Religious and Political Visual Symbolism in the Elian Gonzalez Affair: A Visual-Anthropological Photo Essay

This photo essay is an attempt to document the use of images during a few political demonstrations following the removal of Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Little Havana relatives by INS agents. The political images express some of the main sentiments being expressed by the demonstrators who wanted Elian to remain in the United States, and who were angry over the actions of the U.S. government.

As a visual anthropologist, I look at these images as a way of getting into the "lived reality" of that time period. Elian may no longer be with us, and many people in the Miami community are seeking ways of healing the community following the divisions the debate over Elian created. The goal of this photo essay is not to reopen old wounds or to create new controversies. Rather, it's to attempt to document these images and to show some of the meanings they contained, to help people understand the way the boy's presence in Miami was understood by other Cuban-Americans.

I only include short captions to help contextualize the images, but in many cases, I think they speak for themselves. It's obvious that the Cuban exile community contains a number of excellent artists. One might debate over the ends to which they put their talents, but clearly, they have no shortage of masters of the arts of carictature.

The fact that most of the signs are in English should dispel the complaint that Cuban-Americans don't make any effort to become bilingual, and also who most of the signs are directed at. They knew very well that, especially during a few critical weeks, they were under the constant eye of CNN and other international news networks.

One thing that this affair shows me is that images in the midst of a political controversy can replicate and morph very quickly, often taking on a number of forms in order to increase or diminish the argument the photographer may have initially tried to make in snapping the photo.

Most fascinating to me was the religious symbolism surrounding Elian Gonzalez, and the way religious imagery and language surrounded the child from beginning to end. I believe the religious symbols surrounding this affair provide an interesting glimpse into the mindset of the Cuban-American community of Miami, and the ways in which they often interpret events.