Christmas is a special season of joy especially for Catholics around the world, and especially in Cuba. Along with the religious festivities, going to church and the usual display of a nacimiento in our living rooms, Cuban families used to reunite and celebrate together the birth of Baby Jesus with the Nochebuena dinner on Christmas Eve and later the Reyes Magos that brought presents to the children on Jan, 6.
For thousands of Pedro Pan children, 1961 and 1962 were sad years, years that marked our “growing up” during a 45-minute flight from Cuba to an uncertain future. Our parents had made the sacrifice to save us from Communist indoctrination, and we found ourselves away from our parents for the first time, in a different country, with no knowledge of the language. We tried to make sense of what we had just been through. For the younger ones it was very difficult. For the older ones, it not only was difficult, but it also brought the responsibility of taking care of our younger siblings. The Christmas season made the pain of separation and the uncertainty of the moment even more unbearable for us all.
On that first Christmas of 1961, a wonderful group of Pedro Pan boys, after a few weeks of a sad time at the camp for these young refugees in Kendall, decided to build an outdoor nativity scene there, on the corner facing Southwest 79th Street and 114th Avenue. The project was built from scratch. They probably didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a labor of love for other Pedro Pan children at the camp to enjoy.
As one of them later wrote, dozens of Kendall residents took pictures next to these two projects and have shared those pictures with their children and grandchildren and told them about our Pedro Pan story.
According to one Pedro Pan, “The two Christmas projects came about because little had been planned beyond a plastic tree for the lobby and presents. In the third week of December, we thought and proposed to build a cutout nativity to be placed at the crossroads in front of the camp, and for a nacimiento indoors.”
Father Luis Perez was enthusiastic about the indoor nativity and paid for the papier-mache figures bought from the the Woolworth store downtown. All the work on the indoor nacimiento was done on Dec. 24, and it was placed on a table on the left side of the altar. The artistic work included painted paper simulating rocks and a cave.
This group of industrious Pedro Pans started to work on the outdoor nativity scene on Sunday, Dec. 17 and placed the finished cutouts at the crossroads five days later. According to another Pedro Pan, “One member of the staff brought in a sheet of Masonite. Unfortunately, he brought pegboard, so after we were done sawing and painting there were holes all over Jesus, Mary, Joseph, as well as the one lonely sheep, although looking at it now it looks more like a beagle.”
One Pedro Pan was responsible for enlarging an estampita to full size, cutting the board and painting within the lines and nailing the parts. Having the whole thing stand for more than five minutes can probably be considered a Pedro Pan miracle! At some point, the group came to the conclusion that the pegboard was not a bad idea after all because its many holes would help it hold up better on windy days or nights.
Kendall Camp has a special place in my heart because it was the first place where my two younger brothers and I found shelter upon arriving in Miami. It was a temporary shelter for most Pedro Pan. Some of us were there for only a few days, others a little bit longer as the camp adapted to the growing number of unaccompanied minors arriving from Cuba. For me, those nine days at Kendall Camp in October 1961, with all its uncertainties and the deep pain for having left in Cuba everything we cherished and loved, left its mark.
Later on in life, every time I visit Kendall Camp I feel a deep sense of gratitude and peace.
Carmencita Romanach’s account first appeared on pedropan.org.