Joe Miro was only 15 and leaving Cuba, the country of his birth, for the first time in his life—and probably for good.
He wasn’t worried or afraid. Young Miro was comforted by the fact that his mother would soon join him in the United States. She was scheduled to leave on October 23, 1962, to be reunited with him in Wilmington.
On October 22, 1962, however, President John F. Kennedy announced a quarantine on all shipping into Cuba in response to the discovery of Soviet offensive missiles on the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun, and Miro’s adolescence had been irreversibly altered.
Miro was not the only one. Through Operation Pedro Pan, an effort of the Catholic Welfare Bureau in the United States and the U.S. State Department, thousands of Cuban boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18 were being moved to the United States to prevent Fidel Castro from sending them to Communist indoctrination camps in Eastern Europe.
In all, some 14,000 Cuban youths were moved to the United States, either to be reunited with family or to become wards of Catholic-sponsored foster homes, group care homes or temporary orphanages established for the specific purpose.
One such orphanage was Casa de Sales at 13th and Broom streets in Wilmington, which was operated by Salesianum School. According to Miro, 21 young Cuban boys eventually went to live there.
One of those youngsters was Pedro Ferreira, then 15, whose parents feared he and his brother, then 13, could be sent to Eastern Europe.
“I came under the Pedro Pan program, but I didn’t know it was even called that until I was in my 40s,” says Ferreira, a psychologist in Wilmington. “I only found out the name when I attended a psychology seminar and the subject had come up.”
Ferreira was not alone in his ignorance. According to www.pedropan.org, Operation Pedro Pan intentionally avoided publicity, fearing it could be used for propaganda purposes.
The first published reference to Pedro Pan occurred in a 1962 issue of Reader’s Digest. The next occurred in 1988. So many of the 14,000 who came here under the program merely thought they were arriving under the same student exchange programs that had operated between Cuban Catholic schools and the United States in pre-Castro times. (Castro closed all parochial schools, such as Ferreira’s Collegio St. Augustine, following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.)
“I thought I was coming here to attend school for maybe six months or so,” recalls Armando Hidalgo, another Casa de Sales alum who, at 64, still operates a successful refrigeration and air conditioning business in Miami. “But my father knew exactly what Castro was all about, and one year following the Bay of Pigs, he said, ‘Cuba is lost forever. I’m sending you to the United States.’”
Pedro Pan also transported young girls to the United States. One presides today as a Delaware Family Court judge. Another, Yrene Waldron, only 10 in 1962, was supposed to leave Cuba with her parents and younger brother. But when Waldron’s father was discovered to be engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, his visa was revoked. His family’s was frozen. Fearing his children might be relocated to the USSR, he pleaded to Pedro Pan.
“He bravely gave us up so that we could live in a democracy,” says Waldron, a licensed nursing home administrator from Wilmington and executive director of the Delaware Healthcare Facilities Association.
Waldron grew up fast. After arriving in Florida City, she learned that she and her brother were to be placed in separate foster homes.
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“I told them, ‘You cannot separate us.’ I think I found my voice and my courage at that moment,” she says.
A group connected with West Presbyterian Church in Wilmington agreed to take both, so Waldron and her brother arrived in Wilmington in August 1962. The family was reunited in June 1963, when Yrene’s mother and father snuck into the United States with fraudulent exit visas.
Said to be the “largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere,” Pedro Pan had too few facilities to care for the children. Besides Wilmington, facilities sprang up in Indiana, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida, to handle flow from the original staging area in Miami, Camp Montecumba.
One reason Wilmington was selected was the initiative of local Catholic groups, as well as an existing Cuban-experienced population composed of DuPont employees who came when the company was forced out of its facilities in Havana.
(The original residence of Irenee du Pont in Cuba, Xanadu Mansion, is now the clubhouse of the only 18-hole golf course in the country—a testament perhaps to the enduring strength of capitalism.)
The Cuban youths in Wilmington flourished under the guidance of Father James Byrnes at Casa de Sales.
“First of all, I learned English,” says Hidalgo. “I learned to play American football, even though I had never seen a game played before.”
Ferreira lived at Casa de Sales for three years and helped produce Salesianum’s yearbook. He went on to the University of Delaware, where he served in the ROTC and, eventually, earned an executive master’s degree in business administration in 1998. He is in private practice in Wilmington and teaches at Widener University, where he was recently presented a national award for excellence in teaching continuing education classes.
Miro became a school teacher and a state representative. He sums up the Casa de Sales and Pedro Pan experience this way:
“Pedro Pan for me was a period of transition and adaptation,” he says. “I had never been separated from my family before. It provided a valuable learning experience in getting along with others, how to survive in a strange place and how to learn to lean on each other for support. It changed completely the way of life I had known in Cuba.”
Waldron believes the experience shaped her development into adulthood and beyond. “I learned English right away,” she says. “I recall the experience and adversity as a blessing. I did not lose my childhood, and I learned early how not to let fear cripple you. I also learned the power of faith.”
All four speak of a deep need to give back to the country they believe provided them so much opportunity. Miro’s decision to enter public service was his way “of saying thanks.”
While many Pedro Pans were immediately reunited with family upon arriving here, many were not. Miro’s mother, whose plans to reunite were initially thwarted by the missile crisis, arrived in May 1963, accompanied by Miro’s grandmother, aboard a ship that had brought medicine for captives of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Ferreira’s mother rejoined him in 1966, the result of the so-called Freedom Flights that operated out of Cuba that year. Hidalgo’s mother also rejoined her son, giving up rights to all she had owned in Cuba. Sadly, however, Hidalgo’s father became sick and died before he could see his son again. More than 45 years later, the pain of that loss remains close to the surface.
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“He gave his life for mine,” Hidalgo says, still fighting back tears after all these years. “I try to put myself in his shoes, but I just don’t think I would ever have the courage to do for my children what he did for me.”
As for going back to their homeland, feelings are mixed. Miro has returned, traveling with a Delaware trade mission last spring. He visited the home where he had grown up, now in a state of disrepair, along with most of what he had seen of the island since he last lived there.
“There is a great need for a coat of paint on everything,” he says.
Ferreira has visited Cuba eight times since 1994. He has attended a graveside ceremony in memory of his father and has taught as a volunteer at a neurological hospital there.
“Cuba is where I got my start,” Ferreira says. “It was the place where my family settled in coming from Spain. Cuba is the place I was born. But America is the place where I belong.”
Hidalgo’s decision not to return is, understandably, deeply held. “I never stop thinking about going back,” he says. “But I promised my father that I would not return until Cuba was free. To go back now, I would just be a pawn in a political game.”
And it’s a game that Ferreira doesn’t see ending anytime soon, even with the recent change of regime. On post-Castro Cuba, he is pessimistic. “It’s like when Brezhnev died in the Soviet Union.”
Though he hopes Cuba will one day see a more open economy, Ferreira gently chastises policymakers here. “We have so many Ph.D.s in think tanks across the country, why don’t we use them?”
Miro believes U.S. policy is still too connected to the anti-Castro Cubans living in Miami and does not see real change coming soon. “It will take a change in Cuban and U.S. policy,” Miro says. “But right now, each side is waiting for the other to act first.”
Waldron believes the embargo has only served to sustain Castro. But she sees a change in the youth of Cuba. (Waldron returned to the island in 1994 on a mission trip.) “Young people are tired of the revolution, and I believe a silent uprising is developing among them.”
She’d even consider retiring there “if there could be restitution for the property expropriated from my parents.”
Many of the original Pedro Pans remain in contact with each other. In November 2007, the Pedro Pan “graduates” of Casa de Sales held a 35th year reunion in Miami, with Father Byrnes as the group’s special guest.
“We presented him with our Pedro Pan Man of the Year award,” Miro reports.