“The Chronicles of Narnia” begins with four London children being sent away by their parents to a professor’s safe home in the countryside. Set during World War II, it’s easy to get caught up in the Pevensie children’s wardrobe adventures and disregard the historic scenario portrayed by C.S. Lewis — terrified parents willing to evacuate their children from home for their safety.

For Cuban parents in the early 1960s who were facing crisis in their own homeland, the “safe home” became the city of Miami, and the role of the friendly professor was played by Father Bryan Oliver Walsh, director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in the Archdiocese of Miami.

What became the largest exodus of children ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere is referred to today as Operation Pedro Pan. It consisted of two distinct facets: the clandestine network working to get 14,048 unaccompanied minors out of Cuba, and the Cuban Children’s Program, responsible for the refugee children who had no family in the United States.

Between December 1960 and October 1962, 50 percent of the children were reunited with family or friends in Miami. The other children were placed in the Cuban Children’s Program led by Father Walsh and the CWB. Eighty-five percent of the children cared for by the CWB — later renamed the Catholic Service Bureau — were between the ages of 12 and 18. No children were placed for adoption since the purpose of the program was to safeguard parental rights.

As the number of refugees grew, the problem became the lack of facilities, so Walsh and the CWB reached out to Catholic Charities agencies across the country. The program ultimately placed the children in more than 100 cities in 38 states.

Welcomed with open arms

Pedro Panes, as they call themselves, were sent from every province of Cuba. Most were alumni of Catholic schools closed by the government, from middle or lower class families of various racial backgrounds.
Maray M. Gil Rubio Stowell, 14 years old when she arrived in Florida, was sent to the Villa Maria convent in San Antonio with 40 other girls. “Going with so many other girls was the one thing that eased my fears, as I knew we would look after each other. The 40 of us developed a close familylike bond,” she said.

Seventy percent of Pedro Panes were boys older than 12. Special group homes staffed by Cuban houseparents were opened in several cities for the boys including: Wilmington, Del.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Lincoln, Neb.; and the Florida cities of Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami.

Oscar Pichardo, who was 10 years old when he and his brother, Jesús, left Cuba, said, “[My] Catholic faith made me appreciate the many wonderful Religious who worked so hard to give me a better life.” The brothers were cared for by the Sisters of Notre Dame at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Green Bay, Wis. “We had many truly wonderful people who were looking out for us,” he said.

The faces of Pedro Pan

Now in their 50s and 60s, many Pedro Panes (pronounced “PAH-ness”) became American citizens, learned English, succeeded in school, and some even married other Pedro Panes.

“Giving historical importance to Operation Pedro Pan is probably the fact that among the 14,048 children who filled the flights, many have distinguished themselves in the United States in the fields of government, business, education, science, medicine, literature, law, music, religion,” said Dominican Sister Dorothy Jehle, director of Barry University’s Archives and Historical Collections in Miami Shores, Fla., which houses Operation Pedro Pan data. “On the whole, the Pedro Pan children rose above the separation from parents and family and friends and native country.”

Eight Pedro Pan children became priests, and two of them are bishops.“I am thankful that I was a refugee because it helped me understand the human dimension of that state,” said Miami’s Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estevez, himself a Pedro Pan. “You are at the mercy of compassionate hearts. You depend so much on people to welcome you.”

Raul Iglesias, 16 years old when he arrived at Camp Matecumbe in Miami, relocated to St. Edward’s High School in Austin, Texas, run by Holy Cross brothers. The most important outcome brought about by Operation Pedro Pan was “the willingness of the people in the United States and the Catholic Church as they united and brought out 14,000 kids to freedom,” he said. “I was welcomed with open arms in a country where I did not even speak the language.”

The ultimate sacrifice

Not all families were reunited quickly, and some not at all. The 1962 end of commercial flights between the United States and Cuba began a period during which it was difficult to leave Cuba. Then, under an agreement between the two countries, the Freedom Flights began in 1965 — giving priority to parents of unaccompanied minors. Nearly 90 percent were reunited by June 1966.

Juan Pujol was not so lucky. Sixteen years old when he left Cuba in 1962, Pujol remembers “looking forward to being free to be able to go to church and practice my Catholic faith without being harassed or persecuted.” But it was 1979 before Pujol could return to Cuba and see his mother. “I’m convinced that if I had stayed in Cuba I’d be dead or rotting in a Cuban jail. I keep reminding my mother of that when she cries on the telephone because of our separation.”

Aida Cabrera Morris, 9 years old when she left Cuba with her brother, said she won’t tolerate criticism of her parents’ decision. “It is the most courageous, unselfish, hardest decision that any parent could ever make — to separate yourself from your children simply because you know it’s their best chance in life,” she said.

“When it came time to decide to either submit to the state or send the children to safety, Cuban parents chose freedom for their children,” Pichardo said. “I am extremely grateful to my parents. I thank God for this great country that opened its arms to a child and comforted him in his time of need.”

Lasting legacy (sidebar)

Jorge Guarch left an invaluable mark on the history of Operation Pedro Pan. Initially a volunteer, Guarch was hired in 1961 by Father Bryan Oliver Walsh, the director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in the Archdiocese of Miami, to greet the children at the Miami International Airport and transport them to their lodgings.

Guarch unintentionally provided the primary chronicle of Operation Pedro Pan — a meticulous, handwritten airport log noting the name of each child, birthdates, type of entry visa and where they went upon arrival.

The Jorge Guarch Airport Log became the framework for the Operation Pedro Pan Database, an online project put together by the Miami Herald to record the historic exodus and to help Pedro Panes reconnect with one another and with caretakers. For more information visit www.MiamiHerald.com/pedropan.

Read Part One

Read part one of this series, "A covert flight: Operation Pedro Pan"»

María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda writes from Oklahoma.