Separation and sacrifice: 'Pedro Pans' who fled Cuba see echoes today

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Young girls walk home from school near the Capitol building in central Havana, Cuba, on March 4, 2019. Luis Galup grew up in the neighborhood before being brought to the United States.
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They are called Pedro Pans. There are more than 14,000 of them: Cuban children whose parents sent them abroad in the early days of the Castro regime, thinking they’d join them before long. It was a covert program supported by the U.S. government and Catholic Church – and toward which Cuban officials seemed to turn a blind eye.

But in many cases, they waited years to reunite – or sometimes, couldn’t reunite at all.

Why We Wrote This

The facts of U.S. immigration change over the decades: who’s coming, how, and why. But one group of Cuban-Americans, who arrived 60 years ago, see a common thread: the risks parents take for their children.

This year, the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, the still tight-knit network of Pedro Pans are thinking back to the country they left behind. But for many, more recent events have also brought their difficult memories to mind, particularly President Donald Trump’s encouragement of family separation as a strategy to deter illegal immigration.

The separations these families have experienced are profoundly different. But at their core, Pedro Pans say, are parents’ love for their children, and difficult realities at home that motivate them to endure that sacrifice.

Carlos Eire, a professor at Yale University, left Cuba with Operation Peter Pan in 1962, at age 11.

“This wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time, as we are now seeing, that parents are desperate to get their kids to safety,” he says.

Decades later, they still remember the pecera. The fishbowl.

They remember being ushered away from their parents with dozens of other children. They remember the room of glass that made them feel like they were in a different world from their families. They remember waving goodbye, unsure of the next time they would meet.

“They separated me from my grandfather and my father, but I could see them,” says Luis Galup, who was 7 years old at the time. “Through the glass, all I could see was my family.”

Why We Wrote This

The facts of U.S. immigration change over the decades: who’s coming, how, and why. But one group of Cuban-Americans, who arrived 60 years ago, see a common thread: the risks parents take for their children.

Mr. Galup is one of more than 14,000 Cuban children who left the island between 1960 and 1962 as part of Operation Peter Pan, the largest recorded organized mass exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.

When Fidel Castro took over the Cuban government in 1959, overthrowing the U.S.-backed authoritarian regime of Fulgencio Batista, his revolutionary promises made many parents fear for their children’s future. Amid Cold War anxiety, the United States government and the Catholic Welfare Bureau created the operation, known in Cuba as Pedro Pan, to bring them abroad. The program covertly distributed visa waivers to thousands of Cubans between the ages of 6 and 18, who filled up the fishbowl before boarding commercial flights out of Havana.

This year, the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Pedro Pans across the U.S. have been thinking back to the country they left behind. Far more recent events have also brought their experiences back to mind – especially President Donald Trump’s encouragement of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border as a strategy to deter illegal immigration.

Courtesy of Luis Galup
Luis Galup (3rd from left) and his foster family, the Desmonds, on a vacation to Niagara Falls.

Those separations were profoundly different from the ones that occurred decades ago in the pecera. Cuban parents volunteered to participate in Operation Pedro Pan, assuming the time apart would be brief, but their families’ reunions were postponed by geopolitics. U.S.-Mexico border separations, on the other hand, were unexpected for most families and involuntary. But for “Pedro Pans” themselves, the pain of separation is one they remember all too clearly.

“That brought back a lot of memories and made me so angry,” says Mr. Galup, referring to last year’s recordings of children crying for their parents in a Border Patrol detention facility. “I don’t think any children should be separated from their parents like that. I understand what my parents did. ... But no child should go through this.”

Both experiences show the extent of a parent’s love for his or her child, say many Pedro Pans, urging others to try to understand the difficult realities at home that motivate parents to make that sacrifice.

“Separating a family, if that’s the only way that the children can have a better life, it’s not always an evil thing,” says Carlos Eire, a professor of history and religion at Yale University, and the author “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” a tribute to his childhood in Cuba. Professor Eire left with Operation Pedro Pan in 1962 at the age of 11.

“This wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last time, as we are now seeing, that parents are desperate to get their kids to safety,” he says.

A bond of separation

Mr. Galup, who is now a grandfather and lives in Miami, hasn’t returned to Cuba since he left almost six decades ago. But he still remembers the neighborhood where he grew up in central Havana.

He remembers the Ten Cent store where his mother would give him change to ride a carousel horse outside as she shopped with their ration card. He remembers a nearby park with a big statue. He remembers looking out the apartment window at the Malecón, a five-mile roadway along the coast that he and his grandfather would walk in the evening, buying treats along the way: warm peanuts for the grandfather, snow cones for the grandson. He remembers riding his bike along the ocean as his grandfather fished off the concrete seawall.

Customers still sit at stools at the Ten Cent Galiano’s bartop. The park across the street – Parque Fe del Valle – is a rare WiFi hotspot, and strangers crowd together on the benches to text and email.

Today, the Malecón’s sidewalk is worn from years of salty waves crashing over the seawall. It looks porous, like a strip of coral. But the concrete path is still the city’s north star, guiding rusty Chevrolets through rush hour, and calling hopeful fishermen and aimless lovers at night.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
On a windy day waves crash over the Malecón, the major seaside roadway in Havana.

Mr. Galup says he hasn’t gone back because he remembers what his father said to him before he entered the fishbowl: “‘Son, you’re going to go to a better place than where you live right now. You’ll be going to a different country where you can do and say whatever you want.’”

“I would love to see where I was born,” says Mr. Galup, with a sigh. “But I don’t want to as long as that Communist regime is still there. They separated me from my family.”

Despite that resentment, many Pedro Pans still celebrate their Cuban identity.

“My country is destroyed,” says Carmen Romanach, 73, who hasn’t been back since she left at 15. “But Cuba is in my head. It is the best part of who I am.”

As the vice president of the Operation Pedro Pan Group, Ms. Romanach helps organize an annual meeting and monthly breakfasts across Miami. They celebrate the Cuban hero José Martí, as well as Our Lady of Charity, the island’s patron saint – and each other. Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado is one of us, Pedro Pans point out, as is the first Cuban-American senator, former Florida Sen. Mel Martínez.

“When we get together, we are like brothers and sisters,” says Ms. Romanach. “We really have a special bond.”

It’s a community unified by shared experiences, like those memories of the fishbowl – a mentality that also makes many Pedro Pans quick to identify with recent migrants.

“Separation is separation,” says Lily Lorbes, who left Cuba in 1961 at age 14.

A January report from the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that thousands more children may have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under Mr. Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy than the 2,737 previously reported. (The policy called for adults illegally entering the country, including asylum-seekers, to be detained and prosecuted, with their children housed in separate facilities. Many parents had no knowledge of their children’s whereabouts.)

Courtesy of Luis Galup
Luis Galup photographed in Cuba in April 1959. Not long after, when he was 7, he came to the United States through Operation Peter Pan.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has announced plans to double the capacity of a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors, who arrived at the border alone, in Homestead, Florida – already the largest of its kind in the country.

The Homestead camp is less than five miles away from the Florida City camp where Ms. Lorbes was held when she first arrived. She still remembers sleeping on a cot surrounded by strangers.

The total number of migrant minors detained at federal shelters hit an all-time high in 2018: at 14,700, a sixfold increase from May 2017.

“This was not an isolated thing,” says Ms. Lorbes, a human resources retiree who lives in Topsfield, Massachusetts, referring to Pedro Pans’ experiences: “Parents who can’t leave yet themselves, but see their chance to get their kids out.”

Now or never

Pedro Pans’ parents saw that chance in the early months of 1959, as the realities of Castro’s regime started to become clear.

“The revolution was taking over everything very quickly and turning the whole society upside down,” says Ms. Lorbes. “To go away was a risky alternative, but to stay there was also risky.”

Monsignor Bryan Walsh, then with the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami, hatched a plan to bring young Cubans to the United States, likely with help from the Eisenhower and Kennedy White Houses. In a 1990 public letter, Mr. Walsh thanked the U.S. government for giving him more than $5 million a year (more than $40 million in today’s dollars), for six years, to bring these children to the U.S. and care for them.

“The U.S. government approved [the operation]. They helped create it,” says Victor Triay, a history professor at Middlesex Community College in Connecticut and the author of “Fleeing Castro: Operation Pedro Pan and the Cuban Children's Program.” “The State Department called Walsh in and said, ‘Here. We have an idea for you.’”

That idea was visa waivers, which Professor Triay refers to as a “legal loophole.” Mr. Walsh sent signed waivers into Cuba, which were then mass produced underground in Cuba and covertly distributed.

José Ramirez, a Pedro Pan who lives in Westford, Massachusetts, remembers that friends simply stopped showing up to school. Then one day Mr. Ramirez’s parents told him he was leaving for the United States. One week later, he was on a plane.

Many parents, like his, told their children that they were leaving for an academic opportunity, and that they would see them in a few months. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in October 1962 and Castro ended commercial flights out of Cuba. Reunification got more complicated.

It’s unlikely thousands of children left the island without the knowledge of Castro’s extensive network of informants – especially considering that many visa waivers were distributed from a house across the street from police headquarters, according to Professor Eire. When Carlos Franqui, a revolutionary propagandist-turned-critic, came to speak at Yale, the professor asked him about the Cuban government’s knowledge of the operation. He responded with a smile.

“‘Anything that would destroy the bourgeois family was wonderful for us,’” Professor Eire recalls Mr. Franqui saying.

Many of the Cuban families who participated were Catholic and middle class, groups deemed more likely to oppose Castro, and the majority were teenage boys. In the Castro years ahead, military-age men were rarely allowed to leave the island, Professor Triay says.

Professor Eire says 80,000 additional visa waivers were printed and distributed to Cuban children, suggesting at least 94,000 could have left had Castro not closed the country’s doors.

“That’s how desperate Cuban parents were,” he adds. “They were not mistaken in panicking.”

Families old and new

When Mr. Galup landed in Florida, Walsh – who managed the operation from Miami – picked him up at the airport. He was then taken to Matecumbe, one of the many camps in south Florida where Pedro Pans stayed until they were picked up by family members or sent to foster homes or orphanages in at least 41 states, as reported by the Miami Herald. With no family in the U.S., Mr. Galup was transferred to a foster family in Ohio, who had seen an advertisement in the Catholic Chronicle asking for foster families for Cuban boys.

When Anne Desmond and her husband brought Mr. Galup home, he didn’t speak English, and she didn’t know Spanish. But he soon became a part of the family.

“I know he missed his parents terribly because he followed me around like crazy at the beginning,” says Ms. Desmond. “He would cry when I went to the grocery store. He would wait for me outside the bathroom door.”

Mr. Galup lived with the Desmonds for two years before his grandparents came to the U.S. and brought him to Boston. His parents arrived about five years after that.

“I remember when I went to Logan Airport to pick them up. My grandfather said, ‘That’s your mom and your dad,’” says Mr. Galup, who was 12 by then. “My mother said in Spanish, ‘He is a little American’ because I could only speak English.”

Professor Eire spent almost four years in camps and foster homes before his mother arrived. He never saw his father again.

After the camp in Florida City, Ms. Lorbes was “shipped out” to a foster family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before reconnecting with family outside Boston, including her cousin, Mr. Ramirez. He still remembers watching his mother through the fishbowl before boarding his flight in January 1961, at age 15. It was six years before he saw his parents again.

“I remember to this very day, and I’m looking at her right now in my head, my mother’s face,” says Mr. Ramirez, as he starts to cry. “The saddest face I have ever seen in my life.”

But family has also helped him heal. Going back to Cuba for the first time in 1994, he brought his oldest son, who was almost the same age Mr. Ramirez was when he left. They visited his school in Havana, the church where he took communion, and the beach where he swam.

“I wasn’t prepared for the emotions,” says Ramirez. “Without my son, I can’t imagine what it would have been like. He saved me.”

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