Sunday, December 27, 2009

Operation Pedro Pan marks 49th anniversary

Posted on Saturday, 12.26.09
Operation Pedro Pan marks 49th anniversary
Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Operation Pedro Pan, the unique
exodus of Cuban children to the United States that began on Dec. 26, 1960.

Forty-nine years ago Saturday, two frightened Cuban children landed at
Miami International Airport on a commercial flight from Havana. They had
traveled alone, gaining entry to the United States with coveted visa

Operation Pedro Pan had just begun.

The famed, clandestine effort to spirit children out of Fidel Castro's
new Cuba as Communist indoctrination was spreading into the Catholic and
private schools officially began on Dec. 26, 1960.

By the time it ended 18 months later, the unique exodus of children --
ages 5 to 17 -- had brought 14,048 unaccompanied Cuban minors to
America, with the secret help of the U.S. government, which funded the
effort and supplied the visa waivers, and the Catholic church, which
promised to care for the children. The late Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh, a
Miami priest, was considered the father of the effort.

As the children filtered into Miami and their numbers swelled, many went
to live with relatives and family friends, but others were sent to
Miami-Dade group homes and camps called Florida City, Kendall and
Matecumbe. They were then relocated across the country to archdioceses
in places like Nebraska, Washington and Indiana.

There, they went to live in orphanages, foster homes and schools until
their parents could find a way out of Cuba. Sometimes the separation was
brief; sometimes it lasted years.


The first two children to arrive in Miami as part of Operation Pedro Pan
were the Aquino kids -- Vivian, then 14, and Sixto, 12, according to
official Operation Pedro Pan records.

They didn't know it at the time, but they were pioneers. Today, they
recall the culture shock.

``To this day, I always remember Dec. 26,'' said Vivian Latour, who
lives in Southwest Miami-Dade. ``How could I not? It's the day my entire
life changed forever.''

Latour and her brother, who now lives in Washington, D.C., were greeted
by a nun at MIA that day-after-Christmas long ago. They eventually went
to live at St. Joseph's Villa at Northwest Seventh Street and 29th
Avenue. They were later reunited with their parents.


As time has passed, Operation Pedro Pan has gained fame because of its
young participants and the predicament they found themselves in once
they were in the United States alone, and, for the horrible choice Cuban
parents had to make to send them ahead following Castro's 1959 revolution.

``People ask all the time: `How could parents send their children ahead
to a foreign country?' They wanted to save us from Communism, that's
why,'' said Carmen Romanach, who was sent to Miami through the program
when she was a teenager.

``I always thank my parents for getting me out of Cuba,'' said Eloisa
Echazábal, who was 13 when she came to the United States with her
younger sister.

Today, Romanach and Echazábal work to pass on the history of Operation
Pedro Pan and preserve its official records and memorabilia. They say
being a Pedro Pan -- most of whose members are now in their 50s and 60s
-- is similar to being a war veteran: Only those who experienced it can
identify with the angst.

Earlier this year, The Miami Herald unveiled a database listing the
names of all the children who took part in the mission. The site has
received over 1 million visitors in nine months and has allowed Pedro
Pans from across the country to register and reconnect. To access the
page go to pan.

Next year, Operation Pedro Pan will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
Parties, books and documentaries are planned.

Latour will take part in the momentous anniversary. But she says the
real trailblazer was her late mother, Belen, who realized she had to get
her children out of Cuba and helped launch the visa waiver hand-out by
sending her children first. ``My mother is the real pioneer; she saw
where things were going in Cuba and wanted to get us out. She's the one
to be admired.''

Operation Pedro Pan marks 49th anniversary - South Florida - (26 December 2009)

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