A Cuban History Lesson – Part IV

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This column originally appeared in The Tentacle on June 2010.

            In this last installment on the story of “Operation Peter Pan,’ I’ll be summarizing and putting this little-known event in the context of the times.  It was almost fifty years ago, in late 1960 and early 1961, that the Irish-American Jesuit priest, Father Bryan Walsh, realized the need for housing and caring for the hundreds of unaccompanied children who were arriving at Miami International Airport on a daily basis. 

            Through Jamaica and Miami, the number of children arriving was growing and more places were needed to house them.  By the end of January 1961, Father Walsh stressed the need for keeping the operation secret, avoiding all publicity that could jeopardize the children’s safe exit out of Cuba.  The US press was already suspecting what was going on, but in a spirit of cooperation, they did not say anything – an impossible task these days.  It was the press who baptized the secret exodus “Operation Peter Pan.”  This name was in honor of the first boy Father Walsh took under his care on November 15, 1960, Pedro (Peter) Menendez.

            Father Walsh wrote on February 1, 1961, “As of today 174 children came in (from Cuba).  Of these, 53 have been and are being cared for by relatives and friends, the rest by the Catholic Welfare Bureau except for two by the Jewish Family Service.  In addition, 20 have been sent to the Catholic Children Bureau, in Philadelphia.”  As the numbers grew, children were sent to orphanages and foster homes in 35 states.

            The Cuban children were mainly from white middle class families, including some Jewish.  There were also children from black and Chinese families.  The Cuban children, not accustomed to racial segregation, were shocked by it in Florida.  When black Cuban children were not allowed to enter some places, the others, in a show of solidarity, refused to enter.  Miami, after all, was pretty much a segregated southern town fifty years ago. 

            The sudden separation from their parents, culture and environment, had a strong effect on many younger children who could not understand why their lives changed so drastically. 

            This is a good time to alert my very patient readers to a documentary series on Operation Peter Pan.  This series is now on You Tube, in five consecutive parts.  Operation Peter Pan Part I .  The reader may choose the remaining four parts from the right-hand column. 

            The children from Operation Peter Pan have grown up to be doctors, lawyers, technicians, musicians, entertainers, and even politicians.  Among the most well known musicians is Willy Chirino.  He married the popular singer Lisette Alvarez, also a Peter Pan child whose parents were the famous 1950s’ Cuban radio and television performers Olga Chorens and Tony Alvarez. 

            Santiago Rodríquez has become internationally known as a classical piano virtuoso and Professor at the University of Maryland; he was 8 years old when he came to the US. 

            Former HUD Secretary Mel Martínez (Melquíades Rafael Martínez Ruiz), later US Senator from Florida, was also a Peter Pan arrival, in 1962.  He reunited with his family in Orlando years later after bouncing from one of Father Walsh’s houses for refugee children to two foster homes. 

          Every Peter Pan child has an important story to tell. Margarita Prats, now Margarita Lora, who came when she was 8 with her sister Lola, 6 and brothers José, 9 and Benito, 7, has three children, is a Research Medical Technologist at NIH and lives in Maryland, while Lola became a Clinical Medical Technologist and has two children.  Her brother, José, is a Communications Entrepreneur in Virginia with two children.  Benito is an Aerospace Engineer in California with four children.  Family reunions are very important for the Prats family, and their parents have a series of photos lined up on the wall of their kitchen to prove it.

            And the list goes on.  There are grown Peter Pan children all over the US.  Reunions of Peter Pan children are frequent and well attended. 

            I did not know these folks personally, but in the small, tightly woven Cuban exile community in Miami, I knew about them.  Every day I was exposed to the plight of my parents and my relatives, and of friends of my parents.  We all went through the hardships of adapting to a new land, a different language, different rules, and different outlooks on life.  A day didn’t go by in Miami when my family and I didn’t bring up the separations, the reunions, the new arrivals in Miami, the hardships borne by those Cuban children arriving daily, eventually by the hundreds.  This was our topic of conversation day in and day out for our first three years in Miami. 

            One of the Cubans featured in the videos linked above is a personal friend, Dr. Carlos Eire, Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University.  Carlos is the author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, a book he wrote following the rescue and deportation of Elian González in 2000.  This book won the National Book Award in nonfiction for 2003, and has been translated into many languages.  It is, as expected, banned in Cuba by the Castro brothers, the darlings of the Left. 

            In order to survive his loss of his childhood, Carlos stripped himself of all his Cubanness—a Herculean feat.  I have met a lot of fellow Cuban exiles, in and out of Miami, in the past 50 years.  Many of these Cubans are what I call non-Cubans, in the most non-Cuban setting possible.  I am such a Cuban, and so is Carlos Eire.  There he is, at the graduate studies center of Yale University, in an office lined with books about 200-year-old crusades, convents, monks, and miracles. 

            Neither Carlos Eire nor I know that much about Cuba, then and now. Neither of us is a Cuba expert, and neither one of us pretends to be. He is up front about the factual mistakes in his “Snow in Havana” book. He is not an activist either, not for the right or the left. Because he has no agenda, he makes comments that get him in ­trouble, in anti-Castro Miami and in pro-Fidel New York. 

            Carlos Eire is a man who was robbed of his childhood, a man who, in order to survive, abandoned his Cubanness just like his father, who insisted on remaining in Cuba, “abandoned” him. And yet in his fifties he felt the need to go back to the Cuba of his mind, the only one he knows – that’s why he wrote that personal story, the rather unscholarly “Snow in Havana.” 

            Carlos married a native-born America, and so did I.  He’s raised his American children in a place with little or no Cuban influence, and so did I.  Carlos Eire is a scholar and teacher, with a rewarding career of his own in Connecticut, far removed from Miami Cuban exile politics.  So am I. 

            So it was the rescue and abandonment of Elian Gonzalez that prompted Carlos Eire to write his touching book and recollect his painful childhood experiences as a Peter Pan child.  It is the impending 50th anniversary of the start of Father Walsh’s mission of mercy that prompted me to dwell on this subject for four installments.  I thank you, Tentacle readers and Editor John Ashbury, for your patience and understanding over my eight-week-long reminiscences. 

            Since time has healed most of the traumas of the experience, most of the Peter Pan children thank their parents for having the courage to send them to freedom which they now fully enjoy and appreciate.  Would they be able to do the same for their own children?  Perhaps, for some, if the circumstances demanded it.  But not for others, still suffering from the separation trauma.  Some have chosen not to have children; others are very close and protective of them and are glad that their children live with freedom, something that can easily be taken for granted when one has not lived in a totalitarian society.  In general, they are grateful that Operation Peter Pan gave them the opportunity to fly as Peter did.

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