Ever since I was a little girl, on isolated occasions I used to hear — in a depressed tone — family members talk about an aunt of mine. For some strange reason that I wasn’t able to understand, she lived outside of Cuba.
As I grew up, this practically never-mentioned sister of my father would remain an enigma that I was only able to figure out much later. My grandmother never spoke of her daughter, and like a trap of destiny she fell victim to dementia in her last few years. Whenever I used to visit her she would call me by the name of that child: Mirthica.
Of the classics of children’s literature, I always felt a certain predilection for Peter Pan. It was of course the story of a boy who didn’t want to grow up and who lived with a group of other kids called the “Lost Boys” in a place called “Neverland. This was an island where there lived fairies, mermaids and pirates, and on which occurred numerous fantastic adventures over an eternity.
The story of Peter Pan and his perpetual legacy created many versions, but surely the most unfortunate was the one named “Operation Pedro Pan” (or Peter Pan). This was a maneuver coordinated between the government of the United States, the Catholic Church and Cuban exile community. Through this program, between 1960 and 1962 more than 14,000 children were taken from Cuba and resettled in the US.
A radio broadcast alerted people of the danger of the island’s new government, which supposedly had a political agenda that included separating children from their parents! The message warned people saying, “Cuban mothers, don’t let them take your children. The revolutionary government will take them from you when they turn five and will keep them until they’re eighteen!”
The operation was originally designed to relocate the children of parents opposed to Cuba’s communist government; however it expanded to include the children of parents who were worried about the possibility of their children being sent to youth camps in the Soviet Union for political indoctrination.
The entire procedure for securing visas for the children was coordinated and Pan Am flights carried them to Miami, Florida – the simile for “Neverland” (and because of that, the youth became known as “Pedro Pans”). The original plan envisioned the children being reunited with their parents after a few months.
However, in 1961 the United States closed its embassy in Cuba as part of its plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion. In response to the invasion, Cuba reached an agreement with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to set up nuclear weapons on the island. What is known as here as the “Crisis de octubre” (or the Cuban Missile Crisis) occurred in 1962. During that crisis, the American government canceled flights between the two countries, which had a dramatic effect in that it left eight hundred kids in Miami waiting for their parents.
When it was obvious that these parents would not be coming to the United States any time soon, Catholic groups picked up the children in Miami and relocated them in orphanages or with various families across the country so that they could be adopted.
After the cessation of commercial flights between Cuba and the USA, with the aim of eventual reunification other alternative routes were identified for the exodus of the children and later for the parents themselves.
The parents would travel from Cuba to a third country (usually Mexico or Spain), where they would have to wait in limbo to obtain a visa allowing them to then travel to the United States.
With visas issued by the British embassy, the United Kingdom allowed Cuban children to travel to Jamaica, from where they could then travel directly to the United States. Although Operation Pedro Pan was a secret program, the Cuban government discovered it but let the program follow its course.*
A story for children
In the fairytale, numbers of various anecdotes are presented, like when Peter Pan and his friends confront their enemies and wind up victorious, always helped by “good guys” like the fairy Tinkerbell.
The characters want to remain children forever to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood and to live in a dream world. Peter Pan invites a girl named Wendy to Neverland for her to be the mother of his gang of “lost boys” and to experience magical adventures with them.
At the end, Wendy decides that her rightful place is at home with her parents, and because of that she takes the children back to the real world. Meanwhile, Peter Pan stays in Neverland, promising his playmate the he will return to visit her from time to time.
Children who didn’t understand how or why, suddenly found themselves in a strange country. They waited for the arrival of their parents, many of whom never came. Tears and sorrow were the prelude of a new life that began, one they weren’t able to fathom.
Those “Lost Kids” were not in fact on “land” per se, but in “Neverland” (and that’s not a word game), because many would never return to the land where they once played as children. These were not imagined adventures that they experienced in their first difficult years.
The fairies were the churches that gave him refuge, the places were enchanted orphanages, and they were Peters Pans without Wendy.
Many of those children, now grown men and women, never returned to the island. In many instances, those children who became lost in the “promised land” are the victims of resentment and the prey of indulgence. They grew up there, started their families and made their lives, perhaps very distinct from ones they would have had in Cuba, the other side of the story.
The fact is that silence and pain were felt once again because of an atrocious war of powers. What was done by one side to demonstrate its force left indelible consequences: separated families.
Because of that version of the fairytale, an aunt who I have never met lives somewhere in the United States. She is someone who my grandparents were unable to reach and who refused to find out about them ever again. For us she is only a name and the consequence of that version of the children’s fairytale.
* Taken and transcribed in part from: Operation Pedro Pan – Official Site; May 3, 2000, NPR’s All Things Considered, “Cuban Kids in Exile: Pawns of Cold War Politics”; August 24, 2003, Chicago Sun-Times, “No Castro: Operation Peter Pan”