Cuban Kids from the 60s Exodus

Estampas de Cuba -- Postcards of Cuba-Los Niños Pedro sin Pan -- The Pedro sin Pan Children-

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Estampas de Cuba -- Postcards of Cuba-Los Niños Pedro sin Pan -- The Pedro sin Pan Children-
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Estampas de Cuba -- Postcards of Cuba

Los Niños Pedro sin Pan -- The Pedro sin Pan Children

By Maria Argelia Vizcaino

Published in Spanish May 30, 2003

Translated by Oscar B. Pichardo and Manuel A. Gutierrez

Para su lectura en español puede visitar:

http://www.mariaargeliavizcaino.com/e-Los_ninos_Pedro_Pan.html

To the reader: The largest child refugee exodus in the Western Hemisphere is historically known as Operation Pedro Pan. Between December 26, 1960, and October 22, 1962, over 14,000 unaccompanied children emigrated from Cuba to the United States. The name Operation Pedro Pan is taken after the J. M. Barrie character Peter Pan who lived in a land where children were safe.  The literal Spanish translation of Pan is bread. This article written by Maria Argelia Vizcaino, a Pedro sin Pan Child, details the hardships endured by the children who were unable to emigrate from Cuba after October 22, 1962.

Part 1 of 2

The largest exodus of underage children in this hemisphere is known as Operation Pedro Pan. From December of 1960 to October of 1962, 14,048 children and adolescents up to 18 years of age were sent by their parents to the United States to safeguard them from the Communist system. Stated coldly and without analysis it seems an exaggeration, particularly in light of the propaganda generated by the Castro regime portraying the Communist government as protectors of the children. However we the children who were Pedro sin Pan, the ones who were going to leave under the same circumstances but were forced to stay in Cuba by Castro, know how fortunate the ones that left were.

There is a poignant book written by Josefina Leyva -- Operación Pedro Pan -- which describes exactly how this mass exodus took place. In late November 1960, members of the North American Chamber of Commerce in Havana decided to work under the guidance of Jim Baker, director of the Ruston Academy in Havana, to try and help their Cuban friends on the island who wanted to remove the Castro Government which was well on its way towards totalitarianism and Marxism. The best way devised was to safeguard their children by bringing them to the United States until Cuba returned to democracy. President Eisenhower’s administration proposed the funds for initially bringing up to 200 children, but only under the condition they be placed in the custody of a non-governmental organization. That entity turned out to be the Catholic Welfare Bureau led by Father Bryan Walsh. Since over half of the children had no relatives in the United States, they went to foster homes or were boarded at religious schools to wait until either the democratic process was restored to Cuba or until their parents would arrive months or years later. In extreme cases parents never left the island and in other isolated cases children returned.

The first unaccompanied child that arrived and the first one sheltered by the Irish priest Father Walsh was named Pedro Menéndez arriving in Miami December 26, 1960. He is the reason the American press began to call these children Pedro Pan or Peter Pan.

Arranging for a travel visa to the United States subsequent to January 3, 1961, when diplomatic relations were broken between the United States and the Castro Government was extremely difficult. To implement the Pedro Pan children’s plan the State Department determined that a letter signed by Monsignor Walsh would suffice to obtain the required entry permit. In this manner the famous Visa Waiver was born, which so many people in Cuba kept as a reminder of the past… and never used… since it was voided by the Castro Government after the October Missile Crisis. The last flight of the children of Pedro Pan took place on October 22, 1962, from Rancho Boyeros International Airport. However, the State Department continued granting Visa Waivers for some time. My visa --which I still preserve with dignity and pain -- was issued on November 16, 1962, even though the process was started several months before. Apparently there were so many requests that the staff was overwhelmed.

The excellent writer for Contacto Magazine in California and the weekly Libre in Miami Aleida Duran tells us in her October 27, of 2001 article -- Operacion Pedro Pan 14 Thousand Cuban Children to the United States -- that Father Walsh was assisted by around 300 people in Miami; also by a group in Cuba such as Polita Grau and her brother Ramon who, “took risks in Cuba coordinating to make possible the massive exodus of children and adolescents which quietly took place.” As always the Press of the free world uncovers nearly everything to the benefit of the Communist regimes. As a result the brave siblings who were also instrumental in helping others in danger of the Cuban government escape were sentenced to prison in 1965.

Much has been said about the anguish endured by these children away from their parents. I shudder to imagine my children or my five year old grandson traveling alone not knowing when we would see each other again. The Jews of Europe come to mind as they sent their young in trains and ships westward… entrusting strangers to safeguard them from the approaching Holocaust; and as a consequence, we can understand those desperate parents delivering their greatest treasure abroad so they would not have to endure the fate which befell them. At the same time I thank God because my children did not suffer the hardship that we parents underwent in Cuba. The children had their Christmas and were able to choose their studies and what they wanted to be. But, above all, because they did not have to experience the terrible international adventures of the Castro regime which tore apart so many households and shattered the lives of countless mothers, widows and orphans.

It must have been terrible for the Pedro Pan children struggling with a foreign language and culture shock -- but above all the distance from their loved ones and the land where they were born. Many of the Pedro Pan kids explain the worst part was the uncertainty -- no one knew how long the separation would last. Many left parents serving long prison sentences for conspiring against the revolution. Other parents were punished and taken hostage by the totalitarian Government and not allowed to leave the country for many years. I sincerely believe that the experience of the Pedro Pan children may have been traumatic, but fortunately, most managed to rebuild their lives and to study and were forged by two cultures and the luxury of bilingualism in a great democratic nation.

The prologue to Josefina Leyva’s book written by Monsignor Bryan Walsh stressed something very interesting in reference to the thousands of children who emigrated alone, “Now that they are in mid-life, they wonder how parents could make a decision so drastic.” I believe in the next part of this Postcard we may give you the answer.

Part 2 of 2

In the book Operation Pedro Pan the author Yvonne Conde relates some of the terrible episodes experienced by the thousands of Cuban children that participated in this plan, but at the same time reaches the conclusion that it was a positive event. In eight years of research she contacted around 1,000 former participants and sent them a survey to which some responded anonymously. In this manner she is able to relate events previously unknown and verify that the majority were able to integrate into American society, achieved the American dream, enjoy professional careers, and remain completely bilingual.

Thus far no research has taken place pertaining to the children that remained with a Visa Waiver but were unable to leave during that timeframe. It is known the some of the Pedro Pan children suffered moral and psychological harm. But of the “Pedro sin Pan” children; what has been revealed to date, almost 45 years after the triumph of the deceptive revolution?

Taking stock of history, who separated whom? From Vienna Carlos Wotzkow affirms in his December 1999 article “The Cuban Family” (http://www.nocastro.com/archives/famcubn.htm) “...in the decade of the 60s, Fidel separated thousands of families by forcing their sons and daughters (even small children) to take part in the literacy campaigns. The plan, which replaced a Catholic project that already yielded excellent results (Note: 70 per cent of the illiterate were on the way to literacy before Castro), brought countless abuses to the  adolescents -- who in payment for their role as educators -- returned home pregnant and without state aid to address their status as single mothers.”

Shortly afterwards, on November 26, 1963, the law mandating 3 years compulsory military service for all youngsters between the ages of 15 and 27 was issued -- regardless whether they were young students or receiving post graduate degrees. Thus were created the “internationalist missions” where thousands of Cuban youngsters perished as mercenaries in Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Granada, etc. Countless others recruited to export our “wonderful revolution” around the globe -- from Africa, Asia, to Latin America -- lie buried in unknown graves.

The lost lives of these wretched souls matters not to anyone unless there is a family member among the victims. The same goes for the traumas endured by us who had to stay and grow up under a system that we detested. It was fortunate that my friend Olga Cordero, an engineer, sent me a letter written by Raquel Maria to a friend of ours, which seemed to enfold the story of my life, "There is mention of Pedro Pan... but nothing about us who were going to be Pedro Pan, but were unable to leave... I asked for my Visa Waiver when I was 10..." And I received mine at the age of 7.

I understand Raquel Maria so well when she laments, “I grew up knowing I had to live with a mask, could not discuss politics with anyone, or give my opinion, because my parents would be taken prisoners.”  I know what she means when she says, "Since I was very small I grew up being insulted at school, where I was called worm, slumlord, and imperialist." I saw it screamed many times at the children of political prisoners and to those who remained firm in their religious beliefs. I was even accused of counter-revolution during the 9th grade by Diego, the physics teacher. According to him I sabotaged his lectures along with two of my classmates (Carlos Cangas and Hector Cruz) when we acted with innocent mischievousness appropriate for our age.

Carlos Wotzkow states in the story of Carmen Gómez, "a girl yet to celebrate her 10th birthday, when expressing her longing to join her family in Puerto Rico was humiliated at school." She, like many other Cuban children, had a self-centered father who preferred she be mistreated rather than for her to leave Cuba. For her and her family the simple desire to be reunited meant years of mockery and bullying. Their garden was destroyed and the walls of her house were painted with slogans. But their dreams and ideals were not destroyed! The family was psychologically tormented -- without the right to education and under home detention -- for 15 long years. As an adult she finally found a way to leave behind that living hell.” This type of child abuse is never mentioned in Cuba or publicized abroad.

Raquel Maria took the extreme measure of not being a good student, “I learned to study and to leave unanswered parts of the exams since I wanted to leave the country. I did not have the luxury of getting good grades and could not be outstanding in anything." I also did not want to study. In my desire to leave Cuba I did not want the Government to use the profession with which I had been ‘gifted’ as an impediment and be forced to repay the government with monies sent by my family abroad to secure my freedom. In some cases not even paying the government worked… as happened to Dr. Joaquinito Espinosa of Guanabacoa, who was never allowed to leave even though his wife and children lived in the United States. So we, the Pedro sin Pan Children who did not give up on the idea of leaving at all costs, could not educate ourselves as did the majority of those who were able to leave during that unique opportunity… all the while acknowledging it was a traumatic experience.   

The Pedro Pan children have the love of God instilled in them. We who stayed behind were brainwashed constantly to become atheists in accordance with the system prevailing in Cuba. Living in Castroism, we had the Magi kidnapped and no one gave used toys as some of the Pedro Pan children have complained. I do not know any Pedro sin Pan child who has attained the status of a Mel Martinez, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the George W. Bush administration; or of singers and composers such as Willy Chirino, his wife Lissette Alvarez, Marisela Verenas, and many others. There may be some… but so far no one has researched the Pedro sin Pan like Josephine Leyva and Yvonne Conde researched the Pedro Pan. Perhaps someone will be motivated to research this even less documented part of our history.

Both the Pedro Pan as well as the Pedro sin Pan children have been another victim of Castro's despotic regime. If not for this terrible dictator none of us would have suffered on either side of the straits.

Copyright © 2009 María Argelia Vizcaíno