Between Dec. 1960 and Oct. 1962, Miami experienced a historical exodus of more than 14,000 Cuban children who traveled alone during the “Operation Pedro Pan” movement. Orchestrated by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (Catholic Charities) of Miami, Cuban parents sent their boys and girls to the states in an effort to protect them from Fidel Castro’s radical Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. This became the largest recorded mass migration of unaccompanied child refugees in the Western Hemisphere.
“I think it’s impossible for most people to understand how utterly frightening this was,” recalled Tony Argiz, one of the many children sent away by his parents in pursuit of freedom at age 9. “Remember, most of us had no idea if we were ever going to see our families again. And some of us were too young to understand why we were being sent away.”
Through January 17, 2016, HistoryMiami museum visitors can explore the 5,000 sq. ft. exhibition, Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus. In partnership with the non-profit organization Operation Pedro Pan Group (founded by the former children of Pedro Pan), this moving exhibit highlights the many elements of the children’s heartbreaking journey from Cuba to the U.S.
About half of the Cuban children arriving alone were reunited with friends or family. Others were placed in temporary church-sponsored camps in several South Florida locations, and some were sent to live in foster homes around the country. Most of the minors were between the ages of 8 to 12 years old, but a few were as young as 13 months old.
“The exhibition Operation Pedro Pan is presented in a way that is new to HistoryMiami,” said Jorge Zamanillo, museum director and exhibition curator. “We interviewed 14 Pedro Pan ‘alumni’ and gathered hundreds of items to tell the story of these children and their families. The interviewees were filmed simply on black backgrounds and the videos are projected onto black walls, so that you feel like they are talking directly to you and sharing with you their personal experiences. These emotional accounts guide you throughout the exhibition experience.”
The exhibit’s sections detail the steps of this truly emotional passage, from the time that Cuban parents made the decision to send their kids alone to Miami, to the children making a new life in a new country. On display are important artifacts, memorabilia, video testimonials, private letters, journals and photographs. A must-see feature is the recreated immigration “fishbowl,” a glass-enclosed customs room where the isolated youth waited hours for departure while exchanging glances with their parents just on the other side of the glass.
Numerous Pedro Pan individuals are featured in narrative vignettes sharing their personal stories, including former Senator Mel Martinez who arrived at the age of 15, and City of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado who arrived at the age of 13. Additional touching video testimonials include Leonor Martínez de Valdivia, the mother of Carmen Valdivia who was 12 when she arrived with her 14 year old sister Maria Isabel. Today, Carmen is the president of the Operation Pedro Pan Group organization’s historic committee. Well-known scholar José Azel and his wife attended the exhibit’s opening, viewing his very own Cuban passport and childhood photo.
“HistoryMiami visitors can expect to be truly moved by this exhibition,” said Stuart A Chase, president and CEO of HistoryMiami. “While Operation Pedro Pan is the story of 14,000 children from Cuba that took place more than fifty years ago, visitors from all cultural backgrounds will be able to identify with the themes and come to understand the fears that led to this program. It is by no means only a ‘Cuban story’ but just one example of a human experience.”
HistoryMiami is located at 101 W Flagler St, Miami, FL 33130. Museum hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 am-5 pm; Sunday, 12 pm-5 pm. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students with ID, $6 for children 6-12, and free for members and children under 6.
To learn more about HistoryMiami’s Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus exhibit, visit www.historymiami.org.
To learn more about Operation Pedro Pan Group, visit www.pedropan.org.