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Between 1960 and 1962, more than 14,000 Cuban children were secretly flown to the United States to escape Fidel Castro's regime. Parents said goodbye to their children not knowing if they would ever see them again. The airlift over the Florida Straits became known as Operation Peter Pan or Operación Pedro Pan in Spanish.
It was supposed to be a democratic revolution when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. But Castro soon turned to communism and dictatorship. Rumors began to spread among the elites and middle class that Castro would take their children away. Throughout the island, parents panicked. Then, the U.S. offered a way out: it would conduct a secret airlift of Cuban children and bring them to America — without their parents. It was an unbearable choice between raising their children in the oppression of Castro’s Cuba, or setting them free to live in the land of freedom, never knowing if they would reunite.
In the following pictures, we tell the story of some of the individuals — the Pedro Pans — who struggled, adapted and even prevailed under incredibly difficult circumstances.
By Constance Parten
Posted 25 May, 2010
Candi Sosa (pictured far left with her sisters, brothers and a neighbor in pre-Castro Cuba) was just 10 years old when her parents sent her and her siblings to the United States.
Her Pedro Pan story began with a song. It was just after the revolution and her parents sent her to buy milk at a corner store where she had a chance encounter with Fidel Castro, who had come in to buy cigars.
People in the store told him Candi was a singer, so she obliged Castro with a song. Soon after, Castro's men arrived at Candi's home with news that he wanted to send Candi to Russia to train as an opera singer. Her parents said no.
It wasn't long until they came for Candi's father. He was declared a traitor to the revolution. Soon after, the family decided to send Candi and her siblings to the United States with the secret Pedro Pan operation.
Candi still wrestles with her parents' decision to send her away.
"I felt anger with them when they came," she recalls. "By the time that they got here, none of us was the same people. And all of a sudden, I felt that for them to parent me was not appropriate either."
Today, Candi sings most Saturday nights at a Cuban restaurant in Los Angeles. For her, music is solace and an outlet for joy. It's a way for her to channel the pain of her childhood.
"Once I started singing — whooo — that little girl disappears and this old soul was singing from some other time," Candi says.
Candi and her family have mended their broken bonds over the years. Candi's sisters and mother (pictured with Candi) live nearby. Her brother, however, shattered in part by his Pedro Pan experience, lives in a home for the mentally ill.
Her mother has few regrets about her decision to send the children to the United States.
"I feel guilty because [of] what they suffer[ed]," she says. "And the separation was terrible, but at least they have freedom. At least they have freedom. And if I had to do it again, I do it again."
"You have no clue what it's like to lose your childhood in the space of one day," award-winning author and Yale professor Carlos Eire says of his Pedro Pan experience.
Carlos, (pictured left in the clown outfit with his parents and brother in 1954) last saw Cuba 48 years ago. For much of his adult life, he didn't remember, or didn't care to remember, his Cuban past. But today, about two times a month, he finds himself stealing glimpses of his childhood home via satellite images on his computer.
And he remembers. In particular, he remembers New Years Day, 1959, when Castro marched into Havana.
"I had never seen a man with a beard before other than Jesus and the apostles in icons," he says. "So when these men show up from the mountains...most of them bearded, long hair — these were almost like Biblical figures.
Most Cubans believed Castro when he said he would hold elections, but not Carlos' father, who was a judge. He saw signs early on that all was not right, and he wanted to get his children out of harm's way.
Carlos spent several months with a foster family in Miami until the cold war interfered. Flights between Cuba and the US stopped and Carlos's parents were stranded on the island. Because his foster family couldn't care for him indefinitely, he was sent to a home for troubled teenagers.
"That was an awful place," Carlos recalls. "Half the kids in the house had police records."
Carlos never saw his father again. He channeled his pain into a memoir about his childhood called "Waiting for Snow in Havana, " which won the National Book Award in 2003. (Carlos is pictured with his award far right.)
For some of the Pedro Pans, the pull to see Cuba again has proven strong. But others, like Carlos, refuse to go.
"My being there legitimizes the regime," he says. "It makes it seem normal. It is not normal. It's an abberation, it's a tumor, it's a festering, pus-filled tumor on Earth."
Carlos also is not welcome in Cuba. His memoir is banned there and he has been declared an enemy of the state.
When Carlos Saladrigas (pictured with his parents in pre-Castro Cuba) arrived in the United States at the age of 12, he was alone and penniless.
"I had a tough time," Carlos recalls. "I mean, I cried my guts out almost daily. But that particular moment, it was full of hope and expectation, and a sense of adventure, too."
Little Havana, where Carlos lived, was teeming with refugees and he was bent on making money to support his parents when they arrived from Cuba. If they arrived.
"I used to sell shoes by mail...I used to sell Encyclopedia Britannica, and I used to sell handbags," Carlos recalls. "I was delivering two newspapers, and mowing lawns and washing cars and things, and saving money so that when my parents came, they would have something to start with."
By the time his parents arrived, he'd saved up enough money to help them settle into a modest life, far from the wealth they had enjoyed in Cuba.
Carlos toiled during the days and went to school at night while his mother worked as a tomato picker and his father washed dishes at a local hospital.
Today, Carlos is comfortable. He sold his company, Vincam, a few years ago for $300 million. His boat shares the same name. In Latin, it means "to prevail," which he certainly has done. But he still thinks of Cuba.
"The hardliners are obsessed with the regime. It's all about the regime. It's all about bringing down the regime," he says. "But for 50 years, we have not brought about regime change. The policy that we have had to hurt the regime even if it brings collateral damage to the people needs to be replaced with a policy where we help the people even if it brings collateral benefit to the regime."
Carmen Valdivia, pictured at left with her mother and sister Isa, was also 12 when she came to the United States from Cuba. Like many other Pedro Pans, Carmen was placed in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Miami waiting to be sent back to Cuba once Castro was gone.
"I fell in love with Miami at first sight," Carmen recalls. "I was so impressed with the grid of straight streets and canals."
In 1965, Carmen's parents managed to get to the United States via Mexico. She graduated from high school, then the University of Miami and is now an architect married to another architect and Pedro Pan.
"Thanks to the vision, valor and selflessness of our parents who put our interest ahead of their feelings, and who went way beyond their comfort zone to guarantee us a future, we have been able to lead happy and productive lives in our adopted country in spite of the catastrophe that has swallowed our native land and the children who had the misfortune of staying behind."
Silvia Wilhelm (pictured second from left in Cuba in 1954) was alone when she arrived in Miami at age 14. The camps were filling up, so organizers had to send her and other new arrivals elsewhere.
"I was sent to Buffalo, New York, to a boarding school along with 12 other Pedro Pans — all women," Wilhelm says. Her separation from her family was still fresh when news arrived that the attempt to overthrow Castro had failed.
"That's when I really realized, I'm not going back. I'm here for good."
But 49 years later, she knew she had to go back. And she had to make a difference.
Silvia grew up believing in the hardline US policy toward Cuba: no trade, no travel. But when she returned to Havana in 1994, what she saw changed her position.
For Silvia, it was clear the US embargo had hurt the Cuban people and done little to undermine Castro.
"I don't care if you're left, right or center. It has been a failure. It has failed," Silvia says.
She returned to the United States with a mission and has devoted her life to ending the embargo, attending hearings and working through the political system to affect change.
"I want the dialogue and I want the relationship between both countries to be as normal as it possibly can be so that Cubans can then look inwardly and see what is really wrong with their economy withough having to blame everything on external forces," she says.
Tomas Regalado was a young boy when his father, a journalist and critic of Castro, disappeared.
Tomas (sitting on his father's lap with his family in 1955) clearly remembers the day Castro marched through the streets of Havana in victory over Batista.
"Everybody was happy," he says. "Everybody was celebrating that Batista was gone. And it was a sense of happiness and we as children joined, too."
That quickly changed when the militia arrived and his father was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Tomas's mother sent him to the United States at age 14, and a year later, joined him in Miami.
Tomas longed to be a journalist, like his father, and ended up on Spanish language radio in Miami.
"Maybe as a journalist I [could] do things for Cuba," he says now. "I could be a part of the new Cuba if I was able to convince people that it was the right thing to fight the regime."
Tomas rose to become a White House correspondent, covering several administrations and putting questions to American presidents like Jimmy Carter, pictured left with Tomas. He always asked about Cuba.
"I liked to ask the questions because it was a great thing for my audience [in Miami]," he says.
That audience would one day become his constituents.
In 2009, Tomas was sworn in as the mayor of Miami. Like many of the 14,048 Pedro Pans across the country, he found a way to translate his pain into purpose.
"I consider myself a Cuban American. An exile by the choice of my parents. An exile because my philosophy is totally opposed at what the Cuban government is," Tomas says. "But I realize that my home, my family, my dreams, my future ... are here in Miami."