Imagine a child having to say goodbye to his parents, relatives and friends without knowing if he will ever see them again and heading alone to a foreign country.
I don't have to imagine — I was one of those children. In 1962, I was among the more than 14,000 Cuban children sent to America alone by our parents to escape from Fidel Castro’s communism.
This year — which could easily be called the year of the immigrant across the world — my own childhood experience as an Operation Pedro Pan child has become more vivid. When I see European refugees running to freedom with their children and belongings on their back — their fear and desperation reminds me of me and my brother and my parents’ journey.
At 18, I forfeited a music scholarship to Prague to accept an uncertain future in exile. With no knowledge of English, money to pursue an education or family to help, I came to the United States.
After several months at Camp Matecumbe in southwest Miami-Dade, where the teenage boys in the program where sent, eventually my brother and I ended up in a foster home — in Kennewick, Washington.
I wanted to tell my refugee story of strife, hope and perseverance. So I wrote my memoir, Cuba, Adiós. In it I chronicle my experience as a Pedro Pan: the dark days of loneliness; the sense that life had taken a wicked turn; the yellow-brick road that led everywhere but Oz.
Plagued by guilt around my sexual identity and having to care for a younger brother, I forged ahead — I had no choice. I eventually became the composer I had dreamed of becoming before my life in Cuba was interrupted.
My motivation for writing my memoir was the lack of knowledge among the younger members of my own family about Operation Pedro Pan, a program that had bridged two different cultures and had acquired great political significance over the years. I wanted them to know. And I wanted to tell them its importance. This summer, both HistoryMiami and the Freedom Tower have unveiled exhibitions honoring the unique program.
I have nieces and nephews, born in this country and now of voting age and engaged in discussions over the issue of immigration — a topic that seems to have caught fire ever since the campaign for the 2016 presidential elections started. I asked myself: How can they understand the topic without knowing about their own relatives’ journey to America as immigrants?
Pedro Pan children entered the United States with visa waivers — a special classification granted by the U.S. government. By 1966, Cubans setting foot in this country, regardless of how they arrived, were allowed to stay and became eligible to become residents a year later — thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act. In 1995, the Clinton administration revised the act, allowing only those arriving by land to stay. This revision has been referred to as the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy.”
Regardless, the lenient immigration rules Cubans enjoy in the United States have been a thorn in the side of other immigrants, who have found the road to citizenship arduous.
The disparity has become more acute since relations between the United States and Cuba have eased. Cubans are now free to travel outside, and many, when arriving in America, present their Cuban passport and immediately apply for refugee status — ignoring that a refugee is someone who is fleeing an oppressive regime. In reality, these Cubans are traveling back and forth between the two countries at their leisure.
If the immigration issue has remained at a standstill — we’ll sooner be traveling to Pluto than solving the crisis. America’s changing its policy toward Cuba has moved faster than anticipated and polarized the Cuban community.
The older generation believes there should be no concession extended to a regime that has robbed us of our freedom. They are steadfast in their vow never to return to Cuba while the Castro brothers are in power. But never, I have found, becomes a kaleidoscope that forms new colors and shapes as our lives morphs.
Lorenzo Pablo Martinez, a composer, lives in New Jersey. He will appear at 7 p.m. Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables and read from his memoir, ‘Cuba, Adiós.’
WHAT: Book signing for Cuba, Adiós
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave.