José Ignacio Ramírez Lorbes
José Ignacio's Story
Like many before me, I now find myself writing my own story.
For me it all began, when I noted some of my classmates absent from the Marist school located in the Vibora neighborhood of Havana and or hearing of the impending exit of my cousins to Spain, (my older sister, her husband and niece had already left). Unbeknown to me at the time, my parents had begun to meet (mostly the fathers) to discuss the fact that leaving Cuba was the best thing for the children regardless of the pain and suffering they would experience. It was 1960.
In December of 1960, my younger sister travelled to Miami and accompanied by the older sister met with Father Walsh whom they had heard about from a contact and friend of the family in the British Embassy. The result of that short fifteen minutes gathering by the three of them changed my life forever. Returning to Cuba, my younger sister had the necessary information which led her in early January of 1961 to find her way to an apartment in La Habana Vieja where through a partially open door she was given a set of documents that would enable me to travel.
Within a short few days, swearing me to secrecy for no one should know anything taking place, my papers were put in order and on the seventeenth of January of 1961, my parents and I would sign a legal document which in effect released me from their care. Thanks to the Catholic Charities office in Miami I have a copy of this document.
On Friday the 20th, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn as the thirty-fifth president of the United States while my mother packed the two suitcases I would bring with me. It was much later that I would learn that on that same day they were having their twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. No words can express the feelings on that day.
On Saturday January 21 1961, my mother, younger sister and I went to the airport. My father, I learned much later, was too upset to make the trip. Sitting in the now famous pecera, my younger sister who had been allowed to enter with me pointed out a few children nearby and proceeded to tell me that since I was the oldest of that group I would be responsible until we reached Miami. Upon arrival to Miami we (literally) ran into an awaiting car and were driven to what was referred to at the time as “Kendall Hospital”. As one of the earliest Pedro Panes, I was able to secure a page found in the “parents’ log” with the assistance of the Miami Herald staff which contained the names of my parents. Within a few days I was at the Brickell ave. house and one day Father Walsh asked to speak to us to explain that a refugee camp was being opened outside of Jacksonville FL and so he was looking for volunteers. Places like Matecumbe and others did not exist at that time. That night, I sat by myself and thought very hard concluding that staying in Miami did not seem the right thing to do for me. Children were coming at a fast pace, our classes were very irregular and very basic at best and I did not think I would learn English at a fast enough pace to help myself in the future. The next morning, I met with Father Walsh and volunteered to go to what would be Camp St. John. It was among the many “defining moments” I would be dealing with during those early years.
On February 8th I arrived to the camp along with a few other “volunteers” and stayed in the camp until it closed in the summer of 1962. During that time, the camp grew to a maximum of ninety six children, and we would go to Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville where I ultimately graduated. Tom Aglio our camp administrator made life for us as well as possible and has remained someone that we look up to this day. As the camp closed, we scattered, some went with their families, others to the Orlando area and others like me stayed in Jacksonville where we were placed in foster homes. The first foster home did not go well as we (another Pedro Pan and I) found our bedroom in the attic section of the house without even a fan which made it very difficult during those early weeks in the summer and it was also clear they were not ready or predisposed to care for us. Soon after, the two of us were removed from that house and separated finding ourselves in a transitional foster home. However all did work out at the end as another foster home was found and the two of us were reunited and lived there until graduation.
Attending a Junior College in Central Florida was difficult for me and this was made worse by the lack of funds. The foster parents were getting a divorce and I soon found myself working a full schedule on the third shift at the local hospital while maintaining a full student load. The year did not end well given that schedule and ultimately I decided to leave Florida and go to Nebraska where I stayed with the woman who had been my foster mother and had relocated back to her family’s hometown. It was now the summer of ‘64 and through the fall of that year, I was working full time at a hospital at nights but going nowhere fast. During that summer I was released from the Pedro Pan Program given my age.
Late Fall I received a call from my first cousin, one of which had gone to Spain in 1960 and was living with another cousin who told me his sister (a Pedro Pan in Albuquerque NM) was joining him in Cambridge Massachusetts. He asked me to join them, I agreed. And so in February of 1965, four years after I had left Cuba, I reunited with my cousins and was finally back within the family I had left at fifteen and a half. In 1966, five and a half years after leaving Cuba I would see my parents and extended members of my family, we were finally together again.
I did complete my education, securing a Bachelors and Masters degree in the Boston area where I have lived since I arrive in 1965, got married and have two wonderful sons (now men of course).
Many years later I would return to Cuba and those experiences as well as that of coming to the U.S. in ‘61 made it into a book I recently published and has been the subject of presentations in Massachusetts and Florida about the Pedro Pan story and how life in Cuba really is like under the controls of the communist regime. My presentations have been received positively by audiences and have stirred up interesting questions and comments. The title of my book aptly named is “Defining Moments: A Cuban Exile’s Story about Discovery and the Search for a Better Future”. Writing this book has served as a catharsis of sorts while helping to capture “the story” for future generations in our family, something I felt was important as I noted how much information we were losing as the older generation passed on. However I can say from my personal experience, writing such a book is not a casual endeavor and required (at least of me) revisiting many memories put aside many years ago, but it was well worth it.
I wish to thank Eloisa Echazabal who suggested my doing this story for the Network.