The Cuba connection

Cuban children arrive in Miami as part of the Pedro Pan operation, which brought thousands of Cuban children to America. (Photo courtesy of

By Larry Chabot

On June 24, 1961, Cuban rebel Fidel Castro took control of his island nation, installed a Communist regime, and spurred a counter movement which reached all the way to Marquette. Cuban parents were being fed warnings that their children would be sent to the Soviet Union to serve in work camps and undergo Communist indoctrination. This caused panic among those parents who couldn’t afford to leave Cuba themselves.

Enter Rev. Bryan Walsh of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, who became aware of a boy trapped in Cuba when his relatives asked for help. Fearing that many more children would be in jeopardy, he quickly mounted a campaign to fly children to safety in the United States. Within six months of Castro’s taking power, Walsh launched Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan), a mass exodus of Cuban minors between December 1960 and October 1962. Since their parents expected that Castro would soon be overthrown, the children would be back shortly.

Pedro Pan funding came from the U.S. government, joined by U.S.-based Cubans donating money and working with Walsh to find eligible youth. The children needed a visa (later dropped) and at least $25 for airfare.

In just 22 months, 14,038 youths fled their native land. Most were aged 12 to 18, from lower and middle class Catholic families. Most went to relatives in the United States (primarily Florida), and the balance to shelters managed or approved by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Half spoke no English. There were 8,097 boys and 5,941 girls. Of this number, 54 males ended up in the Holy Family Orphanage on Fisher Street in Marquette.

To prevent the exodus from inflaming international tensions, the program was hushed up until exposed years later by a Cleveland newspaper. A government-funded documentary told children’s individual stories in The Lost Apple.

Under the direction of Monsignor Wilbur Gibbs of Catholic Social Services, Cuban boys began arriving in wintery Marquette in January 1961, stunned by weather they had never experienced before. One of their first stops was at Getz’s department store to buy warmer clothing (each boy had an account there). The Holy Family Orphanage became their new home, which was also a home to U.P. orphans and the nuns who ran the place.

According to orphanage resident Rich Ryan, interviewed by NMU professor Diane Kordich and several journalists, the Cubans lived on the top floor. Dirty laundry was dropped down a chute to the nuns, who washed and folded everything and laid them on tables for the boys to retrieve. The clothes were initialed for easy identification.

Boys could buy personal items from a shop run by a fellow Pedro boy. Because the priest who oversaw the orphanage was a smoker, they could light up, too. In letters to relatives, the boys said they were happy with their care. “This place has wonderful nuns,” one of them wrote, “who go out of their way to know how to make us happy.” “The snow is beautiful,” wrote another. “We are members of the high life here,” noted a third.

It took a while for them to adjust to American food. One boy ate nothing but mashed potatoes for two weeks until he was able to stomach the fare. In response to numerous complaints, a professional cook from Munising was hired to adjust the menu. Although most of the boys walked the four blocks to Bishop Baraga High School, they had to come back to the orphanage for lunch, as the school had no cafeteria.

Religious needs were scrupulously met. Sunday Mass was mandatory in the beautiful chapel or the nearby cathedral, as were retreats at Marygrove retreat center. Organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Chamber of Commerce hosted group dinners for the boys, and there were overnight stays in local homes.

There was a small allowance, and some had jobs. Rich Ryan recalled that “A lot of us had different jobs, very good part-time jobs working in the grocery stores. Mr. Angeli [grocer Mike Angeli] was famous for hiring the Cuban boys for carry out, checkers and stock boys and so on. I worked for Mike Angeli for over two years.”

Weekends found the boys taking in the movies, thanks to free tickets, followed by treats at Donckers restaurant, which was next to one theater and across the street from another. Rich Ryan again: “The Donckers family was very influential in the Catholic Church because Fred was on the school board. They would allow us to come over. They would give us tokens to have a Saturday night after-the-movie type of thing where they were still open for soda fountain service. We would enjoy ourselves.”

Operation Pedro Pan ground to a halt in 1962 after the U.S. Bay of Pigs fiasco, but some Cuban youth reached the United States via Spain and Mexico until 1965. Cuban parents also left their homeland on so-called U.S. Freedom Flights. There were many emotional reunions with some, but not all, parents. It took several years in many cases, but some didn’t see their parents for long periods of time. In one case, 11 years; in another, 17; in another, 38. Ten percent never saw their parents again.

It was a remarkable crew of youth who made new lives in a new land. Pedro Pan boys became judges, doctors, professors, actors, authors and journalists, legislators, military officers, business executives, mayors, two ambassadors, bishops, university president, a Twin Towers survivor on 9-11, and a Vietnam battle casualty. Pedro Pan alumni now reside in 44 states and nine countries.

From the 54 Marquette boys came three professors, three engineers, a newspaper publisher, automotive executive, and more than a few university graduates. Most boys attended Bishop Baraga High School, but Octavio Cisneros graduated from Negaunee St. Paul High School and is now a bishop in Brooklyn, NY. Several Cubans married local girls and started families. A migrant named Roberto Caldas rejoiced over his being “blessed by God” to be here. “The brothers and sisters cared for us at such a tender age and during such misery.”

Long scrollings through the 14,038 names in a Miami Herald database turned up 50 of the 54 Marquette Cubans. The Herald site is also a social networking place for Pedro Pans, their families, and each other. The site is full of emotional outpourings. Here are a few:

“I thank my parents for their bravery…some days I long for Cuba…God Bless America…I’m still suffering from unresolved mourning…Cuba was a living hell…I am alive and I am sane…I came here not speaking English; four years later my mother came to the U.S. and she couldn’t speak English and I could no longer speak Spanish.

“I count my blessings every day…I am proud to be a Pedro Pan…Americans are the most generous people I know…Americans don’t realize what they have here…An American citizen proud of being Cuban…I will pay it forward all of my life.” There were only three negative comments: one claimed to have been over-medicated, one claimed child abuse, and one was a bitter Communist.

Every five years, Pedro Pan alumni gather for a reunion in the Miami area. Rich Ryan attended one in 2010. Of the 35 boys he knew personally, he saw 10 on his trip. “I decided to go down. A couple of my Cuban friends, who I became really close to, organized a lot of the kids who lived with us during that time. We just had our own Reunion.”


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