Brother and sister were the pioneers of program

Name: Sixto and Vivian Aquino Arrival date: December 26, 1960 Ages: 12 and 14

05/16/2009 3:01 AM

09/15/2014 12:09 PM

Vivian Latour and her brother Sixto Aquino hold a special place in the annals of Operation Pedro Pan.

They are the pioneers, the first two unaccompanied Cuban children to enter the United States under Monsignor Bryan O. Walsh's historic visa waiver program.

The brother and sister, who were 12 and 14, arrived the day after Christmas, on Dec. 26, 1960.

Latour said leaving Cuba behind was not as dramatic as arriving in the United States. Her parents had told her they were coming to study English.

''It was such drastic change,'' said Latour of Miami-Dade.

``When I found myself alone in a foreign country, just me and my little brother living with strangers, it was very difficult for me. I had never been apart from my parents.''

They had no idea they were part of something that would come to be known as Operation Pedro Pan and that 14,046 more Cuban kids would follow them out of the island.

The two were likely selected to be first because they had been students of Penny Powers, a British teacher at the Phillips school were they both attended. The mysterious Powers was said to be a spy.

''She's the one who helped my mother arrange for the visas,'' said Aquino, who is an official at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. ``She was like those British ladies you see in movies who are out in the jungle or the Caribbean and they're always fanning themselves because it's too hot -- that was Penny Powers.''

Latour credits her mother, Belen, a woman ahead of her time in Cuba.

She managed a pension fund, and months before she got her children out of Cuba she had been arrested after returning to Cuba from the United States.

''They had accused her of carrying a bomb inside some cigarette cartons she was bringing back. They arrested her and held her for two days, then released her,'' Latour said.

But Belen Aquino, who died in 1978, wanted to get her children out -- and did, before anyone else.

''That was my mother; she was very brave and forceful; She got things done,'' Latour said.

''There are no regrets,'' Sixto Aquino said. ``In fact, we consider ourselves lucky.''

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