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Every Sunday for the past ten years, Art Buonamia and his wife, Marisa, drove from their home in Kendall to attend Mass at the Shrine of Saint Philomena Church in Little Havana. “They still do the Mass in Latin,” explains Buonamia, an Italian from New York who moved to Miami 34 years ago. “We grew up with the Latin Mass. It's a beautiful language.” Saint Philomena isn't a very large church. Fewer than 100 people attend Sunday services, Buonamia says, but its members are close.
All that changed, however, with Elian Gonzalez.
Following Easter Sunday Mass this past April, several members of the congregation, as well as a few outsiders, made speeches from the altar denouncing the federal government, which a day earlier had raided the boy's Little Havana home to reunite him with his father. Buonamia believed Elian's place was with his father, but he also understood it was an emotional issue and people would disagree. So he kept his views to himself.
But Buonamia could not accept having the church's altar seized to make political speeches against the United States. “The priest was hiding in the sanctuary at the time,” he recalls. “I asked him later why he would allow them to take over the altar like that. I said they shouldn't be allowed to do that. And he said, “There isn't anything I can do about it.' Which is true. He is afraid of them.”
The speakers were exhorting church members to march over to Elian's house to demonstrate. “If people didn't see you jumping up and down against the United States government, then it was perceived that you were against them personally,” he says. On his way out of the church that day, he told the priest, Father Timothy Hopkins, he wasn't coming back.
In the weeks that followed, the 47-year-old Buonamia, a retired businessman, became interested in politics for the first time in his life. The Elian affair had sparked something in him. “When [Miami-Dade Mayor Alex] Penelas got up there and told the federal government he was not going to support the authorities to get that child out of there and reunite him with his father, many of us became incensed over this,” Buonamia says. “We were hoping to have a candidate who could unite the community.” He joined an organization called Citizens 4 America, one of several groups formed in response to the perceived anti-American sentiment running through factions of the Cuban-American community. He even began volunteering on behalf of Jay Love's campaign for county mayor.
After continued prodding by Father Hopkins and other church members, Buonamia and his wife agreed in late August to come back to Saint Philomena. On Sunday, September 3, the couple, having spent the early morning campaigning for Love, drove to church in their recreational vehicle, which had several large “Jay Love for Mayor” signs affixed to it. Buonamia says he warned Father Hopkins that he would be driving the RV, and the priest said it would be fine. Buonamia parked in the rear of the church parking lot. “I was trying to obscure it as much as possible,” he says. “We knew it wasn't Love territory, but it never dawned on me that people would get physical over this.”
Soon after arriving, Marisa Buonamia was accosted inside the church by Eladio Armesto-Garcia, a former Republican state representative, who served in Tallahassee from 1992 until 1994. He told her to move the RV immediately. She refused. “I told him: “This is a democracy,'” recalls Marisa, who hails from Panama. Next Armesto-Garcia confronted Buonamia.
“He was very agitated,” Buonamia remembers. “He starts screaming at me in Spanish that Jay Love is a homosexual and that I'm supporting homosexuals and that I have to get my RV out of there. I told him it is not important to me what he thinks. I'm here to go to Mass, and I asked him to leave me alone. He then screamed at me in church that he was going to beat the shit out of me when Mass was over.”
Armesto-Garcia is a member of the Christian Coalition and chairman of a group called Take Back Miami-Dade, whose goal is to repeal the so-called gay-rights ordinance passed by the county commission two years ago. The ordinance, which is designed to protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation, was enacted through the efforts of the nonprofit SAVE Dade political-action committee.
“He mentioned that he was with the Christian Coalition,” Buonamia continues. “He was saying that SAVE Dade was a bunch of homosexual perverts who are for abortion, and that Jay Love is one of them. He was doing the homophobic routine.” Armesto-Garcia stormed off. Buonamia grew nervous and went looking for him a few minutes later. He found Armesto-Garcia in the back of the church finishing a phone call to his son, Eladio José Armesto.
Buonamia tried to calm Armesto-Garcia: “I was telling him, “Don't take it so hard. It's just a campaign. Don't take it so hard, Eladio. We are for Jay Love because we don't like what Penelas did.'” Buonamia thought Armesto-Garcia might appreciate that, because he was an outspoken supporter of Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who was challenging Penelas.