The state of Florida has designated the Operation Pedro Pan’s Florida City Camp a Florida Heritage Landmark. Operation Pedro Pan was a program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami, in December 1960, at the request of parents in Cuba to provide an opportunity for them to send their children to Miami in order to avoid Marxist-Leninist indoctrination. Over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children arrived through Operation Pedro Pan between December 1960 and October 1962. Operation Pedro Pan remains the largest Children Exodus in the Western Hemisphere.
For the past two years, all former Pedro Pan children have been reaching the milestone of the 50th anniversary of their arrival. August 8th, 1962 was my arrival date. On that day, my sister Isa and I arrived here at the camp for the first time.
The Catholic Welfare Bureau’s Florida City Camp, located here on this site, was the largest of the operation’s shelters and transit stations. It was operated by the Diocese of Miami’s Cuban Children’s Program, with financing from the United States Program for Unaccompanied Cuban Children and under the supervision of the state of Florida and local agencies. It is estimated that between 1961 and 1966 several thousand boys and girls resided on its premises.
The camp, which was comprised then of the same buildings which we find now on both sides of NW Second Avenue between 14th and 16th streets, was surrounded by a chain link fence for our protection. The building behind me was under construction at the time and we, the girls at the camp, moved into the newly finished building later that year. The entrance to the camp was from 16th street with the administration office located in the building on the north east corner of the intersection of NW 2nd Avenue and 16th Street.
I recall that as the van that was transporting us approached the camp’s entrance we were pleasantly surprised to see a large number of cheering children, who, while pressing against each other and the fence, welcomed our arrival. It was late into the evening, after having spent the entire day at the infamous “La Pecera” at Havana’s Rancho Boyeros Airport.
As most of us remember, “La Pecera” was that “initiation rite” we all had to endure to become Pedro Pan children.
Isa and I arrived hungry, scared, tired and empty-handed, having been stripped of everything that was dear to us upon our departure from our homeland. Since the camp’s office and dining room were closed for the day, we were taken to the sister’s convent, where the nuns filled out the paper work and gave us a much welcomed sandwich and a glass of milk. Immediately afterwards, they introduced us to our house parents, the Cuban couple who would look after us.
The house parents led us to our new home and introduced us to our “hermanitas del exilio,” the 20 or so girls under their care with whom we would share that temporary household and in so many instances a lifelong sacred bond.
With the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, commercial flights between the United States and Cuba ceased and Operation Pedro Pan abruptly came to an end. Parents had no avenue for reunification with their children, other than through third countries like Mexico, Spain and Panama. It was a slow and very difficult process for the parents as well as the children. Isa and I, like all other children at the camp, found ourselves not only stranded from our parents, but on opposite sides of what appeared to be a looming nuclear war.