For UMUC President Javier Miyares and the four panelists at the university’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration―all Cuban exiles who had fled their homeland alone as children in the early 1960s―Operation Pedro Pan was a personally searing and life changing event.
The exodus of 14,000 children who left Cuba without their parents from December 1960 to October 1962 in the wake of Fidel Castro’s communist revolution, was dubbed “Operation Pedro Pan” by a Miami newscaster, who likened it to the children’s flight to “Never Neverland” in the story of Peter Pan.
“I became part of Pedro Pan after being spirited out of Cuba on July 4, 1961, by my Jesuit teachers when my father was taken prisoner by Fidel Castro,” Miyares told the audience in a video address.
Miyares, 14 at the time, eventually made his way to Baltimore to live with an uncle.
“Pedro Pan represents a seminal event in the history of the United States and Cuba, and of human rights and freedom,” Miyares said. “It is vital [that] we continue to serve as custodians of that history, even as we open normalized relations between the United States and Cuba,” he added.
Operation Pedro Pan was co-conceived and orchestrated by James Baker, the headmaster of Ruston Academy, an American school in Havana, and Father Bryan Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami. Together they arranged for visas for the children to enter the United States and for places for them to stay.
Most of the 14,000 children were placed with family members or friends, but 6,000 of them ended up in orphanages or foster homes.
Eloisa Echazabal was 13 when she left Cuba with her eight-year-old sister and three boy cousins.
After Castro led the guerrilla uprising against the Batista government, she said, it took her parents a long time to understand how much the revolution would affect their lives. Then the government closed her parochial school and sent the nuns back to Mexico.
“That made my parents make the tough and heart-wrenching decision to send us alone to the United States, not knowing if they would see us again,” Echazabal said.
She and her sister were sent to an orphanage in Buffalo, New York, and her cousins to one in Richmond, Virginia. After two months, she and her sister were sent to a foster home and finally were reunited with their parents nine months later in Miami.
Jesus “Jay” Castano said he was in the fifth grade when the Castro regime tried to recruit him into the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution to become a chevado―a snitch―to report on children and parents in his neighborhood.
In April 1962, six months before the doors closed on Operation Pedro Pan, Castano flew to Miami and ended up in Camp Kendall with hundreds of other children. He was there for two years before his mother was able to get out of Cuba on a Red Cross ship.
“I don’t want a dictatorship,” he said. “I have been back to Cuba three times and they have it. I love Cuba. The next time I go, I hope it will have improved.”
Susana Gomez said she was a sophomore in a private Catholic school when the daughter of a captain in the Castro regime joined her class.
“She was a bully,” Gomez said. “I grabbed her by the shirt and said, ‘if you bully one of my friends, I will beat the living daylights out of you.’ The nuns called my parents, and I never went back to that school again.”
At 13, Gomez and her 12-year-old brother were heading to Miami. “I was a naïve young girl, and I didn’t know how much my actions were endangering my family,” she said.
Rene Costales, who ended up in a Catholic school in Vermont, said the revolution divided friends and families. One friend had parents who were communists and he didn’t want any part of it. Another friend sailed away on a 25-foot sailboat to join an uncle in Miami. On the other end of the spectrum, one friend wanted to become a militiaman and his parents couldn't stand that. They signed his emancipation papers and they left him behind in Cuba.
Almost all of the Pedro Pans were eventually reunited with their parents― although for many it took years. The experience, the panelists said, left scars that still have not healed. They often rely on each other for support.
“We had the pain not only of being an exile but also the pain of separation from our parents and the uncertainty of reunification,” Costales said.
The Pedro Pans were welcomed in the United States by Americans who feared communism. That is not the case now for Central American children who are fleeing the gangs in their home countries to come here.
“We were only children, and America welcomed us without reservation,” Miyares said. “We were cared for with love and consideration and given access to education. I am proud of what the Pedro Pans have accomplished.
“My heart breaks when I see immigrants and children of immigrants with dreams, like my own, who now are marginalized in the public discourse,” he said.