Cuban Kids from the 60s Exodus

Cuban kids return to Colfax refuge
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Cuban kids return to Colfax refuge
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Agustin Blazquez

Dear Pedro Pan Brothers and Sisters:

We would like to thank T.J. Marsh of Pullman, Washington for contacting us and bringing this excellent article about the Pedro Pan experience in Colfax, Washington to our attention. 

We also extend our gratitude to Jerry Jones the Editor of the Whitman County Gazette, in Colfax, Washington for allowing us to disseminate the article to our Pedro Pan brothers and sisters and post it on our website www.cubankids1960.com

 

Until we meet again!
The Cuban Kids Working Group

CubanKid60Exodus@aol.com

 

 

Cuban ‘kids’ return to Colfax refuge
by Jerry Jones, Editor
Whitman County Gazette
Colfax, Wash.

Editorial comment: Colfax residents usually are impressed by the vitality and openness of our Cuban "kids" when they return. It leads the locals to ponder what Colfax would have been like if the kids and
their families had stayed and raised the next generation.


Over 45 years ago they were known in Colfax as the Cuban kids. They were refugees who were flown out of Cuba by their parents in the early days of the Castro takeover. An estimated 14,000 Cuban children left the country without assurances that their families would be reunited in the United States. Sixty-three of the children, many in their teens, landed on Colfax.

Last week two of the Cuban kids, now both grandmothers, returned for an anticipated visit. They were accompanied by their mother and one of the supervisors who lived here with the children.

The Rodriguez sisters, Marcela and Tania, last saw Colfax in July of 1966 when they departed for New Jersey to reside with their family. They lived in Colfax for almost four years and were among the last to leave.

image002.jpg

The Rodriguez sisters, now Marcela Enriquez of Houston, left, and
Tania Betancourt of Tamarac, Fla., stand behind Ofelia Gayo, Grand
Prairie
, Texas
, right, and their mother, Mirtila Morciego.

Over those four years they experienced a new kind of life. Memories of friends and Colfax have stayed with them through their adult lives. "We've always wanted to come back here, and we decided this was the year," said Marcela Rodriguez Enriquez of Houston. "We just have so many wonderful memories of Colfax," Tania Rodriguez Betancourt of Tamarac, Fla., added. Tania and her mom, Mirtila Morciego, flew from Florida to Houston to hook up with Marcella and Ofelia Gayo of Grand Prairie, Texas, for the trip to Colfax.

They took a tour of the former St. John's Academy and St. Patrick's Catholic Church and visited with former Colfax friends, including members of St. Patrick's who adopted the Cubans during their stay here. The Rodriguez sisters were 12 and 9 years old when they came to Colfax. They came out of Cuba as part of a Catholic Welfare program Operation Pedro Pan.

The children went to several locations in the United States and many landed in the Spokane Diocese. Raised in Havana, they found Colfax to be a very different place, but very accommodating. They recalled flying into Spokane International Airport and waiting for parishioners from Colfax to arrive and transport them south to Colfax. Those rides in the family cars were an initial taste of the support they would receive.

The Cuban kids were housed in the academy building where dormitory rooms had been used years earlier to house resident Catholic students who came into Colfax from rural towns and ranches. Ofelia was one of the adult supervisors for the group. Cuban teachers and parents arrived.

The late Roy McDonald of Colfax served as the sponsor for the program. The Rev. Cornelius Stefani was a coordinator and many residents helped out in many ways. The Rodriquez sisters recall how some of the women of the church would assist with ironing clothes and help with preparation for Sunday mass.

Marcela remembers being allowed release from an evening study session to go out on the lawn and experience the first snowfall they had ever seen. "I just opened up my arms and put my face up and tried to eat it," she
remembered.

Her sister remembers the Cuban kids used makeshift cardboard sleds to coast down the hills behind the church during the winter days.” And when the cardboard got too soggy, we just used our pants," Tania laughed.

During the years they lived here the children kept in contact with their parents via the mail. Letters normally arrived each week although sometimes they would have to wait out interruptions of mail service. The academy building at that time had one telephone in the hallway. Students recalled how the phone would ring with a long-distance call for one of the Cuban children. Those calls were from parents who had made it to the United States.

After each of those calls the hallway would erupt with jubilation with smiles and tears of relief. The telephone calls were a signal that the waiting was over and the youngsters would go on with their lives in the United States.

The Rodriguez sisters were reunited with their parents in July of 1966. The family went to New Jersey, Chicago and then to Houston. Their half-brother, Emilio, departed Colfax earlier when his mother was able to get out of Cuba.

Marcela married and raised her family in Houston. She worked for the Houston School District. Tania went on to Florida where she married, raised a family and was employed with Continental Airlines. She remembers one passenger who was catching a flight to Spokane on the way to Colfax. She told him she once lived in Colfax. "He told me Colfax had changed a lot over the years. But I don't really think it has changed very much. It looks pretty much the same."

Like other members of the Cuban contingent who have returned to visit Colfax, the Rodriquez sisters contacted Audi Reyes Guidi, the lone member of the group who still resides in Colfax. "They all make a stop at Audi's house," she noted. Audi and her brother and sister waited three years for their parents, Fidel and Josie Reyes, to arrive.

The Reyes family remained in Colfax. Audi, a member of the 1966 class of Colfax High School, spent 10 years of her adult life in California and then returned to Colfax. She is now food services manager at Whitman Hospital & Medical Center, and her parents reside at the Courtyard.

Although the Colfax Cuban kids shared a common experience in Colfax, they have not kept in contact over the years. The Rodriquez sisters noted they did not come from a single school or neighborhood in Cuba and were strangers to one another when they arrived. "At first the program started with wealthy families, but it soon expanded to all kinds of families," Marcela explained. She noted their father was a taxi driver in Havana.

The women spent their time in Colfax looking up locals they knew 40 years ago. They called on Dr. Gordon Ripple, who served as their dentist, and Charles Hofer who provided a lot of support. They also made a stop at the former St. John's Academy building which now serves as the parish hall.

The arrival of the Cubans in 1962 actually led to an extension of service for the academy. It closed after the 1965-66 school year and the Catholic classmates of the Cubans enrolled in the public schools in Colfax or in other districts.


Editor’s notes and background:
The Colfax Cubans attended school the Colfax Catholic school, St. Johns Academy, up to the eighth grade. The older kids attended Colfax High School. They resided in quarters on the upper floor of the academy which originally housed Catholic students who came from rural farms and towns beyond daily commuting distance from Colfax.

Whitman County is in the middle of what is known as the Palouse County, a geological area made up of wind-blown soil deposits which provide the most productive grain producing area in the United States. Whitman County's largest town is Pullman, home of the Washington State University.

The Cubans here believe they were unique in all living and mostly attending school in the same building. As the youngsters departed over the four years, some of them moved out of the academy quarters and resided in homes of church members. .

With its influx of Cuban students gone, St. John's Academy closed in 1966 and the building for many years was generally unused. It was put back on line for one year in 1993 when the Colfax school district remodeled its elementary building and used St. John's classrooms during the construction period. Opening up the classrooms at that time revived memories of the Colfax Cubans. The third floor dormitory area looked much the same as it did when they last lived there 30 years earlier.

To get the building back in use, the public school district had to install a new heating plant and that was exchanged for what might have been rent. The heating plant made St. John's usable again and it became the Parish Hall for the church which is located just across a parking lot. The area around the church on the south end of Colfax includes play fields, a religious grotto, and sledding hills which became the province of the Cuban kids at the time they lived here. .

Footnote: the late Roy McDonald, the Colfax entrepreneur who was the prime sponsor in bringing the children her, later sponsored Vietnamese refugees who came to Colfax for a short time.