María del Carmen Pérez Cancelas (Romañach)
María del Carmen's Story
Today, October 19th, 2011 marks a very important milestone in my life. On a day like this, fifty years ago, I arrived at the Miami Airport with my two younger brothers, Raul and Carlos.
I would be forever grateful to my parents for their courage and sacrifice, to this country that wellcomed us and to Catholic Charities for taking care of us upon arrival. Thanks to their efforts I have been able to live in freedom and practice my faith all these years, something that would have been very different had I stayed in Cuba.
Unfortunately, even 50 years down the road, Cuba is still living in oppression and fear. I pray to Our Lady of Charity that my beloved Cuba and my people will finally one day be free…...and I know that the time is near when this nightmare that surrounds my country and my people will be lifted and that Truth will shine again.
Here is my story:
My story is like many others, I arrived in Miami on October 19, 1961 with my 2 younger brothers, Raul (11) and Carlos (7). I was only 15 but felt as if I was a mother to them. My parents had decided to send us to the US as a way to save us from communist indoctrination. I know it was the hardest decision of their life. My mother told me many years later she had to convince my father to do it as he was very reluctant. She was the one making all the arrangements for us to leave. Many years later, she told me after we left she spent hours crying in our bedrooms every day. She was a religious person and started praying a whole rosary for each of us every day (three rosaries each day). That was the only thing that comforted her in her pain. My father never talked about this with me but I remember when we reunited one year later we had a dinner at my cousin’s house and after dinner I started washing the dishes. He stood there in the kitchen looking at me and crying and was not able to say a word. I just went to him and hugged and kissed him and that was the end of the conversation.
My experience in the famous “pecera” is something I have blocked from memory and even now it is not very clear in my mind. I remember feeling terrified before going into the pecera. I had heard many frightening stories about body searches and the milicianos calling us “gusanos” and all that stuff. The way I dealt with my fear was trying to keep busy taking care of my two brothers; that was the only thing that kept me going. When I finally got on that plane, with my two brothers beside me, I felt relieved. At least that part was over and nothing mayor or that I could not handle had happened. As the plane started to climb I remember thinking my life was never going to be the same again. My adolescence was over, my life as a 15 year old sheltered and protected girl was over and I was on my own with 2 children to protect that were looking to me for guidance. Many years later, while studying Psychology, we talked about “life changing events” and my first thought was of this moment. This was a life changing event if there ever was one!
The first thing I remember after our arrival in Miami was being picked up at the airport by George, and eating my first hamburger in a small van, on the way to Kendall camp. The van was full of children, some of them crying and I remember I was the eldest. It was very dark and I remember some of the boys looking outside the windows at the new 1961 cars. When we arrived at the camp they separated me from my brothers, as they had to go to the boy’s side. That was very difficult for me as I was not expecting that to happen at all. While at the Kendall camp I remember going to the cyclone fence every day to talk to them. That was the most difficult thing for me; I wanted to be close to them and take care of them but it was not possible. They were my brothers and I wanted so much to be with them and comfort them! At night in my dorm I could hear the younger girls crying. I tried not to cry but felt very sad. The nuns in charge of the Kendall camp at that time were the “Filipenses” from the Colegio Lourdes in la Vibora. I was familiar with them because I had been in their school for 10 years. This was very helpful and reassuring for me because I knew them and I felt they really cared about us children.
Four days after we arrived, my brother Raul fell from a shed at the Kendall camp and broke his arm. Somebody came to give me the bad news and take me to the hospital so I could give some medical information about him. There was a lady translating as my English was not proficient enough at that time. It was really frightening and I felt so helpless. I had failed to keep him safe and felt guilty about it. I never have been able to thank that lady but I will never forget her being with me at that time. I was also very worried about my younger brother, Carlos that was left alone at the camp. Later I found out that he used to sleep on Raul's cot while he was at the hospital. He should have been sleeping in another cot but the other kids hid him there I guess sleeping in his brother's bed made him feel safer. These gestures stick in my mind as small but very significative about the bonding that we children shared with each other. My parents were never notified of this incident and I made sure that especially my mother would not find out about it. We told my parents after their arrival one year later. My mother always said she could sense something was happening but there was nothing she could do about it at the time.
However, that accident changed the outcome of our stay in Kendall. My uncle and my mother's cousin who were living in Puerto Rico at that time found out what had happened and also about the possibility that they would send us to another state. They made the decision then and there to take care of us, something that was not part of the original plan. Only 9 days after we had arrived in Miami we boarded another plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
When we arrived in Puerto Rico, there was another surprise in store for me. The family had taken the decision to divide us again; I was taken to my uncle’s home and my brothers to our maternal cousin's (Sara) home. That was a big blow for me as I had thought I could live with my brothers. I was very disappointed but I guess I understood that was the best that could be done under the circumstances. My uncle never had any children of his own and there was no way the 3 of us could go with him Cousin Sara had 2 small boys, a little bit younger than my brothers and it would be easier for them to take care of 2 more boys, but they did not have money to take me as well. I took it upon myself as a duty to visit my brothers every afternoon. I never failed one day, rain or shine, and it rains a lot in Puerto Rico. We did not live that far away, but there was no transportation available to take me. I used to come home from school, have a bite to eat and start walking for half an hour to see my brothers. I would spend the afternoon with them and have dinner there. After dinner, Cousin Pablo (Sara’s husband) would drive me to my uncle’s home every night. After 5 months of this, and some incidents with my aunt, I finally moved with the cousins and my brothers. That was heaven for me! I really was very happy to live with them and we became like a big family. Cousins Sara and Pablo became like parents for us, they were very affectionate and made us feel at home. We did not have much money but we were happy!
In Puerto Rico, I went to High School at Colegio Espiritu Santo. All my classmates were so happy and joking around all the time. I remember feeling so out of place and thinking: "I can't understand why they are so happy." All the classes were in English and I did not understand a word, which was difficult for me, as I have always been a good student. I started working hard and ended the year with excellent grades, that helped me in the process of adaptation. I had left my boyfriend in Cuba and I remember we both wrote long letters to each other. That was very difficult for me as well and I guess that thinking about my boyfriend took the focus away on having lost my country and my family too. I never thought much about that. I was in complete denial because it was all too painful.
One year later we were reunited with our parents, and the family settled in Puerto Rico. We were very lucky as my parents just left Cuba right before the missile crisis in 1962. I can’t even start to imagine how our life would have been if they had not being able to reunite with us. Life was hard and we did not have much but at least we had each other again. We moved to a small apartment in Rio Piedras and I started working at the new Sears, Roebuck store. I was one month short of becoming 17 years old. The only condition I told my parents that first Christmas that we were together was that I wanted to buy my brothers a bicycle. We had no money but that was a priority for me. I had seen their faces begging the other children for a ride and I wanted them to have a memorable Christmas that year.
For years I did not think of any of these things, I lived outside the U.S. (Spain, Bahamas) and different cities in U.S. (Pittsburgh, Jacksonville) but never came back to Miami. I had blocked my bad memories, like many of us, in that place of your mind that you never visit, because it hurts too much. During the Elian incident, many of those memories were awakening again, and at that point I felt the need to remember my roots and my country and all those things I have left in Cuba while being so young.
Like many other pedropans, I did not know I was part of this operation until five years ago. I was a volunteer that year at Cuba Nostalgia, and found out I WAS a Pedro Pan in the Operation Pedro Pan Group booth. The feeling is difficult to describe, it was like coming home and finding my brothers and sisters again. I decided to become involved with the organization and to try to do my best to return with my work a little of what I was given as a child.
During the past 2 years I had been a Director of the Board of Operation Pedro Pan Group Inc. This year 2010, I am serving as Second Vice President of the group. It is an honor for me to be able to serve the group with my personal efforts.
During these years, I have become involved in several projects to help kids in need, specifically by being the group’s liaison with Children’s Village, organizing outings for the kids ( mostly adolescents) in the center and distributing Christmas presents, both at Children’s Village and at Centro Hispano Catolico.
I have helped in the organization of the first reunion of Pedro Pans in Puerto Rico. This project was very close to my heart, as Puerto Rico became my home after I left Cuba and I had the intuition many pedropans would be found there. My intuition was right and we found 80 of us living in La Isla del Encanto. The result was a wonderful First Reunion in February 2010 attended by 60 persons.
Also, since May 2009, I have been a volunteer at this website, created by the Miami Herald, and called the Pedro Pan Network. I have been able to help other pedropans find their records, I have helped them register their account, and I have heard their stories, cherished their pictures, I have cried with them and laughed with them. It has been a wonderful experience that I never thought I could have. It has been an honor to be able to participate and contribute with my effort so that more pedropans are reunited and that we can share our story with each other and with the rest of the world.
Our story is one of courage and love and determination on the part of our parents. It is also a labor of love and generosity on the part of so many persons that helped us come to this land of opportunity and freedom. Also there was a lot of pain and difficulties and sorrow, but overall, we pedropans are living proof of a story that must be told to future generations.