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A Wing and a Prayer: The Journey of Cuba’s Pedro Pans in America

Operation Pedro Pan: The Migration of Unaccompanied Children from Castro’s Cuba, by John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco. (Potomac Books, 280 pp., $25.40)

By Shawnna Morris

“Overwhelmingly they are thankful that their parents sent them, and they are unable to imagine an alternate life in Cuba…Yet across the board, they attest they never would have sent their own children if given a similar predicament. What is it to be thankful for an act that you could never do yourself?”

With this impossible question, author John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco attempts to unravel the complicated legacy of the Pedro Pans, thousands of Cuban children sent alone on flights to the United States in the years following Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In the fall of 1960, a fifteen year old boy named Pedro Menendez was brought to the office of Father Bryan Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami. Amid a wave of refugees arriving from Cuba, Pedro had been sent alone, without his parents, to live with relatives in Miami. Pedro’s extended family, being refugees themselves, were barely able to feed him. In desperation, they asked Father Walsh to place him in temporary foster care.

Walsh had some experience working with refugees. He had previously helped exiles from the failed Hungarian Revolution to settle in New Jersey. Among those refugees were large numbers of unaccompanied minors.

Realizing that many more children like Pedro would soon disembark in Miami, Father Walsh reached out to Tracy Voorhees, a representative sent to Florida by President Eisenhower to assess the refugee situation. At Walsh’s suggestion, Voorhees recommended to Eisenhower the approval of federal funding for the care of unaccompanied Cuban minors arriving in Miami. Operation Pedro Pan was born.

Back in Cuba, middle class families worried for their children. They had not evacuated immediately after Castro seized power in 1959, like the wealthy allies of Fulgencio Batista had. In fact, many had supported Castro, at first. He vociferously denied that he was a communist, and his populist message resonated with those opposed to Batista’s corrupt regime.

They became wary when Castro implemented a land reform program, and watched nervously as he hosted delegations from the Soviet Union. Worst of all, a rumor was circulating that the government would terminate parental rights. This rumor was spread by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, one of its many covert tactics meant to provoke the Cuban people into overthrowing Castro’s revolutionary government.

Although there is no evidence that Castro planned to take away their children, his educational reforms of 1960-61 all but confirmed it in the minds of parents.

He closed all of Cuba’s public schools for one year to implement a literacy campaign. Around 100,000 teenage students were trained and sent to remote towns to teach illiterate adults how to read. Back in the cities, school curriculum was revamped to include heavy Marxist/Leninist indoctrination. Increasing amounts of data were collected on the children. A year later, the government took control of all private and religious schools.

Parents feared for the safety of their daughters, sent out to the country unchaperoned in literacy brigades. They worried that their children would be brainwashed with propaganda, or even sent to the Soviet Union to be educated. They feared that their teenage sons would be pressed into military service, perhaps to fight in a war against the United States.

Parents began to seek exit visas for their children. Still believing that Castro’s revolution would be short lived, they figured they could send their children to attend school in America, and bring them back home to Cuba after Castro was deposed.

Some of these parents came to James Baker, the rector of Ruston Academy, a private American school in Havana. They asked him for scholarships, so their children could study in America.

Soon after Pedro Menendez had entered Father Walsh’s office, Baker travelled to Miami. He met with Father Walsh to discuss a plan for helping these children.

Their scheme involved many players, and a lot of moving parts: the U.S. Embassy, the Catholic Welfare Bureau, local public schools, a travel agency, plane tickets, money orders, and diplomatic pouches. The program was funded by donations from the American Chamber of Commerce in Havana, the Cuban Catholic Church, and the federal government.

Different benefactors had different motivations. The Catholic Church felt that they were simply on a humanitarian mission to help children in need. Father Walsh believed he had a personal calling to save children from godless communism. The Chamber of Commerce had members who wanted to evacuate their own children from Cuba. And the U.S. government, in the Cold War battle for hearts and minds, never met a defector that they didn’t like.

Many have suspected or assumed that the Central Intelligence Agency was behind Operation Pedro Pan. An open records lawsuit in 1999 attempted to find out. The U.S. district court ruled that there was no involvement by the CIA. Regardless, the agency’s fingerprints were all over the project. The rumor about the termination of parental rights was started by the CIA, and many people working underground to help parents obtain visas or waivers for their children were also Cuban CIA operatives.

When the Cuban government began to hold up student visas, children began using tourist visas, then finally, visa waivers signed by Father Walsh.

Parents dropped off their children at the airport in Havana, and Father Walsh met them at the airport in Miami. The children were taken to temporary camps for processing before placement in foster care. Their placement was handled mainly by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, with assistance from other religious agencies.

Over 14,000 children were airlifted from Cuba between 1960 and 1962, when Fidel Castro halted all airline flights to the United States after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The program continued to help refugee children, albeit in smaller numbers, until 1981.

For a fuller context, Gronbeck-Tedesco provides helpful background sketches of Cuba’s history, the Cuban Catholic Church, and Miami, a city with a colorful history of its own. He also illustrates the full backdrop of larger historic events within which Operation Pedro Pan was carried out: the Cold War, The Cuban Revolution, and the Civil Rights Movement.

His main focus, though, is on the children themselves. Drawing on interviews from now grown Pedro Pans, he brings a more personal insight to the historic airlift, and to the Cuban exile story writ large.

Overall, the vast majority of Pedro Pans were reunited with their families, and the program is generally considered a success. Again and again, they express pride in their experience, saying that it taught them important lessons in grit and determination.

However, even the most ardent advocate must admit that grit does not come without hardship. Gronbeck-Tedesco does not shy away from exploring that suffering, even if it disrupts the positive narrative of the Cuban exile mythology.

When it became clear that Castro’s revolution was here to stay, and the children weren’t going back to Cuba, it also became very difficult for their parents to escape. Some children waited years to see their parents, and a few never saw them again.

For the Pedro Pans, their initial family separation was only the beginning. They still had to face the culture shock of a new nation, a language barrier, and discrimination, as America’s civil rights battles raced to a fever pitch.

These children were middle to upper class, mostly Catholic, and overwhelmingly white. Only seven percent of the initial wave of Cuban refugees were black or multiracial. This caused some confusion in the segregated American south, where “Hispanic” was not yet an official racial category. This led to uneven treatment and discrimination. A Cuban child may have looked like his American playmates, yet was branded an outsider due to his accent, or his last name. Cuban children were placed in white schools, but were sometimes denied entry to businesses, or made to sit in the back of the city bus.

They sometimes faced resentment from African Americans, too. Cuban refugees were given more public assistance dollars than African Americans, and were sometimes permitted in segregated spaces along whites. Refugees were also hired for low paying jobs, which would otherwise have gone to African Americans.

In addition to the heavy burdens of abandonment and bigotry, some children were actively mistreated during their stints in foster care. Even worse were the conditions in some relocation camps, where children had to stay for long periods of time when no foster homes were available. Foster families were more accepting of small children than teenaged boys, but teenaged boys made up the lion’s share (seventy percent) of the Pedro Pan exiles.

Some camps were overcrowded and dirty, and some children were physically or sexually abused. Some of this abuse came at the hands of the staff, and some came from older children.

It should be noted that about half of incoming Pedro Pans were placed immediately with extended family, and all but a few were eventually reunited with their parents.

The Pedro Pans were part of a larger narrative of the Cuban exiles, an up-from-their-bootstraps tale of sacrifice, resilience, and success. The Miami Cubans have held fast to their story, and it has served them well. The Pedro Pans, as they have grown older, have developed a more nuanced perspective of their own journeys. Some have aligned with the more rigid viewpoint of their parents, while others have felt more free to diverge from the exile “party line,” so to speak. After all, they did not choose this path for themselves.

Many books about Operation Pedro Pan fall into the trap of an all-or-nothing analysis: either simply cheerleading its accomplishments, or simply lamenting its tragedies. Aided by a thirty year distance from the Cold War, Gronbeck-Tedesco is able to take a more balanced approach. He shares the honest, and sometimes contradictory thoughts and feelings from those who lived the history.

While most of the Pedro Pans appreciate the sacrifice of their parents, and the opportunities afforded by it, a stubborn fact remains: they still were abandoned. Even if that abandonment was temporary, it nevertheless left a scar. In recent years, Pedro Pans have begun to talk more openly about that wound. Some have even returned to visit their childhood homes in Cuba, which is still considered a betrayal by the old guard of Miami Cubans. Those who return insist that they are doing it for closure, and for healing. To come to terms with the pain, while still celebrating the outcome.

The story of Cuban exiles is one of both triumph and tragedy, especially for those children spirited away, alone, to a strange land. For the painful to coexist with the sublime is an integral part of the exile story. It is also a reality of the human experience.

Operation Pedro Pan is more than simply the retelling of history. It is the experience of real people, making their way in the unpredictable storm of historic events.

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