Eloísa Echazábal Pi
My story is unique, as is each one of the over 14,000 Pedro Pan stories. Some are happier; some are sadder. I believe the decision to send my sister and me alone to the United States was made by my parents the moment they found out that the government was taking over the private and religious schools in Cuba. I remember vividly the day our school, Colegio Verbo Encarnado in Ampliación de Almendares, was taken over by the government. I was attending class in a cottage in the patio which the nuns used as an additional classroom,and all of a sudden we heard a big commotion in the main building. We looked out the window and saw militia men circling the building, going in and out the doors. My sister and I came home nervous and upset. That was the last day my sister and I attended school in Cuba. Some days later, the nuns began to prepare to leave the school and Cuba altogether. They were returning to their mother house in Mexico. My parents, my sister, and I were visiting them to bid them goodbye. I remember my father asking the Mother Superior, “Madre, but, couldn’t you stay if you wanted to?” To which the Mother Superior replied, “Yes, Mr. Echazábal, we could stay, but, under what conditions?” Implying that it had to be under the current government’s conditions.
My family obtained our visa waivers to leave Cuba through their contact with the Grau family. Here is another memory still fresh in my mind. My uncle Adolfo took me and one of my younger cousins to visit Ramón Grau. A lady opened the door and led us in. When Mr.Grau came out to greet us, he had in his hand a little pad of paper and a pen, as if he knew the reason for our visit. My uncle told him that he needed to get the children out of Cuba. Grau, known as Mongo, wrote our names on the pad of paper and said that he would get back to my uncle. It was a short visit.
On September 6, 1961, my younger sister, my three younger boy cousins, and I boarded a PanAm flight to Miami. I can’t say I was sad. I looked at the experience as an adventure, especially since my parents kept telling me that the separation would be for only a few months; that the Castro government could not survive in Cuba for much longer. I don't remember too much about the experience at the Rancho Boyeros Airport (the airport in Havana). I do remember being inside "la pecera" (the fish tank) and seeing relatives through the glass walls. I also remember the dress I was wearing, and how uncomfortable I was with the new silk stockings and garters my mother had me wear that day for the first time in my life. I guess that was her way of telling me that I was a lady now, not a little girl any more. Since I was the oldest of the five (13 years old), I was also given strict instructions. When I arrived in Miami, I was to ask for a man named “George.” I had no idea of who he was, but I asked for him the moment I arrived in Miami. And, sure enough, George was at the airport waiting for us. From the airport we were driven to the Kendall Camp. My father had arrived in Miami a few days earlier, taking advantage of a visa he had which was about to expire soon. He came to visit us at the camp the next day, but it was decided that we should stay there, since he did not have a job yet and was living in a small room some place in what is now called Little Havana.
We were in the camp seven days. My three boy cousins were sent to an orphanage in Richmond, Virginia, and my sister and I were sent to an orphanage in Buffalo, New York. I don't remember a lot about my days at the camp, but there are three things I do remember: One was of attending with the other camp children a Mass for Our Lady of Charity at a stadium in Miami. Later on I learned that was a very significant Mass, since the statue of Our Lady had just been brought to Miami from its shrine in Cuba in time to celebrate Our Lady's day on September 8th. The second memory I have of the camp is the houseparents, Mr. and Mrs. Porto. I remember Mrs. Porto fondly. She was very caring and nurturing with the children. The third memory is not so pleasant. I was in my sister's dormitory (because of our difference in ages--she was 8 and I 13--we slept in separate dormitories) helping her pack for our trip to Buffalo. I realized that the new pair of shoes our mother had bought her before leaving Cuba was nowhere to be found. I became very upset at my sister for her “losing that new pair of shoes.” Everytime I remember that incident I get nostalgic and sad for being upset at my little sister, especially realizing after the years had passed that those new shoes just couldn’t have disappeared by themselves and that they were probably stolen by other kids. It certainly was not her fault.
The orphanage in Buffalo was the Immaculate Heart of Mary Home. It was one of those huge brown buildings with dark hallways and wood floors that squeaked when you walked on them. You never saw that in tropical Cuba. This orphanage was run by Polish nuns. I say that the first few words in a foreign language I learned there were “Tak, Siostra,” which means “Yes, Sister,” in Polish. My sister attended elementary school in the orphanage, and I walked everyday with another girl, Cathy, to St. Josaphat's, a Catholic school nearby. I remember walking down the tree lined streets and passing by the brick colonial houses and thinking how charming and enchanting they were. Very different from tropical Cuba. At the orphanage I learned to play canasta and played with the other girls sometimes in the evenings and weekends. Once I left the orphanage, never played canasta again. The nicest memory about the orphanage was the nun in charge of my floor, Sister Mary Dennis. She was very kind, and every night after dinner she would sit down with me to give me English lessons. I remember one day when she told me about the Girl Scouts and encouraged me to join the group in the orphanage. When I saw the girls in those uniforms and the scarves around their necks, I was reminded right away of the Cuban militia and the Young Pioneers groups that existed in Cuba, some of the reasons why my parents sent me here. I told Sister Dennis that I had to telephone my mother in Cuba and ask for her permission. Sister must have read my mind because she said to me, “Tell your mom I say it’s good.” “No politics.” However, adjustment to life in the orphanage was difficult. Because of the difference in ages, my sister was placed in a different floor than I. One day they took her to the hairdresser's and gave her a haircut that left her with almost half of her head bald. She came up running to me crying hysterically. I was so furious that they had done that to her behind my back!!! In my floor there were two other Cuban girls, Lourdes and Isabelita, both had been there for a while and knew some English. Lourdes was about my age and was very helpful in assisting me to get acclimated to the new environment. In my sister’s floor there were also two Cuban girls, sisters Haydee and Aleida.
Living with strange people in a common environment was something that took some getting used to, especially to the lack of privacy. Letters from our parents got opened and read before they got to us. I didn’t like having to throw my underwear in a giant washing machine with other girls’ underwear to get it washed every day, and even when I washed my own in the sink and hung it from the railings around my bed, someone would always come, take it, and throw it in the giant washer.
Two months later we were transferred to a foster home. I remember having a gut feeling that moving to a foster home was not a good idea. My thoughts were, "The orphanage is not 'our home'; a foster home is not going to be 'our home' either, so why move?"
Life in the foster home was no happier than in the orphanage. I always had a feeling of not fitting in. The family was composed of the married couple and a daughter one year younger than I. The husband was an office worker and the wife was a housewife and an opera singer by avocation. They also owned a laundromat in a nearby town. The family was decent and proper, but the ambiance for me was not a warm and fuzzy one. The lady of the house frowned upon my sister and I speaking Spanish to each other, even when we were in our shared bedroom! I always felt the daughter resented our presence. There was competition between us regarding school grades, friends’ attention, etc. For example, she would get upset if I used her encyclopedia, and on bowling nights, if she couldn’t go bowling because she was sick or had school work to do, she didn’t want us to go either. The family had some very nice friends who had a son a couple of years older than me. I think his name was Bobby Brown. His father was in the construction business. One day Bobby’s mom told my foster mom that he wanted to take me to a party. I told them I had to call my mother in Cuba and ask for her permission. That was the last I heard of the invitation. The elementary school we attended was St. Leo’s in Amherst (within walking distance to the home). Everyone there was very nice to us and made us feel welcome. One time there was a big fundraising event, and my sister and I performed in a play, and I did a piano solo. Everyone was impressed on how talented these Cuban girls were.
We reunited with our parents in Miami after 9 long months, and then began the second chapter of our Cuban exile life, with all the difficulties, trials, and tribulations of exile life in those days. When I reunited with my parents in Miami, the memories of the Buffalo experience were such that I told them I did not wish to discuss anything that related to the previous months. And they, God rest their souls, kindly obliged. I even destroyed the photos I had of those months--something that I now regret doing.
Now that the years have passed and age has a way of making one see life differently, my interest is not just in remembering, but also in preserving the history of the Operation Pedro Pan exodus and the Unaccompanied Cuban Children's Program. I assisted The Miami Herald with the research and development of this Network and continue assisting them as co-administrator. I am a founding member and former board member of Operation Pedro Pan Group Inc. One of my missions is also to identify all the resources where our history is documented and record it correctly for our generation and future generations of students, researchers, and the public at large. I worked with my Pedro Pan colleague, Carmen Romañach, to create a Living History of people who assisted in the administration of the program and in the caring of the children in those days. We have filmed interviews with a camp instructor/houseparent, a camp teacher, the program accountant, and a few others. These interviews can be found at the University of Miami, Barry University, and Florida International University libraries, and other educational institutions, such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. These interviews are also on YouTube. I make presentation at educational institutions regarding our exodus. My narrated presentations are on You Tube. In May 2011, I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC to be a panelist in a discussion about the Pedro Pan exodus. That presentation was webcast by the Smithsonian and was presented several times in CSPAN. I am also interested in preserving the history of everything related to the Cuba I knew. If we don't make an effort to pass our history down to the next generations, who will?
I have lived in Miami most of my life, except for two years in Puerto Rico and eight years in Seattle, WA, as a result of my jobs with Eastern Airlines. I graduated from Notre Dame Academy high school in Miami and also from Miami Dade College, Florida International University (FIU), and Seattle University MBA School.