Elia Haza was sitting at a table in Lauriol Plaza near Dupont Circle, reading aloud from a carefully preserved letter she had penciled as a child of 8, more than 50 years ago. She translated from the original Spanish, taking long pauses to control her emotions:
“Mommy, I want to go back to our house. Mommy, take me away, I beg you. Mommy, if you can, send me chocolate.”
Haza stopped reading and looked around at the 40 people crowded at three big tables. She had only just met them, yet they knew exactly what she was talking about. And now they were friends.
“I have been longing for this, especially since I’ve become older,” said Haza, an ESOL parent coordinator for the Montgomery County Public Schools who lives in Bethesda. “This reunion has given me a sense of connection, a sense of therapy.”
Haza had written the letter from a group home in Miami to her parents back in Cuba. Her parents, like the parents of the others gathered at the restaurant, had made the desperate decision to send her and her twin sister, Eva, away from home in Cuba — forever, as it turned out. What became known as “Operation Pedro Pan” was one of the largest organized exoduses of minors in the Western Hemisphere, with more than 14,000 making the trip from 1960 to 1962. Parents of mostly middle-class families gambled that their children would be better off in the U.S. as Fidel Castro consolidated his revolutionary government.
The youngsters traveled unaccompanied, landing in Miami, then being scattered across the U.S. to live in group homes, with foster families, or with relatives, until their parents could join them. The sudden rupture of their childhoods, and the commencement of a completely different way of life, was deeply searing.
This group of Pedro Pans held an all-day reunion in Washington Sunday — inspired by reading the story of Juan José Valdés in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine in February. The article described how Valdés, who grew up to become the Geographer at the National Geographic Society, was haunted by scraps of memories of his life in Cuba. He resolved to return to Havana, which he had left at the age of 7, in search of his past.
The story sparked an emotional response from readers, including Susana Gomez of Arlington, a Pedro Pan who worked in Jimmy Carter’s White House and was assistant director of civil rights for the AFL-CIO, before retiring. She organized the reunion.
Answering Gomez’s call, Pedro Pans came from as far as Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia and New Jersey. The day began with worship at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, where Rev. Luis León, the Rector, is a Pedro Pan. Then came the long meal of masitas de puerco, bistec Cubano, black beans, rice and mojitos at Lauriol Plaza.
The reunion coincided with planning for an exhibit on the Pedro Pan experience at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing Our American Journey project on immigration. Smithsonian researchers attended the reunion to invite Pedro Pans to loan objects, photos and letters for the exhibit, tentatively scheduled for 2016. Pedro Pans also can record their stories for the project.
Despite the pain evident in her childhood letter, Haza does not regret her parents’ decision.
“They wanted their daughters to be free,” she said.
Eventually the family was reunited in the United States. And yet, as a mother herself, Haza wonders if she could have made the same decision, to send her children away.
“I don’t know if I would have had the strength,” Haza said. “To this day I can still feel the anxiety I felt as I walked up the stairway” to the airplane.
“We all have our tale of woe,” said Maria-Elena Martinez, of Morganville, N.J., who attended the reunion with two sisters. “No doubt that experience has molded my whole life. Basically the overwhelming and indescribable feeling of thinking, ‘I’m being abandoned.'”
Experiences vary, of course, and there are those like Emilio Cueto, who arrived in Washington at 17 and became a lawyer, who did not feel shaken by the experience.
“To me, it was an adventure,” he said.
Still, even for Cueto, the drama had its costs. His father had already died when the boy was sent to the States, but his mother chose never to leave Cuba to be with her son, because of family ties. He only managed to visit her years later, in the mid-1970s, when she was dying. He had to go on a hunger strike to pressure the Cuban government to let him in, he said.
Since then, Cueto has returned to Cuba dozens of times, frequently on research trips, making new acquaintances in his native land. He has turned his home in Washington into a kind of archive and museum to all things Cuban.
Many Pedro Pans vow never to return while the current government remains in power. Others feel the tug, especially as they grow older.
“It’s like a worm eating inside an apple,” said Jay Castaño. “Unless you go there, walk the same streets, visit the church where you took your First Communion, only then you can say the little worm won’t eat anymore.”
And yet, the Pedro Pans made new lives, new memories and new families in this country. While they were waiting for their parents to join them, many formed strong bonds with foster families that endure to this day.
Margarita Prats Lora, of Kensington, and Lola Prats-Kamprad, of Gaithersburg, lived in the Syracuse, N.Y., area for about four years before their parents made it out of Cuba. Their mother passed away earlier this year — but they consider their foster mother in North Syracuse another mother. They talk a couple times a month.
Their birth mother saved all the letters the girls and their two brothers, who lived with a different family, sent home during the separation.
“Every letter begins, ‘When are you going to come?'” said Prats Lora.
“Over the four years, the letters start in Spanish, then they start going to English,” said brother Benny Prats, of Glenwood, Md. “They get less emotional. It’s like we’re detaching ourselves from our parents.”
One thing about Syracuse was a shock: the climate.
“For two little tropical girls, our first snow was amazing,” said Prats-Kamprad.