A State of Confusion
In Florida, everything melts. Everything reflects. Can its people's will be divined?
By: Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father."

SAN FRANCISCO -- For the second time this year, the state of Florida becomes the locus of confusion in America, comes to represent the confusion in the American soul. Several months after Elian Gonzalez departed Miami under the cloak of the federal government, the nation squints hard and tries to divine the will of the people of Florida by holding their ballots up to the light.

Plenty of light. The sun shines, on average, 244 days a year in Florida. In American mythology, Florida is synonymous with spring break, baseball training camps and wintering circus troupes, though overnight, placid waters can become animate, shrieking hurricanes.

Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who lived there for a time, described Florida as a state "held together by mangrove roots." A float. History books describe St. Augustine, founded in 1565, as the oldest permanent white European settlement in America.

The more recognizable Florida is the state of discontinuity, a state of trailer camps, tract homes and condos: Neighborhoods in which everyone comes from elsewhere. In recent years, Florida has attracted the likes of clothes designer Gianni Versace, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, O.J. Simpson and Elian's mother. And the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush.

At one time or another, Florida belonged to the two greatest rivals in the Americas: Spain and England. Florida entered the Union as a slave state; it was the third state to secede from the Union. After the Civil War, insofar as Florida was a swamp, it was perceived as a Southern state. Insofar as it was an East Coast state, it was a Baja, an orange to rival California.

In the 20th century, Florida became famous for retirement and exile. Its population grew fourfold from 1920 to 1925. By the 1950s, the most famous Floridians were retirees from the Northeast who had exchanged a familiar, perhaps fading neighborhood in New Jersey for the anonymity of soft winter in Jacksonville. In such a state, most famously, the Holocaust survivor ended up seeing the pink flamingo.

Famous Floridians now are the anti-Communist Cubans who exchanged tropical tyranny for gridlock on a Dade County freeway. Both retiree and exile imported a certain skepticism concerning the permanence of the world.

In the 1920s, architect Addison Mizener established a beachhead for fantasy Spanish colonialism in Palm Beach. In postwar Miami, retirees inhabited the unused shell of modernism, Art Deco.

A couple of generations later, the Art Deco hotels got renamed and repainted for Euro-trash tourists from Germany and Italy who were drawn to a city Latin in its ethos. By then, the Disney Co. had packed up the Anaheim notion of recreation and shipped it entire to a vast, ungardened space called Orlando.

Because it took most of the hits from Caribbean storms, Florida could never forget to look south. It also became the principal port and airport connecting the United States with the Caribbean and Latin America.

But with Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba, the most southerly state on the U.S. mainland would become the most glamorous American state of El Norte in the eyes of many Latin Americans.

To this day, the Caribbean poor float up to Florida, discovering America. And from Caracas to Lima, the wealthy of Latin America--La Sociedad--speak of Miami, as earlier generations of Latin Americans spoke of Paris, as an elegant balance between the orderly (but cold) North and the disorganized (but warm) South. In Miami, wealthy Latin Americans insist, the banks are reliable but the purlieus are recognizably sinister.

A reconciliation of North and South America? The last time I was in Miami, I saw a parade of Latino toy-boys on in-line skates, each with identical gym-toned bodies and dark glasses, Walkmans, swaying through traffic to silent music.

Now we ask: What does Florida intend?

On election night, the networks too quickly called Florida a win for Vice President Al Gore because, with typical New York provincialism, the networks forgot that Florida extends to more than one time zone. Florida extends in other directions as well, from redneck counties in the north to the pink Keys. In Florida, it's your New Jersey grandmother who tends to be liberal, while the young Cuban votes Republican.

When Elian swept ashore last year, he found himself precisely in this state of confusion. Republicans, who otherwise and elsewhere insist on "family values," argued against the reunion of Elian with his father. Democrats, who otherwise and elsewhere decry government intrusion into our private lives and police brutality, ended up applauding the storm-trooper invasion of a small house in Miami.

After all, it is appropriate that this year's presidential election should be decided in such a state. In Florida, everything melts. Everything reflects. The sky melts into the sea. The land floats. The water mirrors the sky.

For months, as the long campaign for the presidency proceeded, a commonly expressed opinion was that America was watching two lackluster candidates. We listened to their ghostwritten speeches. We heard them debate the future of Social Security and the high cost of prescription drugs, considerations directed most at Florida. And a vast portion of the public claimed to be "undecided."

Who could guess that a presidential campaign that excited so little passion would end up so passionately contested and a near-tie? And from that tie, America would be revealed to itself a nation deeply divided?

One now hears many Americans say it doesn't matter, just pick one or the other, get it over with. But one hears also that a large percentage of George W. Bush voters would not recognize the legitimacy of a Gore presidency, and a smaller, but still relatively large, percentage of Gore voters would not recognize a Bush presidency as legitimate.

After eight years, Bill Clinton is leaving the White House. After an administration that described itself and came to be described as centrist, the country is manifest as fiercely divided, equally divided.

The true divide in America may be cultural, rather than political. After all the debate about the price of pills, we are left with fears expressed but nowhere addressed. Americans are concerned with questions of sky, questions of the soul, of morality: a woman's governance of her body; the rise of Protestant fundamentalism; the president who looked America in the eye and told us a little blue lie.

Our politics end up dumping us into Florida, where neighbors are strangers to each other and where there is no discernible horizon. One does not go to Florida for clarity or to determine anything as coherent as "the will of the people." But Florida's confusion does accurately describe us. The quintessential American state of confusion.


L.A. Times
Sunday, November 26, 2000
Home Edition
Section: Opinion
Page: M-1