Thursday, December 3, 2009

Happy Birthday Peter Pans

On December 3 1961, at the age 10, my mother put me on a plane with the hope that she could join me very soon away from Cuba. It was an act of desperation and of the fear that modern Cuban parents felt of indoctrination and of a newly imposed military conscription that required boys as young as twelve to be available for military duty that would last until the age of 28. So strong was this fear that parents in Havana placed 14,000 of their children (mostly males) in planes bound for the United States alone. For roughly 18 months children were flown to the safety envisioned in the US as boarding students before Castro would shut down this escape valve. This, very little known bit of history, was called Operation Peter Pan.

Many came with notes pinned on their clothing so that relief agencies would assume parenting of these temporarily orphaned children. Brothers carried younger siblings and all were destined to uncertainty. Bryan O. Walsh, a Catholic Priest initially assumed responsibility as Director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau finding homes and temporary housing. Eventually the Federal Government assumed financial responsibility and took over the placement of all the unclaimed children into families around the country.

Carlos Eire tells his story of the Pedro Pan experience in the acclaimed book Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy. This heroic work tells the story that most Peter Pans shared in Cuba: of education, a certain level of affluence and comfort that suddenly vanished and was left behind. He and his older brother came at the tail end of the Peter Pan Operation in 1962 and were separated for a year into different foster homes in Florida and eventually reunited in Illinois waiting for the arrival of their mother( they would never see their father again) many, many years later.

I was luckier in that I was alone and not traumatized by such a separation from a sibling. I was also luckier because I was picked up by my old neighbors from Cuba and spent a day of bliss playing with my old best friend. Sometime, after the end of the TV show Lassie I was taken to the home of an Aunt, whom I barely remembered, and who had forgotten the day of my arrival. In spite of her scatter brain approach to life, I learned some very valuable lessons of survival from her that I will never forget.

Taken at my 10th birthday, 4 months before all hell would break loose!

My Mother joined me seven months later and not a moment too soon for Castro shut down Cuba shortly after her departure and direct immigration between the two countries ceased for almost ten years. Many families were split with some family in one country and the rest in another.

My father who had helped Castro come to power was the first member of our family to leave Cuba. Under warrant of death for statements made in public against the regime he took refuge in the Argentinean Embassy where he was virtually imprisoned until diplomatic efforts got him released. His destination was Buenos Aires and then to rejoin his family here in Florida. This trip took a year of illegal border crossing and imprisonment in Brownsville Texas where he crossed the border into the US. At Brownsville he was accused of being a Cuban spy and was held until finally cleared to rejoin his family.

So on this December 3, I celebrate 48 years in the US. Initially, a refugee, since I turned 21, as an American Citizen. I honor the memory of both my crazy parents and their sacrifice to give me a better life. I wish all other Peter Pans a continued and joyous life.

1 comment:

  1. weaselmarshall26 January, 2010

    what a story! It's a chapter in history many of us do not know and for that reason alone, it's a good thing to write. Besides you write well and now I am waiting for the next chapter.