit into social constructs and generalities. "The life of a child," as Kozol puts it, "is made up of much smaller things like stomachaches or hurtful words or red Crayola crayons. A narrow lens is often better than a wide one in discerning what a child's life is really like."
But a narrow lens is what we use when we care for someone -- as we've been caring for Elian. There were repeated questions about whether Elian had been given anti-anxiety drugs. But there are no questions about why we are dosing so many inner-city kids with Ritalin and Prozac. "An awful lot of those kids," Kozol told me, "would be able to thrive without any medication if they were in a school that was not overcrowded, that had plenty of counselors and resources and maybe a doctor to talk to them once a week."
Why hasn't Diane Sawyer stood on her head for these kids? And how come Gloria Estefan never canceled a concert to protest the plight of poor Hispanic kids such as Elio, whose future is being snatched away far more brutally than Elian was removed from Little Havana?
According to the Casey Foundation's "Kids Count" report, we have more than 9 million children "growing up with a collection of disadvantages that are cause for exceptional alarm" -- 9 million Elios whose light is likely to be extinguished all too quickly. Yet we are obsessing about Elian. Psychologists and psychoanalysts are endlessly consulted, examining Elian and reporting their findings -- "He's fine!" -- to an anxious nation.
Time has put Elian on its cover three times, and on a recent visit to ABC News in New York, I passed a two-tiered cart marked "Elian" filled to overflowing with video tapes. When will we begin to see network video carts stacked high with tapes labeled "Elio," "Pineapple," "Raven" or "Ariel"?
For the moment, families in Elio's neighborhood subsist on around $10,000 a year. So far, the U.S. government has spent the annual income of 58 of those families on Elian, to say nothing of the millions the media have spent pursuing his story. So what do we value? Conflict and suffering that can be turned into soap opera and require nothing of us except a voyeuristic interest?
"My father is going to come home," Elio tells Kozol in the book.
"When I asked how soon," Kozol writes, "he seemed to indicate this was not as certain as he'd made it sound. 'I've been giving my prayers to God,' he said with a shy smile."
In a neighborhood in which incarceration rates for men are higher than high school graduation rates, there are many children such as Elio who long for their fathers. I'm certainly glad that Elian has been reunited with his. But it's time that people started caring for the Elios of this country -- enough to form human chains around them, protecting them from experiences that, odds are, will destroy them.