The parents could get only one plane ticket, according to their son. Friends in Miami met Juan, then 7, at the airport.
“The plane was full of kids,” Valdes says. “It was just sad, very sad.”
In early 1962, his parents made it to Miami. His father got a job unloading bananas from Central America. One day he got lost coming home from the wharf, and he called his son. Juan ran to a nearby fire station, found a map and talked his father home.
“That a map could do that,” says the Geographer, tearing up at the memory.
After a year or so in Miami, one day his father came home and announced they were moving to Washington.
Which Washington? the boy wanted to know. On the plane, he kept a lookout for the Rockies. Instead he saw the Atlantic Ocean, and he knew they were moving to Washington, D.C.
Waiting for the family at National Airport were a dozen members of the Senior High Fellowship of Wheaton Presbyterian Church. As part of a Cuban refugee settlement program, the teens had raised $200 to help the Valdeses.
“It’s a moment very emotional for us,” Juliana Valdes said at the airport, according to a story at the time in The Washington Post. The article continued:
“ ‘Tell them you’re happy, too,’ she said in Spanish to her nine-year-old son, Juan — who speaks better English than his parents. But Juan was too shy and merely smiled.”
The father got a job in data processing at the Washington Star, then at IBM, while the son graduated from Wheaton High School and became an American citizen. (Juliana died in 1983; Jose is retired and living in Gaithersburg.)
Juan majored in geography and minored in cartography at the University of Maryland. He was hired by National Geographic in 1976.
He married his high school sweetheart, Kathleen Wessells, and they have two adult daughters and two granddaughters.
“Although this is home, you never really feel that it’s home,” he says. “But although my roots might be in Cuba, my trunk and my branches are here, and that trunk and those branches are my family.”
Layers of information
Maps are made in layers, Valdes says, paging through the many drafts of the Cuba map.
Each layer is a different set of information: Transportation networks. Major cities, provincial seats, important towns. Rivers, canals and reservoirs. Significant mountains, plains and wetlands. Oil fields and pipelines. Ocean depths and coastal bays, gulfs, channels and archipelagos.
Modern cartographers are aggregators. The information resides in various federal and international databases. The job of Valdes and his team of four researchers and editors was to put it together in an elegant, authoritative way.