Who Knows What a Better Life Is? Sometimes Children Do

TUCSON -- It is easy for some Americans to assume that staying in the United States will mean young Elian Gonzalez -- the Cuban 5-year old found clinging to a life raft -- is assured of a "better life" in Miami. Perhaps. Perhaps not.Elian, whose mother and 10 others died when their boat from Havana sank, has just had a birthday among Miami relatives. Ask any six-year old showered with toys if he thinks he is in the Promised Land, and he might answer the same way Elian did, that yes, he liked it there.On the other hand, I recall a billboard in Cuba several years ago that read, "Today 200 million children in the world sleep on the streets. None of them is Cuban." The sign oozed with island nationalism but it also underscored the successes of the 1959 revolution -- education, housing, health care for all.What if Elian did not want to make the trip to Florida in the first place? Though difficult for most Americans to fathom, it is indeed true that not everyone from "down south" or "over there" is longing to come to the United States.Take a group of children I know who live on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, in a rough neighborhood on the outskirts of Nogales, 60 miles south of Tucson. This is home to over 80 U.S. and other foreign-owned assembly plants that have attracted thousands of rural Mexicans looking for work. There is no open sea to navigate, but a mere fence (along with 3,000 armed border patrol agents) to separate Mexicans here from the United States. Daily, illegal crossings are made, not in small boats but by foot across hot desert , or crammed into airless vans maneuvered by less-than-honest smugglers. Once they're across the line, we often find them dead. When we find them alive -- even if they are six years old -- we send them back to Mexico with nary a word.But when I spoke to children and their families outside Nogales I was surprised to learn that the place where I came from was not an object of desire. Some the age of Elian Gonzalez did not even know where the United States was. Others, including some who had visited, expressed no wish to move here.Consider the comment of a nine-year-old who had seen home videos filmed by an aunt living in Tucson. When I asked if she wished to live "on the other side," she replied, "No. There, there are no houses, only trailers."Last spring, I took three ten-year-old girls from the neighborhood with me to Tijuana, the city of two million just south of San Diego, to participate in a conference on the border environment. We stayed in a fancy hotel with shiny marble floors, an escalator, and two elevators. Only mildly interested in the conference, the girls spent most of their time in the hotel room, in the bathtub to be specific, amazed to turn on a faucet over and over and have hot water rush out. While I worried that such luxury would raise their expectations about material comforts and set them up for disappointment, after four days they were more than ready to go home.Of course, the case of little Elian is more complicated. Or is it? On the Mexican border, most of the parents of the kids I know have joined a low-wage work force, which gives them, sometimes, access to health care and the chance to build a house of cardboard. So even where America is just a skip away, not everyone dreams of crossing the line.Today crowds take to the streets in Havana to demand Elian's return, while in Miami his relatives load him with presents and demand that he stay. It may seem unrealistic to ask Elian to make the decision himself but it is far more disturbing to think that his country's leader and the powerful lobby of anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Miami are trying to make it for him.

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