Maria Petronila Hernandez Valdivia
Maria Petronila's Story
I was delivered to Florida City on January 5 1962, by “George” a name, my father made sure I knew upside down and sideways. I remember the night he told me I was to leave Cuba and come to the United States; we were in Havana, staying at the hotel La Nueva Isla as we often did, due to travel for his job, or to visit my aunt. We had dinner at the restaurant on the top floor and, as was our custom after dinner, he and I walked to the veranda and watched the traffic way below, the lights of the Capitol, and the stars in the clear sky. Although I don't remember his exact words, I remember I felt nothing, slight curiosity, maybe. I understood his words, but not their meaning.
From that night until the day before I left, time and again he would drill me – “Who are you going to see when you get to the airport?”- I would say “George”. “He is a good friend and he will take you to your new school” -he would say. God rest both their souls. No questions asked. My Father, the man I thought could move mountains, was teaching me all the right things to say and I believed with complete faith. Funny how I don't ever remember my Mother being present during these little lessons. She probably couldn't bear to see it, or hear it. Years later I learned just what a “friend” this “George” really was.
At home in Central Tuinucu he would listen to some American radio station very quietly. He would lie down on the bed, plug in a small radio he had and put it beside his ear. Sometimes he would tell me to listen and get used to the sound of the language because soon I would hear it all the time. I would listen but since I couldn't understand it, I'd soon lose interest and run off to more interesting things like my dolls or playing the piano.
During Castro's first speech, while my Dad and Mom watched and listened on TV, my Dad, having always been an avid student of world history and making a parallel between what Castro was saying and what took place in Russia, turned to my Mother and asked her if she was willing to leave Cuba and go to the United States. Naturally, she was surprised at his question and although she told him she'd go anywhere with him, she asked him why he would ask that. He told her "this" was Communism and we had to get out of there.
He was arrested a couple of times for a week or so with trumped up charges of having a two-way radio and being in contact with counter revolutionary activity here in the States, something my Father never had, or did, and was never proven. One of the two arrests was right before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He, along with others from Central Tuinucu, were thrown into the back of a truck like cattle and taken to the fairgrounds in Sancti-Spiritus. They were told by the "milicianos" they could sit on the ground but were not allowed to lean on the fence, so all the men sat on the ground but instead leaned back to back against each other and spent that first night listening for planes that never came. They were told that if US planes were seen or heard flying overhead they would all be shot on the spot. I didn't learn of this death threat until years later when we were all reunited and it came up in a conversation while visiting my relatives in Miami. I realized that day that if the planes had come over and possibly liberated our homeland, we would still be in Cuba, but I, at the age of 8, would have buried my Dad in 1959.
I was asthmatic as a child and one of those many times when I was sick in bed, my Dad ran the antenna wire for the TV from the roof into my bedroom and moved the TV set to the foot of my bed so I could watch my beloved cartoons! At night my parents would sit on a couple of dining room chairs and watch TV with me. One night we were watching TV and we heard a sound like a "ping" (metal against metal). My Dad ran around to their bedroom window and saw 2 "milicianos" crouched down outside my window. Apparently the gun barrel of one of their guns hit a metal bar on the decorative iron work on my window. They were surely listening in on us to see if they could catch him with that imaginary short wave radio they accused him of having. It's amazing how these "blind sheep" lost sight of their loyalties to people who helped make their lives better; from paying for an ambulance to transport a critically ill person to getting oxygen delivered to someone's home from Sancti-Spiritus. My Dad helped anyone and everyone he could, especially when it came to the men who worked for him at Destileria Paraiso. He even got a house built for one man whose name I will never forget, Cristobal Calvo. He didn't have a decent house and he had a wife, 2 daughters, one of which was a piano classmate of mine, and I believe a sister or sister-in-law living with them. This ungrateful man was one of the ones who accused him of some outlandish activity that cost him jail time, in which my Dad was never a participant; not because he didn't believe in the cause of counter revolution but because of us. He never feared for himself; he feared for my Mom, my sister, and me and would never be involved in anything that would jeopardize our safety.
My arrival at Florida City that afternoon of January 5 was not without one “big bump” in the road to my six months of being an "orphan". First, at “la pecera” (the glass enclosed waiting area at the airport known as the fish tank) I was asked by a lady to carry a doll intended for a niece in Miami, which my parents allowed me to do after she reassured them the doll was "clean". They had heard stories of people smuggling jewelry that way and were concerned for my safety and assurance of my departure. Then for no reason, other than perhaps my carrying the doll, I was taken to the G2. I was escorted by a "miliciano" (soldier) outside the "pecera" and into a hangar. There was a desk and a few chairs. They did not search me but they took the doll away and I was questioned.-Why was I leaving? Did we have a car? Did we have a maid? Where did my Father work? When was I coming back? My Dad’s drilling those previous months paid off and I had all the right answers. When it was over, they returned the doll unharmed. I remember seeing my tube of Colgate toothpaste taken from my luggage and wondering why they would want it. I had a brand new box of bath powder which they proceeded to break open and plunder through with their fingers; another smuggling technique! Now and then I would lose sight of my Mom on the other side of the big glass wall. I guess she would take a break from smiling and waving at me and go cry somewhere out of sight. I never asked her about it, but I've always known.
Once on the plane, sitting next to the lady with the doll, I remember reluctantly giving the doll back to her. Then without warning, as the wheels of the plane left the ground, the crowd broke into "El Himno Nacional" (the national anthem) men cheering and women crying. I said nothing, just sat there. For all the right answers my Father had drilled into me, I had no answer for this spontaneous outburst of song and tears. I didn't know why there were so many cheers of joy; "Viva Cuba libre!" the men would shout, as tears of sadness rolled down the womens' cheeks. Why was this happening in this plane taking me to...where? My new school, my Dad had told me. The rest of the flight doesn't exist in my mind. I just can't remember anything...
My next memory is at Miami International Airport and the name "George" coming out of my mouth the way I had practiced a thousand times with my Father. I don't remember the ride to Florida City, nor the Chiclets that so many Pedro Pans talk about in their stories, nor the little bus or station wagon everyone talks about. After saying "George" my memory goes blank again...and doesn't return until I'm standing at the Florida City Camp office where I handed the man behind the desk a small photo album. It had small black and white pictures of me and my family where my Father had carefully written addresses and phone numbers on the back. They were people who were here already, names of friends, and one of an American business man he had met through his job. He also explained I was asthmatic and allergic to Penicillin and that it should be administered with an antihistamine, the name of which I have never forgotten - Hista 3. Amazing what we do remember! I also had a life insurance policy from "El Sol del Canada." In time that policy was redeemed by my Dad for $100.
Not having even seen a bathroom since 5:30 that morning, when we left my aunt’s apartment in El Vedado, and too terrified by my experiences of the day to ask for one, that afternoon, right there, in the middle of the Florida City's Camp office, as we were being interviewed, this little 10 year old experienced a living nightmare. Thankfully, I don't think any of the kids noticed as I stood there wanting to die! I wanted it to be a bad dream but it was real enough. I think if they had noticed, I really would have died! No child should ever have to experience such a level of fear that prevents asking for a bathroom.
After the processing, we walked out and were led to our respective living quarters. It was too much, too fast, for an overly protected child who cried her eyes out and argued everyone was wrong, when she learned a week before that there are no Reyes Magos! (The three Wise Men)My aunt Nena, with whom I stayed in Havana while waiting for "el telegrama" had the dubious honor of telling me; after all my departure date was January 5! Once I calmed down and accepted this terrible reality, I decided to buy my sister a gift she could open on the 6th. My aunt took me to a nearby store and I bought a yellow duck on wheels. It had a cord to pull it along, and it quacked as it rolled on its red wheels. Strange how I can remember that so clearly.
No drilling of names or reassurances of good friends taking me to my new school prepared me for the experiences of that day. I could barely speak after the outburst of emotions on the plane. I learned that day what it means to be "paralyzed with fear". But the people at Florida City were very kind. The “big bump" in my road was never mentioned and I was spared having to relive the most horrifyingly embarrassing moment in my young life. Needless to say I never saw my new shiny little black shoes again.
As traumatic as this day was for me, unlike many Pedro Pans, I've never had the feeling that my childhood was lost that day. My childhood changed forever, and the warm security of the familiar was forever left behind, never to be revisited, but in all the change and strangeness of this new life I had been so suddenly dropped into, I was still a child, and I remained so until the natural maturing process we all go through in the pre-teen years. I'm thankful for this and I realize why I don't feel my childhood was gone in the wink of an eye as a lot of Pedro Pans do; I was only separated from my parents for the very short time of 6 months.
I was placed under the care of Blanca and Ramon Gordon who made me feel welcomed and comfortable. I remember sleeping with two other girls on 2 single rollaway beds pushed together, in the living room. I was the new kid so I was put in the middle. The two beds slowly separated during the night and the bottom sheet gently lowered me. In the morning I was on the floor. That was one of the lighter moments in my 5 days at Florida City most of which I just can't remember. I remember sitting in a classroom inside a huge tent but I can't remember eating! One of the "not so lighter moments" was when a girl asked me where I was from. I told her I was from Sancti-Spiritus but actually we lived in Central Tuinucu because that was where my Father worked. She said I should not confuse a stench with a bad odor. What a cruel thing to say, but I didn't say anything back to her because I didn't know what she meant and I didn't ask. It wasn't until some time later after I was reunited with my family, when I told my parents the story and they explained to me what she meant; the stench was Tuinucu and bad odor was Sancti-Spiritus. Then, after all that time, I was angry at her. The old saying that kids can be cruel is so true. While in Florida City, my cousin Pedrin came to see me. I know we walked down the sidewalk for a little while and he did most of the talking but I don't even remember what we talked about except for his telling me that he would go and claim my parents; I didn't even know what that meant. His visit was short and I didn't see him again.
Since the database was made public, I've discovered from the pages of the Airport Log that George kept, that my cousin Carlos Manuel Hernandez Ortiz arrived the next day, but I never saw him.
After five days of what seemed a blur in Florida City, I was on my way to St. Patrick’s Home for Children in Sacramento, California. For many years not even my parents knew of the horrifying experience on my arrival at Florida City; I was in high school when I told them. I remember my Dad hugging me very tightly and my Mom's eyes welling with tears while I told them the story. At the time, a pang of embarrassment bathed over me, but now I can laugh about it, and I ask you - Can you blame anyone for wanting to ship this kid off??!! I am sharing this with all of you because I know you know that level of fear and I know you understand.
In 1999, when my husband and I visited Monsignor Kavanagh who was in charge of St. Patrick's Home for Children when I was there, he told us the story of how I got there. Monsignor Walsh called Monsignor Kavanagh looking for a home to place some kids. They knew each other and Monsignor Walsh asked him if he had room for some Cuban kids. Msgr Kavanagh just said- "Sure, send them up!" He was still the man in charge, 37 years later. This year, 2009, he was named Irishman of The Year by the City of Sacramento. He is now Pastor Emeritus at St. Ann's Catholic Church, the church at St. Patrick's School, as it is now called. What a priest!
On January 10, 1962, we were on our way, four girls and some boys. Miriam Fernandez, with whom I was, reunited on March 29, 2009, at the annual Pedro Pan Picnic after 47 years, Adanelys Cherta whom we are still looking for, Connie, whose last name we can’t remember, and I sat together on the plane. When we tried to change planes in L. A. we got lost. We wondered around the airport for a long time until a Spanish speaking man was kind enough to put us on the right track to our flight into San Francisco. I'm guessing the flight must have been delayed waiting on the Cuban kids to show up!
I remember arriving at St. Patrick's. All the girls were jabbering at the same time and there I was, not understanding a word of it. I met four Cuban sisters, Rosa, Ana, Hilda, and Margarita Fernandez (no relation to Miriam and the only other Cuban girls at St. Pat's) who became our welcome wagon that day. In time, Margarita became a good friend. I was proud of the fact that I was assigned locker #1. I don't know why, just kid stuff I guess. As it turned out it was a sign of my good fortune later.
After Margarita helped me put my clothes up I asked her how to ask for permission to go outside and play. She told me and I repeated the words a couple of times, (my first words in English) then I said them to the kind sister who just smiled and nodded her head. Margarita helped me with my English and was my interpreter with the American girls until I began to catch on to the language. The first couple of months were spent asking Margarita -"What did she say?" and "Tell her..." but we had English classes at night in one of the school rooms and being submerged in it day in and day out, eventually the English stuck and wrong or right we were all speaking it.
There was a piano in the dorm and I remember playing it whenever I could. The sisters always gave me permission to play it, but then, I always asked. I was raised to always ask for permission for whatever I wanted to do; it was a good lesson I passed to my children. I'm still trying to find Adanelys Cherta, Margarita Fernandez and her sisters. I found Miriam so I'm not giving up.
Although it snowed that year for the first time in 10 years, the weather in California was just what the doctor ordered. I don't even remember sneezing the whole time I was there. I do remember during Holy Week we went to Mass every morning before breakfast. One morning I started feeling lightheaded and the longer I waited for it to go away the worse it got so I decided to get up and quietly walk out, a brave thing for me to do at the time. When I reached the door to the hallway that led to our dorm, I ran and stumbled all the way. I went in, straddled the long bench in front of our lockers and fainted! One of the sisters was not far behind me and found me lying face down with arms and legs dangling on either side of the bench. She quickly revived me. I must have looked like death warmed over because she immediately gave me some water then took me to the dining room and gave me something to eat right away. I think the incident scared her more than it scared me.
One day, I got a letter from a cousin of my Dad's who was a favorite of mine because she played the piano and always had Jell-O at her house. She said I should write a little more often, because my parents really looked forward to my letters and they missed me very much. I guess I didn't realize I was neglecting my letter writing a little bit as I became accustomed to all things new at St. Patrick's Home. Not long after that, a shirt size box came in the mail for me, and when the sister brought it to me, the dorm was buzzing with excitement. Of course, the office had opened it before giving it to me for safety reasons. It was a box of pictures from home. (That's the reason I have so many pictures to post) I had become a little lazy in writing to my parents and they feared they were slowly being forgotten, so they thought a box of pictures would keep my memories of them fresh. I wasn't forgetting them at all. I was finally feeling more at home, getting accustomed to my new life at St. Pat's and my English was taking off so my time was being taken up by more play time and general interacting with the other girls. But I made sure I got back on schedule of writing once a week as I did when I first arrived and they were relieved to learn I was feeling more at home but was still eagerly looking forward to the day of our reunion.
That telegram came one day in the first week of June. We were in the cafeteria at lunch and one of the sisters came to my table and handed me a telegram. I started to open it and read it when she took it from me and she started to read it, so I snatched it back, read it out loud; it said - "Guille, Amelia y Mercy estan en Miami. Carinos, Nena." When the word spread, the cheers were heard throughout the whole cafeteria. Even the cook, Mrs. Freitas, a jolly round woman who always smiled and made the best scrambled eggs, came out to see what the excitement was all about. I cried, laughed, and jumped up and down with the other girls. That's one memory that is forever clear in my mind.
During my visit with Monsignor Kavanagh in 1999, I asked about Mrs. Freitas and he said she was retired and her health wasn't good but she still called him now and then. I wish we'd had the time to go see her because a while after we returned from the trip I got a card from him thanking us for the visit and letting me know Mrs. Freitas has passed. I still have the little piece of paper she gave me before I left, with her address on it.
My family and I were reunited on July 23, 1962. That morning, still dark outside, I went to a couple of the girls' bedside, Miriam and Margarita, and kissed them goodbye. They were half asleep but they had asked me the night before to awaken them before leaving so we could say good bye, so I did. Of the eight Pedro Pan girls at St. Pat's, I was the first to be reunited with her parents. I told you locker #1 had a significance. God has always taken care of me. Because of this, and other events in my life, I know this to be true.
I don't remember the ride to San Francisco Airport or the flight to Miami. But I do remember my arrival in Miami. I was escorted off the plane by one of the stewardesses to a golf cart type vehicle waiting for me and a lady in a wheel chair. Walking toward the cart on the tarmac, my cousin motioned to the stewardess because my Mother told him they were taking me away! I saw my Mother and I started running! As we embraced, her face was drenched in tears. We wrapped our arms around each other and she kissed my face over and over. My 3-year old sister was crying too but she was just scared because she did not recognize me! She kept saying that I was not her sister. I had gained 28 pounds which I needed desperately. St. Patrick's had a pool and I learned to swim there. We swam every day as soon as the weather warmed up, so I was brown as a bear. No wonder she didn't know me. At the time, my Dad was in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, working for his former employer, Jose Andres Rionda. In Cuba, my Dad was the administrator of the Destileria Paraiso in Central Tuicunu, Las Villas.
One ride I do remember is the ride from the airport to my Mom's little efficiency apartment; six people in a Volkswagen! I was sitting in the front seat, on my cousin's lap (Pedrin, the one who visited me in Florida City), with my head tucked below the dashboard. The ride was as illegal as a three dollar bill!
I remember placing a phone call to my Dad from a public phone booth at the corner of the block where my Mother and sister were living. In those days you went through the operator, no direct dialing! My cousin Robert, may he rest in peace, told me to say the word "collect" when I placed the call so my Dad could pay for it over there and we would not have to put a bunch of coins in the phone, so I said "collect", and it worked! Imagine that!
Our trip to Thibodeaux was delayed by my outbreak of Chicken Pox in Miami. St. Patrick's had an outbreak shortly before my departure and I brought them with me. The high fevers and the itching were so torturous I slept on the cool terrazzo floor as it was the middle of summer and we had no air conditioning. I was reunited with my Dad some days later when he flew to Miami to pick us up. I remember waiting on the little porch of the apartment and watching as the taxi dropped him off. It was the same reunion as with my Mom, no need to say anything else. Shortly after we settled in Thibodeaux, my little sister came down with the Chicken Pox too but I guess because she was so young I don't think she knew she had them.
Some time after our reunion we were talking about my departure and how it was for my parents going home without me, and my Mother told me they had instructed the housekeeper to keep the door to my bedroom closed because neither she nor my Dad could bear to look inside. That was when I started to realize the pain and suffering they went through during those months. I understood it a little more when I had my first child, Daniel, and when my daughter, Amanda, turned 10, I tried for a long time to put myself in their shoes, but I couldn't and I haven't been able to do so yet. It is as inconceivable in my mind now as it was then.
We lived in Thibodeaux, Louisiana for about 10 months where I attended St. Joseph's Elementary School but in March of 1963, due to my Dad's illness brought on by inhaling bagass, the bi-product of sugar cane, we moved to Pahokee, Florida where I still live today. Try as I might, I cannot remember the trip down from Louisiana. It's like the trip on the plane to Miami. There's no memory there at all. I remember we stayed in Miami with our relatives until my parents found a house and we moved to Pahokee but the trip down just doesn't exist in my memory, possibly because of the fact that I was leaving new found friends behind and fresh roots had begun to form just to be uprooted and start over.
My Dad worked at Osceola Farms, for 13 years before his passing in 1976. Unfortunately, he never saw his grandchildren, something I've always regretted. But I'm sure my Mom has told him all about them since she passed in 2006.
The gratitude in my heart for my parents' courageous actions and multiple sacrifices, for the US government, and for all the people who put this historic rescue together along with the ones who have worked so hard to bring us this site, is beyond what mere words I could ever say.
To all of my Pedro Pan brothers and sisters, know this; be it ever so humble, you have a home where I am. My welcome mat is always at my door. My door is always open and the coffee pot is on. BIENVENIDOS.
NOTE: It is not my intention to make my story longer than most; I am revising it as memories surface because this site is a permanent record and hopefully it will be here for future generations. Thank you.