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Remembering when the US sheltered Cuba's children

Remembering when the US sheltered Cuba's children
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As a most difficult year winds down, a little-known commemoration will be celebrated by a select number of Cuban Americans. Dec. 26, 2020, marks the 60th anniversary of Operation Pedro Pan, an endeavor that brought over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States between 1960 and 1962. 

For those of this generation who made the trek across the Florida Straits by air and sea, it will be an occasion mixed with harrowing memories and immense gratefulness.

At the outset, it was a modest proposal: transfer 200 Cuban children to Miami to save them from communism. The time apart from their parents would be short, only until Fidel Castro fell from power by the result of U.S. force, Cuban counterrevolutionary tactics or a combination of both. Families would reunite in a matter of months. A plan was hatched and it worked. But soon it ballooned into something unwieldy, so that within two years the modest proposal erupted into what at the time was the largest migration of lone minors to the United States. 

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Officially known as the Unaccompanied Cuban Children’s Program that started under government largesse in February 1961, “Operation Pedro Pan”— coined in the press for the story of the boy who could fly — denotes the coordinated effort to relocate and care for its participants between 1960 and 1962, ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet more youngsters came, and the Children’s Program would live on in some form until 1981.

The program relied on a vast network of federal and state offices — Department of Health, Education and Welfare, U.S. State Department and the Florida State Department of Public Welfare, to name a few. A long list of nonprofit church groups, child welfare agencies and airlines aided and abetted the cause, as did embassies, parochial schools and counterrevolutionary networks in Cuba. Children without immediate family members or caretakers in Miami — more than half of the minors — were shuttled into transitional shelters, and from there were sent to group and foster homes around the country, all spearheaded by the Catholic Church. Kids from mostly middle- and upper-class households suddenly found themselves in locales like San Antonio, Dubuque, Iowa, or Helena, Mont., where many saw snow for the first time.

Of these, the church assumed responsibility for the vast majority of Pedro Pans. At the program’s helm was Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, an Irish priest who took up his calling in Miami and embraced his mission with gusto. He labored at a time when Catholic laity found new life and prestige in postwar America with the donning of Vatican II and the election of the country’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. The Children’s Program nearly consumed Walsh, but the young priest was bent on growing Miami’s Catholic community. Together, the church and mushrooming Cuban exile waves did just that. 

Facilitated by federal, state and municipal institutions and incalculable heavy lifting by everyday residents, it became a national first and elevated test for U.S. democracy, an imperative to provide for and absorb refugees who were escaping political and religious persecution, communism and godlessness, which were among the country’s fiercest anxieties. Religious dedication and threats to educational and familial customs collided on the Cold War landscape, prompting parents to make the agonizing decision to send their children in order to avoid “communist indoctrination” and rumored dispossession of parental rights by the Cuban state. 

Common in the days leading up to departure was a sudden increase of activity in the household. With little to no warning, neighbors and family members would scurry in and out, and there was an unexpected severity to the situation. Children learned that they would be traveling to the United States to attend school for a short time. Many were told that they had earned a special scholarship. When the day arrived, most went to the Havana airport and saw their parents for the last time in months, sometimes years and in some rare cases, forever. But family reunification was always the goal, and the Program assured that 90 percent of children were reconnected with at least one parent or family member by 1966.

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Over the course of several years of research, I have pored over numerous testimonies and documents related to the program, many housed in the Operation Pedro Pan Archive at Barry University, which holds the papers of Monsignor Bryan Walsh. In his frequent recounting of Operation Pedro Pan, Father Walsh often began with a Cuban man who approached him in the fall of 1960 and implored the Catholic Church to help a 15-year-old unaccompanied boy, Pedro Menéndez. From there, Operation Pedro Pan materialized. The first list of names dropped into Walsh’s possession in mid-December and on Dec. 26 Pan American Airways Flight 422 landed in Miami with two teenagers, Sixto Aquino and his sister Vivian. The program then flourished. 

As a collective, most Pedro Pans express gratitude that their parents sent them and could not imagine a life otherwise in Cuba. Still, others harbor terrible memories of the shelters, orphanages and foster families, which include tales of physical and sexual abuse. Others recount experiencing newfound racism when they moved from a country that classified them White to a new nation that designated them somewhere between Black and White at a time when “Hispanic” and “Latino” had yet to cohere in the national imaginary.

We will never know how many young people made the crossing over the duration of the Cuban Children’s Program. The New York Times obituary for Father Walsh asserted that the priest aided over 16,000 children between 1960 and 1964, which is mostly likely an overstatement but in the end unverifiable.

In the spirit of this anniversary, Americans should also think about our own era, a time when the nation has faced an even greater tide of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border and the implementation of policies like “zero tolerance” that exploit familial separation for political ends. We would do well to remember the pains the country took 60 years ago to reunite Cuban children with their families, when the national good meant reunion, not separation.

John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter is @Professor_G_T.