A knock at the door at 4 a.m. usually means bad news. But Raquel Rodríguez, roused from sleep at her apartment in the Cuban city of Cárdenas early on Nov. 22, smiled as she read a note from her daughter that someone had left outside. In it, Elisabet Brotons Rodríguez, 30, wrote that she was leaving her common-law husband, a man her mother had never liked. After a few days in Havana, the daughter wrote, she and her young son would return to Cárdenas and move in with Rodríguez—who would be only too happy to have them.

According to friends in Cárdenas, Elisabet Brotons's middle-of-the-night message was intended to keep her mother innocently unaware of a far riskier plan. Indeed, Brotons, along with 13 others, had already boarded a small boat headed for the U.S. that would capsize along the way, costing Elisabet her life and thrusting her now-6-year-old son, Elián González, into an international political maelstrom. Since then, barely a day has passed without a headline, a press conference or a noisy demonstration relating to the struggle between the boy's father in Cuba, park worker Juan Miguel González, 31, and members of his extended family in Miami, who have acted as Elián's guardians ever since he was found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day.

Elián's odyssey, now entering its third month, shows no sign of ending soon. The boy's Cuban grandmothers, Raquel Rodríguez and Mariela Quintana, both 51, have now returned home from a nine-day trip to the U.S., where they met the press, talked with Attorney General Janet Reno (who backs an Immigration and Naturalization Service ruling that Elián belongs with his father) and tirelessly lobbied Congress against bills that would make Elián a U.S. citizen and short-circuit the INS effort to send him home. Along the way they were allowed nearly two hours alone with Elián at the Miami Beach residence of Roman Catholic nun and civic leader Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, one person acceptable to both sides of the warring family. (She has long opposed the U.S. embargo of Castro's Cuba, but also called for the Communist regime to recognize freedom of religion.) In a stunning abandonment of her scrupulous neutrality, O'Laughlin, 70, suddenly decided that Elián should stay with his relatives in Miami, especially his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis González. "He has attached himself to this young woman as if she were his mother," said O'Laughlin.

The grandmothers left empty-handed on Jan. 30, still pledging to fight in the name of Elián's real mother, Elisabet Brotons. "She hasn't been allowed to rest in peace," says Raquel Rodríguez of her only child. "We want the boy to return so she can."

Who was Elisabet, and what led her to board the dilapidated 17-ft. boat that never made it to the U.S.? Friends and family members interviewed by PEOPLE in Cárdenas, the city 85 miles east of Havana where she was born and spent all her life, describe her as a quiet, serious young woman who nevertheless gladly took part in Cuba's unofficial national pastime: dancing. "Salsa, rock, romantic songs—she loved to dance," says neighbor Elvia Rossell Rodríguez, 30, a homemaker. The daughter of Raquel Rodríguez and her first husband, housepainter Benigno Brotons, who died in 1996 at age 59, Elisabet began dating Juan Miguel González, the son of a Cárdenas policeman, in junior high. "They met when they were 13, 14 years old," says González's best friend, Fidel Ramirez, 32, who works with Juan Miguel. Says high school classmate María Antónia Aldecoa: "She was very pretty, very formal and had a nice walk. They were inseparable."

Brotons and González were married in a 1985 civil ceremony at which Elisabet, like many women in Cuba, wore a rented gown and veil. Neither bride nor groom had graduated from high school, but both did eventually, after moving into a room in Elisabet's mother's apartment. Brotons worked as a waitress and later as a hotel chambermaid in the beach-resort city of Varadero; González worked his way up from electrician to cashier at Parque Josone, a manicured park built on a former sugar plantation in Varadero. Both jobs enabled the couple to collect foreign-currency tips from European and Canadian tourists, and together they earned enough to buy a 1956 Nash Rambler automobile—a wreck by U.S. standards, perhaps, but a luxury in Cuba.

The couple tried several times to have a child, but each of Brotons's pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Eventually the sadness "damaged Elisabet psychologically," says her neighbor Elvia. González and Brotons divorced in 1991 but kept up their efforts to have a child together. When their son was born in 1993 they named him Elián, a combination of Elisabet and Juan. "That baby was very special," says Fidel Ramirez. "They had waited for this for so long."

Even so, the couple's relationship cooled once more, and they split for good in 1996. "Elisabet started to change completely," says Aldecoa, her longtime friend. "Her figure got better. She changed her shoes, her clothes. She started to look so elegant." Elisabet met a new boyfriend, Lázaro Rafael Munero, a sometime taxi driver, at a Varadero disco, and they soon began living together.

All along, Elián was spending up to five nights a week with his father or one of his grandmothers. "He slept with me and my present wife in the same bed while visiting, because he's very close to me," said González, who supported his claim of involvement with Elián by telling an INS interviewer Elián's correct shoe size and the name of his first-grade teacher. Last year he and Brotons kept a vigil by their son's bedside when Elián was hospitalized for surgery to remove intestinal polyps—although by then González had a new wife, Nelsy, 28, and an infant son, Gianni.

It was apparently Brotons's boyfriend Munero—by all accounts a small-time hustler—who suggested that the couple and Elián flee Cuba's harsh economic conditions by taking a boat to Florida. Munero, 29, "never had a real job," says his uncle Dagoberto Munero, 41. "It wasn't that he was bad; he just liked to live good and not work too much." Arrested after a bar brawl in the early '90s, Munero spent time behind bars, but Brotons seemed blind to his weaknesses, say her friends.

Munero had already left Cuba aboard a stolen boat once and spent about a year in Miami. Back in Cuba—some say he couldn't live without Elisabet—Munero apparently bought a boat and an outboard engine with money earned from selling his old Chevrolet last fall. The morning before they left Cuba, Juan Miguel González's brother José António, who had been helping Elián make a kite, dropped the boy off at school. When he returned to collect him that afternoon, teachers told him Brotons had picked him up instead.

Today, Brotons's colleagues at the Hotel Paraíso say they can't recall her ever complaining about her life in Cuba. But Brotons, an officer in the Young Communists organization to which all the maids belonged, did persuade two of her coworkers to pay $1,000 each to Munero to join the one-way voyage to Florida.

Eleven people perished when the craft capsized in the Straits of Florida on Nov. 23. Nivaldo Fernández, 34, survived the ordeal and says that Brotons, while clinging to an inner tube after the boat had gone under, begged for help for her son. "Elisabet was saying, 'I'm very weak, I'm very weak...Make sure Elián reaches American soil, the land of liberty,' " Fernández claims.

Elián González, plucked from the sea by fishermen, did reach the U.S., but whether he will stay, nobody knows. While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., considered the option of granting him citizenship, a federal judge in Miami prepared to hear a suit filed by Elián's American relatives demanding political asylum for him. And behind the fence of a modest house in Miami's Little Havana, where camera crews and reporters, supporters and tourists came swarming on a recent afternoon, a 6-year-old boy sat inside watching a video: Home Alone 3.

Patrick Rogers
Joseph Harmes in Cuba, Don Sider and Jeanne DeQuine in Miami and Susan Gray and Linda Killian in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Don Sider,
  • Jeanne DeQuine,
  • Susan Gray,
  • Linda Killian.