I remember the day Fidel rode into Havana. I was four years old. My father rushed home to take me to the celebrations. My parents, like most Cubans, had supported the revolution. Batista had dashed all hopes of a democratic republic, as he staged a military coup once it became clear he would lose the election for presidency. His reliance on violence fueled a national rebellion. Fidel Castro, leader of one of the revolutionary movements, became its titular head, as he promised to complete the historical mandate of José Martí’s dream for an independent and democratic island.
But instead of elections, Fidel ruled by decrees presented at mass rallies. Former supporters of the revolution now rebelled against him. Opponents were rounded up, summary trials held, and executions carried out. But what may have been a national divide was played out in the world stage of the Cold War, and Eisenhower ordered the CIA to overthrow the Castro government. A military invasion was planned with Cubans who had supported the revolution but were now opposed to the turn towards authoritarianism. The Castro government found an ally in the Soviet Union that welcomed the opportunity to have a beachhead in the Western hemisphere.
As the revolution radicalized, the past gave way to a project lodged in the future that promised a socialist society and the creation of the “New Man.” Children were the keys to this ambitious social reengineering experiment. The rush to save children from this fueled an unprecedented exodus of unaccompanied minors to the United States, including me, through a program dubbed Operation Pedro Pan. Minors were provided visa waivers, mimeographed sheets with letterhead of Catholic Welfare Bureau signed by Father Bryan Walsh, a priest who was working with the US government. More than 14,000 Cuban minors arrived to the United States between 1960-1962. Once in the United States, we would claim our parents. However, at the heels of the October Missile Crisis, both governments shut their doors. At the time, more than 8,000 children had not been reunited with their parents. With rare moments of détente, policies on both sides of the Florida Straits have continued to result in family separations.
Today, Cubans are in a very precarious situation, as the economy continues to deteriorate and repression is at an all-time high. What Fidel’s death will mean remains to be seen as factions within the elite square off to grab the reins of power. But for now, animosities among those who have stayed and those who left have lessened giving way to a less contentious relationship for most Cubans.
In 2013, my father died in Miami without ever returning home. He said he would only go after Fidel had died. The pain of losing his homeland and the future he had dreamed for his family was too great for him. Initially he opposed my returns, but on one of my trips he gave me an old Esso map of Matanzas, his hometown. He had carefully marked the house where he had lived, his school, where his mother worked, his favorite park and el Teatro Sauto, in which he had had his first public singing debut. Fidel had not succeeded in destroying his childhood memories.
What follows is an excerpt from my book The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the United States and the Promise of a Better Future.
My mother’s relatives lived in Yaguajay, a little town nestled between the sea and the foot of the Escambray Mountains in the Las Villas province of Cuba. Two or three times a year, my family took the five-hour drive from our home in Havana to visit them. In the summer of 1961, our trip had a secret purpose. We were coming to say good-bye. We were delivering some of our possessions: a fan, jewelry, photographs. We also brought out longhaired cat, Johnny, for safekeeping until our return. I sat next to Johnny’s cage in the backseat; I can still recall the smell of his sweaty coat.
My parents, like thousands of Cubans, had supported the revolution at first; they hid rebels in our home, a risk that could have cost them their lives. In January 1959, the day the rebeldes marched into Havana, my father rushed home to pick me up so that we could greet them. When we reached the Avenida de los Presidentes, a wide avenue dotted with statues of Cuba’s past presidents, he hoisted me onto his shoulders so that I could see over the crowd. People were jubilant—dancing, chanting, and reaching out to touch the bearded rebels in their olive green uniforms. One stopped in front of us and reached up to hug me; I was mesmerized by the red glass beads of the rosary that hung from his neck and the silver cross almost buried in his hairy chest. We honked our car horn all the way home. My father told me it was a day I must never forget.
But during the next two years, everything changed. Fidel Castro, once a popular hero in our family, became a ruler we feared. We stopped collecting trading cards featuring heroes of the revolution. I no longer rode my toy military jeep on the back patio, waving the red and black flag of the 26 of July Movement. I had just turned six. Time was moving fast. Turmoil was increasingly becoming a part of our daily lives. Sires were heard at all hours. Our familiar routines of playing in the park and going to the beach on Sundays were constantly disrupted by threats of bomb raids. Just months earlier, the government had shut down schools, including mine, Nuestra Señora de Lourdes. There was constant confusion in the air. For reasons I only understood later, my parents decided to go into exile.
The quickest way for the family to depart was to send me to the United States with a visa waiver; I would then claim my parents and sister, who would join me in a few months. I was to travel with my best friend, Xavier Arruza, also six years old. His older brothers were already in Miami. It was Xavier’s father who had obtained the visa waiver for me. I was going to Miami, I was told, to stay with Nenita and Pucho Greer, my parents’ friends. We started to pack my things. I felt a strange surge of excitement (I had never been on an airplane before) mixed with apprehension (I had never been separated from my parents). Secrecy shrouded my trip: no one was to know that I was leaving the country. My parents had not even told my younger sister, Alicia.
On July 30, just before dawn, my parents woke me and dressed me in the aqua blue and white checkered dress my grandmother had made for me, on which they pinned a piece of paper bearing my name and the name and phone number of our friends in Miami. They quietly loaded the car: a suitcase, a gray and red vinyl handbag, and my favorite doll. The sky was turning a pale orange pink as we drove to the airport.
Years would pass before I learned how many other children had left the island in the same fashion, to be reunited with their parents at the uncertain date. Some, in fact, never saw their parents again; others experienced long separations. Still others faced terrible hardship in foster homes or institutions. At the time, though, I knew only about my cousins, who arrived in the United States shortly after I did. On Sundays, we visited two of my cousins at a makeshift camp in south Dade County. Church officials in Havana had told their parents that their daughters would receive a beca (scholarship) to go to a god school in the United States. Instead they were sleeping in a large room filled with small cots squeezed so tightly together that they had to slide onto them from the pillow end. Later two cousins were shipped to a foster home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and others to an orphanage in St. Louis, Missouri.
By mid-1961, most middle-class Cuban families knew of the semi-clandestine visa waiver program that had spurred this child migration. But no one spoke about it openly; everyone was sworn to secrecy, both on the island and in the United States. It wasn’t until March 8, 1962, that the Miami Herald wrote about a secret effort called Operation Exodus that was bringing Cuban youth to the United States to save them from Fidel Castro’s brainwashing. The Herald reported 8,000 had already arrived in South Florida. In the next seven months, another 6,000 unaccompanied children would enter the United States. In total, between the years 1960 and 1962, more than 14,000 children entered the United States through the program that came to be known as Operation Pedro Pan or, in its Spanish translation, Operación Pedro Pan.
There are many debates about the origin of the name. In Cuba it is referred to by its English name. A few years ago, I visited Noemi Booth, an English teacher who had worked at Ruston Academy in Havana and was still living in Cuba. When I told her that I was conducting research on Operation Pedro Pan, she quickly corrected me and said, “Here we refer to it as Operation Peter Pan.” In a book published in 1962, Ruby Hart Phillips, New York Times correspondent in Havana throughout the fifties, wrote about an American she knew who had helped hundreds of children leave Cuba, and someone had called is work Operation Peter Pan. But Monsignor Walsh, one of the pivotal figures in the exodus, always called it Pedro Pan and told us that a local reporter had dubbed it as such. An article that appeared in the Miami Herald on March 9, 1962, states, “This is the underground railway in the sky—Operation Peter Pan. Maybe it should be Operation Pedro Pan.” A New York Times article May 27, 1962, would use the name again when it reported that 10,000 children were already in the United States and called it “the largest peacetime program for homeless refugee children in this country.” Nowhere did I find in government documents reference to Operation Peter Pan or Pedro Pan. The closest we have to an official name was the Miami Herald’s article dubbing it Operation Exodus and El Rescate de la Niñez, listed in a CIA directory entitled Counterrevolutionary Organizations.
But the name caught on anyway. Walt Disney’s version of Peter Pan had been released in the mid-fifties, and the idea of children in flight found a familiar popular imagery. Surely unbeknownst to those who helped popularize the name was the more ambivalent and complicated literary figure created by J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. In the original story, when Wendy first meets Peter Pan and he tells her he has no mother, she feels “that she was in the presence of a tragedy.” Peter, who has innumerable adventures, can never have a family—it is “the one joy from which he must be forever barred.” Peter Pan, a boy who refused to grow up, spent his time luring children away from their parents to a frequently dangerous place called Neverland. There, Peter is the leader of the “lost boys,” babies who fell from their cradles when their nurses neglected them. It is a place where children long for their mothers but slowly begin to forget their past. The tragic side of Peter Pan was a strange foreshadowing of what many children of Operation Pedro Pan would come to experience.
Despite the headlines about the unprecedented exodus of Cuban children, larger events overshadowed it, and Operation Pedro Pan soon faded from public attention. By October 1962, the world would be at the brink of nuclear war. The United States detected the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles on the island and demanded that they be removed. In turn, the Soviet Union demanded that the United States make a pledge of nonintervention in Cuba. As a result of the standoff, both Cuba and the United States banned travel to and from the island. The plight of these children—many whose parents had not been able to come to the United States—would be forgotten in the unfolding world drama.
About the Author
A frequent media commentator on Cuba-U.S. relations, María de los Angeles Torres is professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at University of Chicago Illinois and author of several books, including In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States and The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.