María de Los Angeles or “Nena” Torres is a professor of Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the executive director of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research, also known as IUPLR. As a child, she was put on a plane and sent to the U.S. to wait for parents as a part of Operation Pedro Pan, a U.S. government program that aimed to protect Cuban children from Castro dissidents. Life in the U.S. wasn’t necessarily easy for Nena—her parents did join her shortly after she arrived but they faced racism and discrimination in Midland, Texas. As an adult, she sought to fill in the gaps of her childhood memories and uncover the often left-out history of Operation Pedro Pan. What she finds reveals the importance of who tells the story.
To learn more about Nena Torres’s work and Operation Pedro Pan click here for a link to her book on the subject, The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the U.S., and the Promise of a Better Future.
Statement from Operation Pedro Pan, Inc.
There’s no denying that a very small number of Pedro Pan children in foster care was abused despite the strict supervision and watchful eye of state and diocesan Catholic Charities’ social workers. How could it be otherwise when despite the best of intentions a disproportionate number of American-born children in institutional and foster care were and still are abused?
Nevertheless, our review of thousands of Pedro Pan children’s testimonials over the last 5 years has revealed that only a very small fraction was abused, less than 1% of the 14,148 total. Bear in mind that no empirical study has ever been undertaken to ascertain with scientific precision and accuracy the incidence and types of abuse to which Pedro Pan children might have been subjected. In fact, most reports, including Prof. Torres’, are based on anecdotal evidence. Actually, the figure frequently cited by the program’s detractors is 80.
Our observations are drawn from reviewing the testimonies, both oral and written, of nearly 2,000, a majority belonging to the 7,000 Pedro Pan children who were cared for by the Diocese of Miami’s Catholic Welfare Bureau’s Cuban Children’s Program and most of whom were placed in institutions and foster homes over 35 states. We should point out that Operation Pedro Pan was a visa waiver program that lasted from 26 December 1960 to 21 October 1962, during which time over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children were airlifted to the United States. Upon arrival, half of the total had someone in the form of family friends and/or relatives willing to provide them with a temporary home until reunited with parents. The remainder was cared for by the Diocese of Miami’s Cuban Children’s Program.
By the end of 1966 —just as the Cuban government was making plans to set up the infamous concentration camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs) in order to intern practicing Catholic and Protestant youth, Jehovah Witnesses, the children and young relatives of political prisoners, dissidents and refugees on U.S. soil, hippies, homosexuals, etc.— 96% of all Pedro Pans had been reunited with their parents via President Johnson’s Freedom Flights (1965-1973).
An estimated 400 Pedro Pans were never reunited with their parents. With regards to the Pedro Pan children who have reported being abused while in the care of the Cuban Children’s Program, a very tiny minority claims being physically abused by the demands placed on them by foster parents to perform household chores, something unheard of in Cuban homes at the time. Most complaints from Pedro Pan children were of perceived psychological abuse arising from language barriers, adaptation to social customs and cultural integration difficulties. There have been fewer than half a dozen complaints of documented sexual abuse.
In the spirit of objectivity and fairness, we suggest than rather than taking our word for it or anyone else’s for that matter, you spend time reading the nearly 2,000 testimonials appearing in the Miami Herald’s Operation Pedro Pan database (http://pubsys.miamiherald.com/cgi-bin/pedropan/index) and our own official website (http://www.pedropan.org/) and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/OPPGI). Only then will you be able to grasp and appreciate the full Pedro Pan story in all its complexity. All in all, it is our contention, based on the evidence available, that Pedro Pan children in the Cuban Children’s Program fared significantly much better than American-born children in both institutional and foster home care during the 1960s.
One thought on “The Lost Children of Cuba: Operation Pedro Pan”
Hi. I am very fascinated by the Operation Pedro Pan story. I know it’s a very controversial subject and it can open old wounds for some but I would love to see an updated documentary on the event. I’m a Jamaican immigrant and found out that Jamaica played apart in helping to evacuate these children from Cuba as did numerous other countries.
I do believe these stories need to be retold because there are generations who know nothing about these events. Would love to know if survivors opinions have changed over the years.
Thank you very much.