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Pedro Pan: A Children’s Exodus from Cuba

By Maria Anderson

In 2015, when Cuba opened its borders for the first time in decades, it made news headlines. The event recalled the island’s history and especially its relationship with the United States. But one story that is not often told is that of the thousands of unaccompanied children who were sent from Cuba to Miami in the early 1960s, as part of a U.S. government program called Operation Pedro Pan.

Smithsonian Insider spoke with Steve Velasquez, associate curator for the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to learn more about the Pedro Pan program and some of the related items that are kept in the museum’s collections.

friends

This snapshot shows Maria Halloran visiting with friends a few days before leaving Cuba in 1962. She was 11 years-old. This image is one of many artifacts related to Operation Pedro Pan that have been donated to and collected by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Q: Why was the Pedro Pan program created?

Velasquez: Pedro Pan was an agreement of cooperation between the U.S. State Department and Catholic Charities of Miami. It started after Fidel Castro rose to power, initially for children whose parents were fighting against him underground, but was expanded to all Cuban families who wanted to flee out of fear for their future under the new regime. From December 1960 through the end of 1962, more than 14,000 unaccompanied children were sent by their parents from Cuba to Miami. The age range was from 4 to 16 years old.

Since there was no U.S. embassy in Cuba after the revolution, the State Department partnered with the Catholic Church to grant special visa waivers for children to come safely to the U.S. and eventually be reunited with their parents and family members.

A network within Cuba was created to let families know they could send their children to the United States, where they would be taken care of by Catholic Charities in Miami.

Maria wallet

Maria Halloran’s wallet with photos of her parents that she brought with her from Cuba. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Q: Where did the children stay once they arrived in Miami?

Velasquez: Most children already had family members in the United States who they could live with while their parents arrived from Cuba. However, many didn’t have any family stateside so they stayed in orphanages run by the Catholic Church. From there they were placed with foster families in Miami and throughout the U.S., as far away as Colorado, Iowa, Illinois and upstate New York.

The majority were reunited with their parents fairly quickly, within six months to a year. But some had to wait several years before they saw their parents again.

monkey purse

This purse in the shape of a monkey was given to Maria Halloran by a friend before she departed Cuba. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Q: How well did the children adapt to their new lives?

Velasquez: For many children, the experience wasn’t too traumatic, but some struggled in the church orphanages and later in foster care. They missed their parents who they wrote to regularly, asking when they would see them again and telling them about their new life in the U.S. The letters give us an interesting glimpse into how they adapted—the language changes, first writing in Spanish and then a mix of English and Spanish. Some eventually wrote letters in English to their foster parents, after being reunited with their own parents.

The Church was very strict about the children learning English, sending them to English classes in Catholic schools. They were only supposed to speak English in the orphanages, so most learned the language quickly. They also learned about American culture, especially after being placed with foster families.

Colorado

Maria Halloran celebrates her first Christmas in Colorado, December 1962. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Q: How do they describe the journey and their experience?

Velasquez: As part of the collecting initiative at the National Museum of American History, we have gathered letters and objects that give us a glimpse into their experience. I’ve also recorded several oral histories from both the children and the parents who sent them.

It’s fascinating to learn firsthand about what it was like to leave your home and your parents for a place you’d never seen before. They were allowed to travel with only one 40-pound bag. They couldn’t bring money or any valuables. Most just brought clothes, a few books and maybe a toy. They left thinking they would eventually return to the island, but never did.

Now as adults, many talk about how their journey shaped their identity, identifying as both Cuban and American. They’re proud to be American but care very deeply about their Cuban identity as well.

The parents reflect that, at the time, sending their children unaccompanied to the U.S. was the best thing they could do for them. Emotions run high when speaking to families that were separated for months or even years. Some don’t like talking about it, but many find catharsis through telling their stories.

Lora

This child’s dress was carried from Cuba by Margarita Prats in 1961. She was one of more than 14,000 children who left Cuba via Operation Pedro Pan which brought unaccompanied minors to the U.S. to escape communism. Gift of Margarita Lora. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Q: How can the public learn more about the Pedro Pan program?

Velasquez: On June 28, the Museum of American History reopened the newly renovated west wing of its second floor under the theme The Nation We Build Together. Among the new signature exhibitions is “Many Voices, One Nation,” which shows how the many diverse voices of the American people have contributed and shaped the nation. The story of the Pedro Pan program will be featured in “Many Voices, One Nation,” pairing the stories of the children who participated in the program with their personal artifacts and letters.

 

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22 Comments

  • Georgina Andraca

    I want to thank all the persons that have made possible the knowledge of the Operation Pedro Pan to more people. I was the oldest of four sisters and one cousin, that arrived in Miami on July 19, 1961 under the Operation Pedro Pan. We were very fortunate and were sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico to foster homes. We were reunited with our parents a year after. Every day I thank God for giving the strength to my parents to do their biggest sacrifice of sending us to the United States. Also thank my parents for their unselfish love for us, putting our future before their suffering with the separation and the wonderful foster families that were so kind, loving and generous to us. GOD BLESS the United States for receiving us, Operation Pedro Pan for making it possible, and my parents for being the wisest and loving parents in the world.

  • MD Reed

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve never heard of the Pedro Pan program before and can’t wait to share about it with my students. Do you know of any middle-school level books about it?

  • Josephine (Fifi) Smith

    I have several dear friends who were Peter Pan. One of them says that these experiences made them strong; another one shares her story of separation from siblings and suffering which still manifests today; very sadly some were abused; the majority however was kept well until final reunification with parents.

  • Merci Fernandez-Llebrez(Ordetx)

    My brother and I became Pedro Pan’ on June 9, 1961. I was blessed by being placed in a good catholic boarding school In San Antonio, Fl., he was placed at St. Leo college but only stayed there for 1 year, I was there for 3 yrs & graduated from high school. Once I finished high school I was placed with a family that were friends from Cuba and lived there for 2 years until I got married. My parents finally arrived 18 &1/2 yrs. after we were separated and we were blessed to have them with us for 20 more years. I am thankful to this country and the Catholic Charities for the opportunities given to my brother and I, for the education we were offered and for the freedom we have enjoyed.

    • Julio M Gonzalez

      In 1962 after finishing basic training at Lacland FAB Tx with other vubans, we visited Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Univ. And net
      About 5 or 6 girls, were not allowed to take pictures. We (5) were dressed in Blue Uniforms.
      We’re you one of them?

  • My brother Luis and I arrived On September 11,1961. The day after we arrived my brother turned 12 and I was 10. Because of the ages in the camps we were immediately separated. He went to Matecumbe and I went to Kendall. Al tough at the time it felt like an eternity, fortunately it was only for two months when we were able to move together to Tampa, Fl to live with friends as we awaited our parents.

  • My name is Antonio Berdeal I also came with the Peter Pan I stayed at Florida city camp in 1962 and in Opa locka camp 1963-1965 I remenber father Ripoll and Monsignor Walsh RIP I reunited with my parents in december 1965.my wife Amarilis (Delgado) Berdeal also came with the Peter Pan program she stay a orphanage in Michigan and them in a foster home until she reunited with her parents in 1966. The only thing I want to say may God bless the best country in the world the Great United State of America I am very proud to be part of its history.

  • Antonio J Garcia

    I became a Peter Pan on April 20,1962, which was the day my younger brother( who was 11) and I arreived in Miami,I was 13.
    Although in the long run it was a blessing it was very hard at the beginning.
    I really appreciate what the Catholic Church and the United States did for all the Peter Pans,but I really appreciate the unselfish love and courage our parents had.

  • rita rodriguez

    please go to http://www.pedropan.org/content/about-operation-pedro-pedro-pan-group-inc you will find a complete detail of our story.
    This is my story:
    In August of 1961, at 8 Yrs of age, via the last Ferry trip from Havana, Cuba to West Palm Beach ,Fl where mom, dad and me were ready to leave Cuba but when boarding, my parents were not allowed to board due to governmental decisions and I came alone and became a Pedro Pan child. I called a phone number my mom had written on my toiletry bag, hid behind the mirror a $50.00 and gave me nickels and dimes so I could place a call to Catholic Charities and contact my brother, who had already arrived since May of the same year. He was 15 yrs old. I was placed at Kendall Camp and he was at Matacumbe Camp. A week after my arrival, we along with 15 other children were relocated to the state of Illinois. Some of us were placed under fostering others were placed in orphanages. My brother and I were very lucky, our foster families were wonderful and we became part of their family. As soon as our parents arrived, the foster families helped in reuniting us. By March 1962 We were back together and lived for a short while in Freeport, Il. We continue our bond with our foster families and their offsprings. I will always be thankful to my parents for giving us the opportunity of living in a free democratic country.

  • I still have my visa ” pedro pan ” in my house here in VEGAS , , the only thing I was one of the unlucky one , I never made out of cuba till 1980 , I was separated from my parents in 1967 because I turn 15 years old , I have 3 sister and 1 brother , my father was being forced to work in the field , he was dying , so the decision was made , I stay behind , trust me , IT WAS HELL FOR 13 YEARS ” , My life been perfect since I came to AMERICA , But every night still I have nightmares from those 20 years under the communism under castro and I know my nightmare will end the day I die …

  • Maria J Martinez

    I too was a Pedro Pan child with my two sisters. Left in 1962 We were sent to an Owisburg orphanage in Pa and then lived in foster care with my two sisters until my parents arrived in 1967. We were very lucky that we all stayed together. There were many brothers and sisters that were seperated. This exodus yo the US is part of American History that not many know about and hopefully it will spread. Thank you for making that happen

  • Daniel E Lora

    Hello, my name is Daniel Eduardo Lora, son of Margarita Elisa Prats Lora. So that is my mother’s dress, Margarita PratS, not “Pratz”. Can you fix this?

  • SEALDOVIA PIPITONE

    Inbetween the lines I hear pain and happiness One will never no there lives. But believe in the Best in USA

  • Carmen Suarez Dominguez (birth name)

    I am also a Peter Pan Cuban Child. Arrived on January 29, 1961 and went to the Kendall Campus between 107 and 117 Avenues in Miami (now a park at that location.) In May of that year, I was sent to the Buffalo, New York Diocese; to St Elizabeth Academy – a boarding school for girls with Franciscan Sisters in Allegany, NY. We were 15 Cuban girls at that school. Soon after the school year ended, we were reunited with our own families already here in the States by the summer of 1962. It has been a blessing the sacrifice our parents had to live by in order to offer us freedom from a Communist Regime which has already survived more than half a century!!!

  • AnaMaria Perez

    And still for many, like my father, the experience was horrifically traumatic. My father faced cruel discrimination as a 13 year old in NYC; beaten by local Irish hang members, ridiculed by his school teachers and put in special education because he wasn’t a great English speaker and was therefore struggling in his classes. He was later drafted and sent to serve in Vietnam. All of this while still waiting to finally be reunited with his mother. In spite of all his best efforts, my grandmother never received clearance to leave Cuba and died there of cancer. My father, although the most patriotic American and so very grateful for his mother’s sacrifice for him to have a chance at a life free from communism, was never able to get over the pain of his Pedro pan experience. I hope this exhibit will also tell the painful stories of these children.

  • Juanita Mondonedo Smith

    Would love to reconnect with some of the girls, pedropan children, who came to live at the orphanage where I too was a resident, St. Vincent’s Home in Washington, D.C. Grew to love my “sisters,” their culture and language. So happy they can finally travel home to Cuba.

    • Silvia

      FYI…. the “Cuban sentiment” in general is that they are not going to return to the Communist Cuba until things change. I go further and say, that it’s highly “politically incorrect” to “wish for being happy to travel HOME to Cuba”. (I put the word HOME in capitals, because “it’s not home any more”, it’s not the “home” we knew and loved! But thank you for your good will and caring.

  • MICHAEL Menendez aka Superman

    I lived in Camp Matecumbe, St. Raphael Hall and Opa-Locka until my parents finally arrived in 1966. I have much to thank Father Ripoll (RIP) and Monsignor Walsh (RIP). I consider both of them as much my father as my natural father.

    Thank you!

  • Lucy Pimentel

    My husband was also a Pedro Pan, Roberto Pimentel. He arrived in 1962 to Camp Matacumbe and from there to Ashtabula, Ohio, New York and back to Miami to San Rafael where there a few boys at the house that was ran by Monsignor Walsh until he graduated from La Salle in 1964 when he moved to Washington, DC where his uncle, Monsignor Armando Jimenez Rebollar lived. For him those were very hard years but thankful to be in the USA. He did not see his parents and brothers until 1969. Roberto died June 9th, 2008

  • Ellen Carr

    My family had the privilege of fostering 2 little girls who were part of the Pedro Pan program. The girls are still part of my family. They’re my little sisters. My parents always loved them as though they were theirs by birth.

  • Grace Hellsund (Manzano)

    I am so glad to finally see our “story” being told.
    My brother and I are two of the 14,000 set without parents.
    We thrived and are grateful to this magnificent country of immigrants.

  • Thank you for bringing knowledge of’Operation Pedro Pan’ to more folks. I am a pedropan child and my website http://www.CampMatecumbeVeterans.com has a list of all the names and many of the personal histories and details.

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