A glass wall separated nine-year-old Mercedes Dash from her parents at Havana’s international airport. Clutching her new doll as she waved goodbye, Dash boarded a plane bound for Miami. For all she knew, she’d be back in Cuba in a few days.
That was January 25, 1962. Mercedes Dash still hasn’t gone home.
Dash was a member of Operation Pedro Pan, a program that ran from 1960 to 1962 and airlifted more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. to avoid potential indoctrination by Fidel Castro’s Cuban government. The Catholic Welfare Bureau and the U.S. State Department spearheaded the program and placed children in foster homes or temporary camps. Some were reunited with family in the U.S., some weren’t, and most never went back to Cuba.
More than fifty years later, as the U.S. and Cuba move toward restoring diplomatic relations, some of the Peter Pans watch with a mix of hope and hesitation. (Look back at National Geographic’s Cuba coverage over the years.)
“We are a brotherhood,” says Dash, who now lives in Fairfax, Virginia. “We all ended up in different situations, some better than others, but we all have a story to tell."
The stories start on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro’s socialist movement ousted the U.S.-backed government of Fulgencio Batista in a military coup.
A year later, the new government’s education strategies began to raise concerns among many Cuban families.
In her 1999 book Operation Pedro Pan, Yvonne Conde—a Peter Pan, herself—recalled that in 1960 Cuba’s minister of education said, “the teacher has an unavoidable obligation to transmit revolutionary thinking to students.”
Conde wrote that students learned how to bear arms and sing anti-American songs and slogans, while boys practiced military drills. Fearing the effects of this kind of schooling, the airlift’s organizers began moving children. In his 2007 autobiography, Castro writes that the children were free to go at that time, but he says the rumors about bad treatment in Cuba were false.
Armando Vizcaino left for the U.S. in April 1961.
As a 16-year-old, Vizcaino was among the oldest Peter Pans, who were mostly between ages six and 18. In Cuba, he’d been involved in the counterrevolution, distributing anti-Castro propaganda after the takeover.
“If you were caught doing counterrevolution activities, at the very least, you would do time in jail,” he says. “My father wanted to avoid this completely.”
Vizcaino flew from Havana to Jamaica, where he got a green card (this was unusual), and then flew to Miami. There, he stayed with one of the founders of Operation Peter Pan, Father Bryan Walsh, the director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau.
If you got to stay with Walsh, Vizcaino says, you were one of the lucky ones. He considers his time with Walsh and a group of teenage Peter Pans the best two years of his life in America. Shortly after his parents arrived in Miami in 1963, Vizcaino’s father died. He says the next two years were the most difficult years of his life.
Vizcaino, 70, is now a Certified Public Accountant living in Miami, a husband and father of three daughters. “My new way of life is so good that I really don’t resent what I lost.”
An American Adjustment
Away from Cuba, many of the Peter Pans’ hardships were just beginning. Unlike Vizcaino, who stayed in Miami, 13-year-old Eloísa Echazábal and her younger sister were sent to an orphanage in Buffalo, New York.
Two months later, they were placed in a foster home. “Life in the foster home was no happier than in the orphanage,” Echazábal, now 67 and living in Miami, writes in her Miami Herald Pedro Pan profile. “I always had a feeling of not fitting in.” She describes the family as “decent and proper” but cold.
Mercedes Dash says she was miserable with her Miami foster family. Despite their apparent wealth, Dash says the family fed her and her older sister powdered milk and canned meat supplied by the government. By the time her aunt and uncle landed in Miami and took them out of the home, the sisters were noticeably thinner.
In late 1964, Dash’s parents arrived in Miami. Unable to find stable work there, her father moved the family to Arlington, Virginia. “My parents are my heroes for doing what they did,” Dash says.
Choking back tears, she added, “I wish my parents were alive today so I could tell them thank you.”
It wasn’t until a year ago that Dash really started to relive her traumatic childhood experience. She had largely suppressed the past in order to cope with it. Now, as she dusts off boxes of old photographs and letters, painful memories resurface.
Now, with efforts underway to lift the travel ban, Dash feels a strong urge to return to Cuba.
“It’s important to me,” she says. “I need some kind of closure in my life.” She wants to show her her five sons and seven grandchildren where she grew up.
Echazabal disagrees. She won’t go back to the same government she fled (Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl Castro is now president). “I have no desire to go back,” she says.
Echazábal is skeptical of normalized relations. “I’m really sad and disappointed, because I would like to see more changes made by the Cuban government, but I haven't seen them.” She also believes the U.S. embassy’s reopening this Friday in Havana is merely symbolic.
Vizcaino, however, sees the reopening as a start. If U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a point to meet with the dissidents throughout the process of normalizing relations with the country, he says, “I’m all in favor.”
Dash is optimistic. “I strongly believe that it’s time to start dialogue,” she says. “And I think the best way to change any kind of regime is from within.”
The Peter Pans’ parents sent them away because they were afraid of the government and saw no other way to protect their children or provide the kind of future they dreamed of for their families.
Even though travel restrictions may be lifted as relations thaw, thousands of Cubans are still leaving for the U.S., seeking new opportunities. While the Peter Pans cannot change the experiences they had as children, Dash says, “we can certainly try to make life better for those young people in Cuba.”
In this photo from 2012, a window reflects an image of Fidel Castro in a working-class Havana neighborhood.
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