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.
And then Eladio told me: We own this town. You can go ahead and support Jay Love, but you are going to lose because we own this town,' Buonamia says. I told him I didn't think Diaz de la Portilla was going to win. And he said that didn't matter because if Diaz de la Portilla loses, then they would support Penelas. This was after he was telling me that Penelas was also part of SAVE Dade and a big homo and all this other shit.
At this point you may be wondering about Armesto-Garcia. Here's a little background: He spent just two years in the state legislature because he was not only ineffective but also was mired in one scandal after another. Among other indiscretions this moral and religious pillar cheated on his wife, fathering a child with his mistress back in 1976. (See Seventh Commandment for more information.) Several times the woman had to drag Armesto-Garcia into court to force him to make child-support payments. Once he was elected to office, though, he placed his ex-girlfriend on the state's payroll as his executive secretary, a job she held until the precise day before their child turned eighteen and was no longer entitled to child support. More recently Armesto-Garcia was a member of Miami's code-enforcement board and was investigated for possibly violating the state's Sunshine Law. No charges were filed.
As Armesto-Garcia and Buonamia talked, Armesto-Garcia's son (one of his legitimate children, not the product of an adulterous affair) arrived at the church. Eladio Jr., as he often is called, is a chip off the old block. The publisher of a Spanish-language newspaper called El Nuevo Patria, Eladio Jr. ran a failed campaign for mayor of the City of Miami in 1996, and in 1992 was charged with beating his wife -- who was seven months pregnant at the time -- with a wooden hanger. Charges were dropped after Eladio Jr. agreed to attend three months of anger-control classes.
A refresher course may be in order.
When Eladio Jr. entered the church, Marisa watched him from her vantage point in the church choir. She noticed that he looked around for a minute, and then left the church. Suspicious, she followed him outside, she claims, just in time to see him and another man using what looked like an ice pick to puncture the RV's tires. Before Marisa could alert her husband, Eladio Jr. and the other man ran off. By the time Mass was over, three of the tires were flat and a fourth was leaking air.
It cost $1144 to have them replaced. Buonamia filed a police report and is waiting to see if the police or the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office take action. Father Hopkins refused to discuss the incident, saying it was best for him and the church to stay out of such matters. Armesto-Garcia could not be reached for comment, but Eladio Jr. denies slashing Buonamia's tires and says he has no idea who did. He calls the allegation ludicrous. Art is a nice guy; he's a likeable guy, Eladio Jr. offers. I consider him a friend. [But] I don't think that gentleman is dealing with a full deck. I feel sorry for him.
Amazingly the story doesn't end here. A week later Buonamia, his wife, and two friends returned to church after Father Hopkins assured them it would be safe because Armesto-Garcia and his family would be attending the 6:00 p.m. Mass instead of the 11:00 a.m. service.
But not long after Buonamia's group arrived, the Armesto-Garcia posse showed up. Though he stands only five feet tall, Buonamia refused to be intimidated, especially in church. When he realized Eladio Jr. was outside, Buonamia and one of his guests, Pam Stack, approached him. I told him he owed me $1144 for the tires, Buonamia recounts.
Eladio Jr.'s response: He starts screaming at us that it is our fault for the Elian thing, Buonamia says. And what are we doing here and how dare we come to their neighborhood. The other man who allegedly assisted Eladio Jr. in slashing the tires showed up as well, according to Buonamia, and told the diminutive Italian: I'm going to give you a beating.
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Buonamia and Stack retreated into the church, where Stack called police on a cell phone. She says she felt threatened. Officers responded and stood by as Buonamia and his friends left the church. Stack says she was dumbfounded by the entire affair. And how shameful that this happened in a church, she adds.
Art and Marisa Buonamia say they plan on attending another church from now on.