Operation Pedro Pan

Woman's past awakened by Elián's struggle

For years, Carmen Romanach Perez Cancelas didn't embrace being part of Operation Pedro Pan.

But the plight of Elián González, rekindled her own painful memories.

''I had blocked out the pain of what had happened to me,'' she said. ``Elián changed all that.''

Photographs of Romanach in the days before she left Cuba on Oct. 19, 1961 reveal a 15-year-old Catholic school girl about to become a young woman.

Fidel Castro's revolution spurred her parents to seek visa waivers for Romanach and her two brothers, Raul, 11, and Carlos, 7.

All three boarded a plane to Miami.

''I felt a great responsibility because I was now their parent,'' she said of her brothers.

Her first night at the Kendall camp was spent hearing the younger homesick girls whimpering in their beds.

Her mother Carmen Cancelas, now 84, says she, too, was shattered by the separation from her children. ``I cried and prayed for them every day.''

Nine days after their arrival, Romanach and her brothers were sent to live with relatives in Puerto Rico. Her parents came a year later.

By then, Romanach had met her future husband, whom she later divorced. Her ex-husband's job at Bacardi took her far away from Miami and any commiserating with other Pedro Pans.

''For years, I had no idea I was a Pedro Pan kid and how that was a special society,'' she said.

In 2000, divorced with four children and living in Miami, she went to a demonstration in support of keeping Elián González in America -- and it hit her.

''I was once just like him,'' she said.