Eighteen years ago, veteran Associated Press photographer Alan Díaz won a Pulitzer Prize for an image that marked a new era in Cuban American history. He captured the moment a 6-year-old Cuban boy, Elián González, was forcibly taken from his Miami relatives to be reunited with his father in Cuba.
That iconic photo marked a new era in Cuban American life, one that has been in constant transition ever since.
In November 1999, González was rescued at sea by Donato Dalrymple, the man holding him in the photo. His mother, Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez, had drowned while trying to transport the boy to Florida with her boyfriend. Authorities put González in the custody of Brotons Rodríguez’s extended family in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, but the boy’s father and the Cuban government protested. They wanted González returned to the island, something his Miami relatives and many in the Cuban exile community were vehemently against.
The US government ultimately sided with the father, and in the early hours of April 22, 2000, Border Patrol agents stormed the Little Havana home where González was staying, banged down a bedroom door, and held Dalrymple at gunpoint as they tore the screaming child from his arms and whisked him away with a social worker.
South Florida photographers Mike Stocker, Alan Díaz, center, and Ángel Valentín pose for a photo at Díaz’s retirement party in December 2017 in Miami. Díaz, best known for taking the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the international custody battle over the Cuban child Elián González, passed away on Tuesday, July 3, 2018, at the age of 71.
Courtesy of Isidra Ortiz
Three years later, I was in Miami learning the ropes of daily wire reporting as a temporary news writer at the AP bureau. I had recently studied in Cuba, so it was exciting to share the bureau with journalists like Díaz. He knew Miami, he knew Cubans of all types, and he knew how draining news coverage could be.
Miami’s rapid news cycle took some getting used to. One day in March of 2003, I was just wrapping up an eight-hour shift in Miami, but news broke that sent me me four hours south to Key West. Nine Cubans had just landed a Cuban airliner full of passengers they’d hijacked in Havana. As I was driving, President George W. Bush announced the US invasion of Iraq. In the days that followed, I was tasked with seeking comment from the Spanish-speaking families of soldiers who were killed.
Díaz’s ability to create bureau camaraderie and…