Located in an area which was very strategic to the war effort, we endured the anxiety and anguish of those caught up in the theater of war, a theater that was displayed before our eyes and whose instruments of destruction were aimed at our parents in Cuba. At the same time, our parents watched in horror as Cuba’s nuclear armament was aimed at their children here in Florida City.
Isa and I lived in this camp for the next three years. We left in the summer of 1965 because the camp was closing. Our parents arrived three months later, after spending eight months in Mexico waiting for their paperwork to clear.
The application for the landmark was prepared and submitted by José Antonio Amaro Reyes, who resides in Georgia, Susana Garrandés of Longwood, and me, a local Miami resident. We are all former residents of the camp. The application was sponsored by Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc. (OPPG) and the idea originated when members of the project team, who were initially brought together by The Miami Herald’s online Network for Operation Pedro Pan, realized that as grown-ups many of the camps former residents, who sought to revisit their early refugee experience, were unable to locate the site of the camp.
Although it was originally conceived as a way of marking its geographic location, it soon evolved into a larger project aimed at preserving the historical and cultural significance of the camp for the state of Florida and in the larger context of United States-Cuba relations during the Cold War period.
In 2009, I started coming back to this site on a daily basis with my Pedro Pan husband Guillermo Paz, an architect like myself, in order to photograph and inventory the buildings that comprised the former camp and to note their architectural features in order to formulate the physical description aspect of the application for the marker.
After a short and unexpected illness this year, my husband was laid to rest the day before the marker arrived but I assure you that he is here in spirit. The project, which took our team over two years to complete, also envisioned renaming Pedro Pan Place, the two-block stretch of NW 2nd Avenue that runs through the heart of the old camp between NW 14th and 16th streets. The City of Florida City Council recently approved a resolution granting that street renaming request and we just witnessed the unveiling of the street sign with that very special name.
This past August, on the eve of my 50th Pedro Pan anniversary, my granddaughter Paloma, turned 12 years old, the same age that I was when I arrived at this Pedro Pan Place and it dawned on me that the sacrifice that my parents and all Pedro Pan parents made is the gift that keeps on giving, because it not only saved Isa and me, but our children and grandchildren, who today enjoy the freedom they intended for us and now that legacy of selfless love is theirs to pass on.
This historical marker is the first bilingual English/Spanish marker in the State of Florida.
The English version of the marker text reads as follows:
“On this site, which was officially known as the Florida City Shelter of the Catholic Welfare Bureau’s Cuban Children’s Program, thousands of Operation Pedro Pan children found refuge from Communist Cuba between 1961 and 1966. Operation Pedro Pan was conceived and organized by Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh of the Archdiocese of Miami and James Baker, headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana, Cuba, at the request of parents who sought to prevent the Communist indoctrination of their children. It was financed largely by the United States Government with full support of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, and was supervised by the State of Florida. Between December 1960 and October 1962, over 14,000 Pedro Pan children arrived in South Florida. The Florida City Shelter was the largest of the Operation’s facilities in the state. It housed girls 5-19 years old and boys under 13 who lived in home units under the care of exiled Cuban couples who served as house parents. Its day-to-day operations were managed by Catholic priests and Sisters of St. Philip Neri. Many Operation Pedro Pan children went on to plant deep roots in the region and made significant contributions to Florida and the nation.”
My sister Isa has since passed away so in both of our names, I thank my mother, here in the audience today, my father who is surely watching with Isa and Guillermo from heaven above, thank you, Papi, I love you and the parents of all my Pedro Pan brothers and sisters represented here by Eladia Gonzalez and Bernardino Madariaga. Similarly, our deepest gratitude goes to Monsignor Walsh, the person that made it all possible, the sisters of Saint Philip Neri represented here by Madre Paulina Montejo and Madre Maria Victoria Ortega, to this noble nation that welcomed us in our hour of need, to the City of Florida City that provided a home for us back then, and to the current Mayor and City Council for the love and support that they have bestowed upon us.
Carmen Validivia is a director of Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., and chair of the Historic Committee. She made these remarks at the Florida Heritage Landmark Dedication Ceremony on Nov. 16 of a site used to house children of Operation Pedro Pan in Florida City.