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In Miami, Thanksgiving marks 10 years since Elian arrived

MIAMI — Delfin Gonzalez walks around the modest museum he has maintained for years inside his Little Havana home and can't help but grow nostalgic looking at the photographs, toys and clothes that once belonged to his famous nephew, Elian.

It was 10 years ago Thanksgiving day that the little Cuban refugee -- famous enough to be known by his first name -- was found drifting alone in an inner tube by two fishermen off Fort Lauderdale.

Today, González, 77, has made it his personal mission to preserve the political and emotional footprint Elián González left in Miami. He is commemorating the 10th anniversary with a modest ceremony.

A statue of La Virgen de Fátima, the same one Elián was once photographed kissing, will be brought to the home. Invited are those those who loved or fought to keep the boy in the United States.

``So many years later, people still stop me on the street and ask me about Elián. I always tell them, ``He'll be back here any day now,'' said González, considered Elián's favorite uncle.

``We'll pray for him, and that's all that's left to do.''

A decade ago, González said no one had any idea Elián, just days from turning 6, would become famous worldwide as a legal struggle for his custody ensued between the United States and Cuba.

At first, the story seemed straightforward. Elián's mother had died at sea, as the boat they were in sank. The boy's Miami relatives had said that the father, a waiter who had remarried and remained in Cuba, told them he was happy his son had reached safety.

Then Fidel Castro became involved and Elián's father quickly demanded that the boy be returned to him in Cuba.

An extraordinary custody battle erupted, as federal officials tried to make the case -- at first -- that this was a family court issue.

The struggle for the little shipwreck survivor eventually caused a major rift between those who wanted him to go back to his father in Cuba and most exiles who hoped he would be spared communist indoctrination. The fight became a defining moment in exile politics.

Elián's stay ended abruptly five months later on Easter weekend with a raid by federal agents. He was then reunited with his father in Cuba.

How it all played out still pains González. ``He was a special boy,'' said González, standing in the middle of the quaint museum.

Others in the González family have moved on.

He said Marisleysis, his niece who became the boy's surrogate mother during the controversy, is now a beautician, married and last year gave birth to a daughter. Her baby turns a year old on Dec. 7, a day after Elián turns 16.

``She doesn't like to talk about those times anymore; it brings back very sad memories,'' said González of his niece.

Marisleysis' father, Lazaro, still works as a painter with the county. All have moved away from the neighborhood.

But González still lives in the home, where he's left untouched Elián's personal belongings: the race car bed, the clothes he wore as a 6-year-old and his Power Ranger action figures.

A memory book by the front door of the museum shows that curious visitors have come from as far away as Oklahoma, Canada and Spain.

``We're sorry, you had to go back to Cuba,'' one person wrote.

González has never charged admission to those who come by when he's home and want to enter. He'll tell Elián stories to anyone who asks.

He remembers the boy as a cad. ``He used to rile up the media on purpose,'' González said. ``When they were all camped outside the house, sometimes he would tell me: `Let's go out there and tease them!' '' knowing they would jump up and start taking his picture, he said.

``He was the most photographed boy in the world,'' he said.

He also recalled Elián's sadder moments.

``He remembered how his mother died. He said their boat had sunk and that his mother and her boyfriend put him inside the inner tube and then they held onto it,'' González said.

``He remembered how his mother went under and her boyfriend went after her. He told me he kept waiting for them to come up but they never did. He said there were sharks jumping around. We think they were dolphins.''

Delfin said he's heard from relatives that the teenage Elián is happy, but shakes his head at what could have been.

``He's living in Cuba; what can I tell you? I wished things had turned out differently.''

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