Operation Pedro Pan

Pedro Pan veteran who first rejected memory of program, now works to preserve its history

Name: Eloisa Echazábal

Arrival date: Sept. 6, 1961


During her nine months as a Pedro Pan kid apart from her parents, Eloísa Echazábal accummulated few cherished memories: Time in a rustic camp, months at a Buffalo, N.Y. orphanage and final placement in a foster home where she came to feel unwelcome.

''When my parents made it to America and we were reunited in Miami, I told them I never wanted to speak of that time again -- ever! '' said Echazábal, 61, of West Miami-Dade.

Today, she has a new perspective on the experience that dramatically changed her life.

As an active member of Operation Pedro Pan Group, Echazábal is determined to collect and preserve the history of the famous exodus that separated 14,048 Cuban children from their parents and brought them -- alone -- to the United States.

''If we don't preserve our memories and papers -- who will?'' she said of Pedro Pans, many now in their 50s and 60s.

Echazábal was 13 when her parents told her and her 8-year-old sister Teresita that they were going to study in the United States -- temporarily. She recalls the closing of her school, Verbo Encarnado by Castro's militia, as the catalyst for her late parents to seek out visa waivers for their daughters.

She has two distinct memories from the day she left Cuba, Sept. 6, 1961: being told she had to care for her sister and her mother helping her put on silk stockings for the first time, not little girl socks.

''I think that was her signal to me that I had to act grown up now,'' Echazábal recalls.

Like many other Pedron Pans, she was told to ''ask for George,'' the Catholic Welfare Bureau employee who greeted the children.

Wide-eyed and holding hands, the two sisters were taken through immigration by Guarch, then driven to Kendall camp.

The camp was full of other Cuban children who had also made the same journey.

The camp kids slept in bunk beds and ate together while they waited to be placed in foster homes or other Catholic centers across the country.

After a week, the girls were told they would be going to school in Buffalo, N.Y. The school turned out to be an orphanage run by Polish nuns, Immmaculate Heart of Mary Home, which no longer exists.

They were there about two months, along with another set of Cuban sisters, Haydee and Aleida Torres, 10 and 7, respectively. ''Thank God there were other Cuban girls there for company,'' Echazábal said.

Life at the orphanage was difficult.

One day, the Echazábal girls were told they would be placed with a couple, who had 10-year-old daughter. ``It didn't go well; there was tension between the girl and us and speaking Spanish was looked down on in the house.''

Her parents finally arrived from Havana in May 1962, but the girl's social worker in Buffalo felt the sisters should finish the school year, delaying the family reunion another month.

Today, when asked how the experience changed her, Echazábal has a quick answer.

'It made me resilient for the rest of my life; whenever I go through bad times, my Pedro Pan days kicks in and I tell myself: `Come on Eloisa, you know this too will pass'. ''