Isabel Victoria Del Rio Tuero
Isabel Victoria's Story
On a cloudy afternoon on June 8, 1962 I arrived from my native Cuba in what was to become a life long journey of discovery. By way of the Pedro Pan airlift, I, together with several thousand Cuban kids, arrived at tthe safe harbor of the United States. After a short stay at the Florida City Camp, I was sent to an orphanage in Totowa, New Jersey, and later was placed in the home of John and Mary Johnson of Wanaque, New Jersey.
Growing up an only child of a middle class Havana family, I was unprepared to face the challenges of a new life away from my family and friends, learning English and sharing the dinner table and only bathroom with the Johnson’s 10 natural children. Speaking of food, peanut butter sandwiches and broccoli were a far cry from rice and black beans!
The Johnson family proved to have an immediate and positive influence in my life. Through their eyes I had my first encounter with the American democratic process, witnessing a municipal election including long speeches, red-white-blue bunting and free hot dogs. I learned about their Irish and Scottish roots, the difference between wearing orange or green on St. Patrick’s and about the love and affection that permeated every aspect of life with the Johnson’s.
I was welcomed as one more of the “clan” and treated no differently than any of the other children (ages 2 to 18). Running the busy and crowded household required a great deal of effort and discipline which was always fairly applied. I was frequently torn between homesickness and wonderment of my new environment: learning how to ride a bike, hiking the nearby woods and even making a snow angel upon that first glorious snowfall.
Mrs. Johnson, Tia Mary as I affectionately called her, quickly became a surrogate mother (my own is still living in Havana). Gently she restored a sense of stability and direction into the life of an impressionable 11 year old girl. I had left behind a truly turbulent time given the upheaval of the Cuban Revolution together with my own private revolution: my parent’s divorce. I can still savor her warm embrace as she silently led me through the frightening experience of my first menstrual period and later lending me her precious 78 record collection to help me learn English faster through music. The sounds of Glenn Miller and Patti Page are still some of my favorite memories!
Most importantly I recall a woman who faced life with dignity, compassion and dedication. Mrs. Johnson was a woman who rose above difficult circumstances with an abiding faith in God, in her marriage, family and in the American Way of life. A woman who gave her heart to those who were blessed to know her… like me and by doing so shaped my future in countless ways.
So to the Johnson family, and to the many American families who sheltered Pedro Pans like me, a belated and public thank you. I have tried to “pay it forward” along my life but my debt of gratitude will always remain.
Vicky del Rio