Cubans reconnect with past through Pedro Pan database

 

lyanez@miamiherald.com

Scores of Pedro Pan veterans who came to the United States as children during the child exodus crowded into The Miami Herald pavilion on Sunday to find their names in a unique database unveiled by the newspaper over the weekend at Cuba Nostalgia.

"This is a wonderful way to preserve our history," said Marilu Canton, veteran of Operation Pedro Pan, who found her name among the list of 14,048 names now kept in the Operation Pedro Pan Database.

Coined by a Miami Herald reporter, Operation Pedro Pan took care of unaccompanied children between 6 and 17 who arrived alone in the U.S. between 1960 and 1962. Parents were getting their children out of Cuba, fearing communist indoctrination spreading in private and public schools.

After first being placed in camps in Miami-Dade such as Matecumbe, Kendall, Florida City and Opa-locka, the children had to start new lives in exile in foster homes, orphanages and boarding schools across the country.

Though many were reunited with their parents quickly, that proved not to be true in some cases.

The names in the database are from the airport log kept by Jorge ‘‘George'' Guarch, the Catholic church employee sent to greet the frightened children at Miami International Airport.

The database now offers those who came through the program, many now in their 50s and 60s, the chance to see their arrival information and reconnect with each other.

During the weekend, the database saw brisk business at MiamiHerald.com/pedropan, with some 50,000 hits and nearly 300 Pedro Pans registering into the Facebook-like database.

Haydee Torres Mestre came out to see her name.

ROUGH TIMES

During her years away from her parents, she experienced some harsh times.

After several days at the Kendall camp, Mestre, then 10, and her 7-year-old sister Aleida, ended up in an orphanage run by Polish nuns in Buffalo, N.Y.

The two were finally taken in by a farming family from Arcade, N.Y. ‘‘They were wonderful. They had cows and grew corn. I loved it there," Mestre said.

Pedro Pan veterans deal with their traumatic experiences differently. Some refuse to discuss it, like her sister, Mestre said. "She doesn't want to talk about it at all."

But several years ago, her sister took a trip to New York and made a detour to Buffalo to see the orphanage were they had stayed, by that point abandoned and set for demolition.

"My sister went inside the building and took two red bricks -- one for her, and one for me," Mestre said. "I still have it."

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