Losing his Cuban home shaped a Nat Geo mapmaker’s life


Juan José Valdés, 60, is Geographer and Director of Editorial and Research at National Geographic Maps. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Valdés riding a tricycle in his Havana neighborhood. (Courtesy of Juan José Valdés)

HAVANA — The boy named Juan José Valdés is riding in the family’s red Dodge Coronet, which has whitewall tires and tail fins. It is early on a morning in August 1961 in Havana. He will turn 8 next month. His parents are taking their only child to the airport to say goodbye.

Ordinarily, Juan likes the airport. On many fun-filled Saturdays, the airport is his destination with his Uncle Eladio. They would start the day studying the map of Havana on the old colonial wall near the train station. Then they would catch a train to the airport to watch the planes. Eladio would quiz Juan on the international airliners, his first geography lessons.

Maps and trains were the boy’s tools for keeping his bearings in those dizzying times. At 5, he had followed the advance of Fidel Castro’s forces on an Esso highway map.

By the time he turned 6, in 1959, the revolution had triumphed. One day, a train loaded with people from the countryside roared down the tracks near the little house on Continental Street, where Juan lived upstairs with his mother and father. A sign on the front of the black steam engine said: “Gracias Fidel.”

Juan got an electric train set for his sixth birthday. The engine weighed a couple of pounds. It blew a steam-like vapor and flashed headlights. There was a red caboose stamped “Made in the United States of America.”

The windows of Juan’s Catholic elementary school shook on the day in March 1960 when a French freighter filled with Belgian munitions exploded in the harbor. His teacher made a lesson out of the ship’s route to Cuba.

That September, family and friends put on smiles one more time for the ceremonial photo on Juan’s seventh birthday. They posed by the dining room table, Juan in front of his parents. To his right stood his cousins Mayda and Miguel.

Seven months later, in April 1961, there was an attack at a place whose English name was on none of Juan’s maps: Bay of Pigs.

Now, on Aug. 10, it is goodbye.

Juan tries to be brave in the departure lounge known as la pecera, the fishbowl. His parents stand on the other side of the glass, trying to communicate with their wet eyes.

Many details of that day, and of the life that ended so abruptly, would be locked in a mental closet that a 60-year-old geographer in Gaithersburg would one day strive to pry open. But a few impressions would haunt his dreams.

He would recall his father telling him to select his favorite toy for the trip. Picture the boy sitting in la pecera clutching his train engine. It’s time to go. A soldier in a green uniform stops him. The soldier seizes the locomotive and says: “Where you’re going, you won’t need that.”


The Cuban passport that Valdés carried on Aug. 10, 1961, when his parents sent him from Cuba, at age 7, to live with friends in Miami. (Courtesy of Juan José Valdés)

Where was he going? Valdés had no clearer idea than any of the 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children whose parents sent them to the United States from 1960 to 1962. The improvised airlift known as Operation Pedro Pan was supported by an American Catholic relief agency and the U.S. government.

About half the children were met by relations in Miami. Others were assigned to camps, group homes or foster families across the country. In most cases — sometimes it took years — parents were eventually able to leave Cuba and rejoin their children.

The rupture left scars, even for children whose families were reunited relatively quickly. Their receding Cuban childhoods flickered and beckoned like a confiscated Never-Never Land.

A growing body of Pedro Pan literature showcases the range of responses to the common trauma. Many Pedro Pans are grateful for the choice their parents made. Some say they would never do that to their own children. Some feel a rage so strong against the revolutionary government that they vow never to set foot on the island while it endures. Others imagine that a visit would be healing.

Cuba is the only country where the U.S. government restricts the travel of its own citizens. But licensed cultural and educational tours have allowed record numbers of Americans to go. Nearly 100,000 visited in 2012, more than double the number five years before, according to Cuban tourism statistics. In addition, Cubans count expatriate visitors separately. More than 400,000 people born in Cuba visited in 2012, most from the United States, according to a Cuban official.

No one knows how many are Pedro Pans. They blend in with the larger community of visiting Cuban Americans, all in search of lost time. Taxi drivers, waiters and tour guides tell of prosperous-looking strangers in the autumn of life asking questions in serviceable Spanish with a wide-eyed shyness. The visitors hold faded photographs or scraps of addresses and ask directions to a house, a school, a baptismal font, a graveyard.


Valdés at National Geographic. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Juan José Valdés grew up to be not just a geographer but The Geographer — his actual title — at the National Geographic Society, where he helps direct map policies and projects. He also became a train buff and constructed a model-train layout that dominates his basement in Gaithersburg. It’s a transparent attempt to compensate for the engine that was taken from him.

“All my life I’ve been looking for that train,” he says.

His parents, José and Juliana, worked for the Cuban Electric Co. José was a computer operations manager, Juliana was a clerk. They were not politically active, but at first they appreciated Castro — he promised reform and elections. That sentiment yielded to fear that their son would be inculcated to become a “communist.” The solution was sending him away.

The family had vacationed in Miami in 1957, and Juan’s parents scrambled to get him on a plane before his previous visa expired in September 1961. Their visas, issued earlier than his, already had expired. He was supposed to be met by family friends in Miami. Instead, he spent his first 90 minutes in the United States lost in the airport.

Back in Havana, “we cried every night,” recalls José, now 85 and living near his son. Juliana died several years ago. “That’s the reason we gave all his bedroom furniture to [a neighbor]. Because every time we would go into the bedroom, we saw all the furniture, all the toys and everything, and we would cry.”

The parents frantically worked to get new visas through connections in Miami. In return for permission to leave, the government took their house, most of their furniture and a chunk of their bank account. By early 1962, they were reunited with their son.

Wheaton Presbyterian Church sponsored the family’s relocation to a furnished apartment on University Boulevard in 1963. Their arrival was chronicled in The Washington Post, under the headline “Area Youths Do Odd Jobs to Give Cuban Family a New Start in Life.”

José got a job running the computers at the Washington Star, then at IBM. Juliana was a clerk at Montgomery Ward in Wheaton Plaza. Juan informed his teachers and classmates that his name was John, and he became a citizen at 16, in 1969. He reverted to “Juan” as a young adult, though his Wheaton High School sweetheart, now his wife of 37 years — the former Kathy Wessells, of Irish and German descent — still occasionally calls him John. They have two daughters and two granddaughters.


Valdés directed the creation of this map of Cuba for the National Geographic. It was the society’s first since 1906. (© 2013 National Geographic Society, Washington. D.C)

For most of his life, Juan José Valdés tried to bury his Cuban childhood. Adapting to a new way of life was hard enough without the painful reminder of all that he had lost.

“Now I find that I’m at that stage in my life where all these things are coming back. If they’re not coming back in dreams, they’re coming back in little visual, audio, all kinds of sensory prompts that give me flashbacks. I want to connect the dots.”

In 2011, he directed the creation of a handsome new wall map of Cuba, National Geographic’s first rendering of the island since 1906. The map made a splash. Valdés was asked to give lectures; he’d tell his story, illustrated with slides. He also was assigned to help lead National Geographic’s cultural and educational tours to Cuba.

About that time, in an apartment in Toronto, a grandmother from Havana searched the Internet for a long-lost cousin. Mayda Arecelia Valdés Pérez was visiting her son, who had immigrated to Canada. She found a YouTube video showing a man giving a lecture about a map. A snapshot flashed on the screen — Juan’s last birthday photo in Havana!

“Look, that’s me!” Mayda squealed. “That’s my brother! That’s my cousin!”

Mayda’s son e-mailed her contact information in Havana to Valdés as the geographer was packing to lead a tour last spring.

On two tours in previous years, Valdés had no idea of the whereabouts of his cousins. Each time he raised the emotional stakes. At first, sticking to the tourist areas provided a strong enough dose of bygone days. The next time, he got a ride to his boyhood home from a Cuban he had met. He stood on the curb, tears running down his cheeks. He felt grief, gratitude, wonder. A couple of neighbors recognized him: “Juanito!” “Juan del barrio,” they said, according to the Cuban friend. The people living in the house were strangers.

Valdés could not bring himself to cross the threshhold.

“I didn’t have the fortitude,” he recalled. “It was just too much to get there, let alone walk through the door.”

Now, as he prepared to return again and find his cousins, it was almost as though the geographer were clicking the zoom icon on his map program — enlarging the terrain of Never-Never Land, steeling himself to go deep.


Valdés, seens as a kindergartner in Havana, sometimes wonders what his life would be like if he had stayed in Cuba. (Courtesy of Juan José Valdés)

Beside the Parque Central, Havana’s Central Park, candy-colored American dreamboats gleam in the sun — 1950s Chryslers, Chevrolets and Fords that the Cubans have famously preserved. Valdés does not spy a red Dodge Coronet.

He is riding in a weathered compact. At the wheel is the Cuban friend whom Juan met on a previous trip — and who says his parents never would have sent him away, because they believed in the revolution.

“Imagine, to see the house where he was born,” the friend says in Spanish, as they set out to look for Juan’s cousins and visit his house. “It gives me goose bumps to think about the theme of this family, and the friends that Juan José had to leave. Those who go, and those who stay. ... Maybe Juan José would have wanted to stay?”

“No,” says Valdés, “it was the decision that I think was the best.”

The issue is complicated, though: “Now as an adult, I can rationalize why it was done. But growing up as a kid: Why did this happen to me? Why did they do this?

“I always have doubts about what would have happened if we had stayed in Cuba. What would have happened to me?”

After ascertaining that Valdés’s parents had ceased sympathizing with the revolution, his friend gives this verdict:

“They would have been simply lumpen here in Cuba, they would not have access to anything, they wouldn’t exist. They would have ended up immigrating to the United States anyway. I bet they would have gone as far as traveling in the teeth of a shark.

“Or maybe you would have stayed, you would have studied, you would have maybe had a university career. And today you would have been one more university person, one more engineer. Which from my point of view doesn’t have any future in Cuba. ... If you don’t work in tourism, you’re nothing. Yes, education and health care are free, but it’s very hard.”


Juan José Valdés leans against the seawall on Havana's famous seaside esplanade, the Malecón. A lifetime ago, he used to stroll here with his parents. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

Valdés might have guessed that. But it doesn’t account for an extra dimension the geographer feels as he explores.

“Are you capturing the faces of Havana?” he says happily one morning on a crowded sidewalk. “Are you looking at each and every one and seeing all the variety? This is so familiar. This is so comfortable. I’m sure the people in Miami would string me up, quarter me and tar me, but it’s just me. The only way I can explain it, all politics aside: This feels right.”

He had spent the previous nine days leading two dozen people on the National Geographic tour, called “Cuba: Discovering Its People and Culture.” The itinerary had taken them to cultural and historical sites in Havana and nearby cities, and introduced them to artists, intellectuals and everyday Cubans. The visitors saw the painstaking restoration of the grand plazas of Old Havana and listened to the Choir of Cienfuegos.

At a former sugar mill, Valdés asked a farmer for permission to scoop up soil to take home. He did not have to explain.

“I have heard this story before,” said the farmer.

One of the travelers was Diana Canova, daughter of the late Hollywood star Judy Canova and the late Cuban-born musician Filberto Rivero.

“This trip means more to me than any trip I could ever take,” said Diana, who grew up watching her father’s sadness at not being able to return to his homeland. “This to me is a pilgrimage in honor of my dad. It goes very deep.”

There is squalor amid the grandeur. Historic buildings in Havana are falling down faster than they can be preserved. Laundry hangs from the upper floors of peeling, crowded former palaces. Children in alleys with no bats, balls or mitts play stick ball with plastic bottle tops.

“I try to look beyond the obvious to how regal it truly is, how regal Cuba truly could be,” Valdés says. “There’s joy here. There’s life.”

After the tour is over and the guests depart, he has a day and a half to search out benchmarks of his preexistence, such as the map on the wall he used to study with Uncle Eladio.

“It proves I’m from somewhere,” he says. “That’s all I’m looking for.”


Valdés on the upstairs patio of his childhood home. (David Montgomery/Washington Post)

Valdés’s driver turns the car onto Continental Street. The neighborhood has a suburban quality, with palm trees, tidy lawns and compact two-story houses. Valdés is quiet, alert.

“It looks so familiar,” he says.

“What house?” asks the driver.

“There, there, there!” says Valdés.

The garage that sheltered the Dodge Coronet has been turned into a kitchen for another downstairs apartment, so now three families live in the house. But after 52 years, what’s most remarkable is how little has changed.

Downstairs, where two aunts had lived until they moved to the United States, the same prints of Spanish landscapes hang on the wall. Valdés sees his grandmother’s sewing machine. At the foot of the stairs is the compartment where he used to retrieve bottles left by the milkman.

Now he begins to slowly climb those stairs. The upstairs resident, a middle-aged woman, greets him warmly. Her family is the second to live here since the Valdéses left. She apologizes that she has not been able to keep the house in top condition. Yet it is immaculate, with tasteful white furniture. She proudly calls Valdés’s attention to the bathroom, which is identical to how it was in 1961.

Valdés enters the dining area and stops. He sees a table in exactly the spot where all the Valdés birthday portraits were taken.

“That’s where we used to celebrate our birthdays,” he says in a ragged voice.

“We celebrate all ours there, too,” says the woman.

“Would you do me the honor of standing by my side and we’ll take a picture — ”

Valdés can’t speak for a moment.

“ — to celebrate all the birthdays that I couldn’t celebrate here?”

The melody of a vendor selling peanuts floats up from the street.

“Imagine, the year is 1961,” Valdés says to the woman. “I go to bed on the 9th of August, as if nothing, a normal day. And the next morning, ‘Let’s go, get dressed, we’re going.’ ”

“You are Peter Pan?” asks the woman, using the English “Peter.”

“Yes.”

She touches his arm consolingly.

“You are Cuban,” she says.

“Yes, I’m Cuban,” Valdés says.


Valdés celebrates his seventh and last birthday in Havana, in September 1960. Behind him are his parents, Juliana and José. To his immediate right is his cousin Miguel; behind Miguel is cousin Mayda. (Courtesy of Juan José Valdés)

Valdés, center, reunited his long-lost cousins, Mayda Arecelia Valdés Pérez and Miguel Gerardo Valdés Pérez, 52 years after he last saw them. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

The driver pulls up to a high-rise apartment building, and Valdés holds the door for cousin Mayda to climb in. She is vivacious in a green dress that matches her piercing green eyes. Mayda sizes up her cousin, whom she has not seen in 52 years.

“Where’d that beard come from?” she teases.

“To compensate for what’s on top,”Juan says, pointing to his balding crown.

“You look like a wolf!”

It’s as if no time has passed at all.

They go back to Juan’s hotel, where they meet cousin Miguel Gerardo Valdés Pérez. The cousins sit at a table in the lobby and order soft drinks. Miguel produces a stack of black-and-white family photos. Each is a little revelation to Juan, who spreads them on the table and takes pictures of the pictures.

Miguel, 60, is a university professor of communications who drives a 1963 East German motorcycle. Mayda, 65, studied economics and had a career as an executive secretary. They are the last known relations on Valdés’s father’s side of the family left in Cuba.

“Whenever I go to the airport, I have never stopped feeling sad,” says Miguel. “At the airport I have said goodbye to the most beloved of my life. My family, my school friends. From the airport went away part of our family, and we stopped being who we were.”

Who they were was a typical, large, close Cuban family of the 1950s. Juan’s father used to drive the cousins to Woolworth’s and buy dolls for Mayda and toy cars for the boys. They would snack on roasted, salted peanuts sold in slender cones of white paper.

There was never a question that Mayda and Miguel would be sent to the United States, because their mother wouldn’t hear of it. Cuban nationalist pride and commitment to family unity were her strongest values. In the end, four of Juan’s father’s six siblings remained in Cuba.

Mayda and Miguel don’t regret having stayed.

“La tierra te duele,” Miguel says — the homeland makes you ache — quoting a lyric sung by Gloria Estefan. The song is about someone who misses the land of his roots.

Miguel adds that, to him, the first duty a person has is to be present to bury one’s ancestors. “And I speak to you with pride of having buried mine.”

He continues: “We accepted all the transformations that were here, and he assumed the context of where he arrived. But I think the most important thing is what animated Mayda to get in touch — this family link that has not ceased to be felt. It’s not just in the photos, it’s in the memories. ... Juan has made a very good life, but he doesn’t forget his roots, and how great is that.”


Juan Valdés spends a little time with his father, José Valdés, in Juan's Gaithersburg basement with his extensive model train collection. (Andre Chung/For The Washington Post)

Buoyant music from the soundtrack of the 1956 movie “Around the World in 80 Days” fills the living room of Miguel’s neat and modest house. Juan and Mayda dance.

The big, warm analog sound comes from a phonograph that is the size of a small refrigerator. It’s the record player that was in Juan’s house 52 years ago, with the same albums.

“I remember waltzing to this with my mother,” Juan says.

When the Valdéses arrived in the United States, music again filled their residence, especially on Saturdays, the day set aside for cleaning.

“From 7 in the morning to 9 at night, we listened to music, and sometimes I saw my mother cry,” Juan says to Mayda and Miguel. “Now I know why she was crying.”

Miguel withdraws to a back room and reappears carrying an object reverently, in two hands. He hands it to Juan.

It is the lost locomotive.

Juan is speechless. He stares at the train engine, studies its markings.

How can this be?

“So you always remembered this train, as an image in your mind?” Miguel says.

“Years and years of dreams and nightmares,” Juan says. “I thought that in the pecera someone took my train.”

Fact-checking his memories and dreams, the cartographer has discovered an error: A soldier didn’t steal his train — he left it behind. Now he can only guess that the imagination of a frightened boy repressed and reduced the loss of his Cuban childhood to its emotional — if not its factual — essence. What is true is that bewildering grown-up forces took away something dear.

Miguel also produces the tender and the caboose for Juan to carry back to Gaithersburg. The cousins are quietly overcome with emotion. Juan breaks the silence with a phrase that his father used to say to buck up spirits: “¡Pa’lante!” — Forward!

“The beautiful thing is, I’ve got the engine and the caboose,” Juan says. “And I know what comes in between.

David Montgomery is a Washington Post
staff writer. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit
washingtonpost.com/magazine.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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