During a game of basketball, a 14-year-old Mel Martinez heard someone yell at him: “Death to the Catholic!” It was because of the religious clothing he was wearing, a scapulary. His parents knew then that it was time to send him to the United States through Operation Peter Pan.
In his central Cuban city of Sagua la Grande, Fidel Castro’s government had already executed a 16-year-old boy, the former U.S. senator from Florida recalled during an emotional tour through the exhibition “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus,” which is on display in the HistoryMiami museum in downtown Miami until Jan. 17.
“There was an atmosphere of hate, in opposition to any point of view that was different,” Martinez says of the violence and intolerance experienced in Cuba during the 1960s — and which, he points out, some opposition leaders and dissidents still experience on the island.
Carmen Valdivia, an architect and president of the Operation Pedro Pan Group organization’s historic committee, had an experience similar to Martinez’s. Her organization aims to preserve details of the stories of some 14,000 children who traveled to the United States without their parents from Dec. 26, 1960, through Oct. 22, 1962.
The largest exodus of minors traveling alone in the Western hemisphere was made possible thanks to the help of the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Monsignor Bryan Walsh, and the U.S. government. In the program, parents sent their children to live in church-sponsored camps and to foster homes in different American cities, so that they could escape the Communist doctrine and persecution of Catholics on the island.
“In a Mass at the Cathedral of Santa Clara de Asis, men stormed in with machetes. They began taking seats among us, in between the girls from the school,” recalls Valdivia, who at the time attended a religious school in Santa Clara. Along with her sister Maria Isabel, Valdivia had created posters condemning the closure of religious schools.
By that time, their father had been to prison several times, and each time they opened the door of their home, they were met by an armed militiaman.
“That day, when we left the church scared, two groups had formed, and they threw rocks at us,” says Valdivia about the episode in the cathedral, one of the factors that pushed her parents to send her and her sister, then 12 and 14 respectively, to Miami.
Valdivia and another former Pedro Pan child, Carmen Romanach, started gathering objects in 2010 to re-create the world of those children in exile. Jorge Zamanillo, director of HistoryMiami, curated the exhibition. Memorabilia from the Catholic schools attended by children on the island, as well as beds, napkins, silverware and flags used in the four camps that took in the children upon their arrival in Florida, are included in the collection.
For Valdivia, one of the most bitter memories of the separation from her parents was saying goodbye to her father. He couldn’t go with her and her sister to the airport, because only one parent was allowed to accompany the children there. So while her father waited nearby to watch the airplane take off, her mother stayed outside the “fishbowl,” a glass-enclosed room where authorities confined Cubans before they left the island to process their documents and inspect their luggage.
The reconstruction of the fishbowl at HistoryMiami is one of the most moving and impressive elements of the exhibition, and it is accompanied by video testimonies of Pedro Pan kids.
“The ‘fishbowl’ was for Pedro Pans some sort of initiation ritual. You could see the [horror on your parent’s face] on the outside,” says Valdivia about the experience that left parents fearing for their children’s lives yet hoping nothing would impede the process of leaving the island.
“We were there for an entire day. Finally, they took away my luggage,” said Valdivia, who recalls the words of the militia woman clearly: “That belongs to Cuba and doesn’t belong to you.”
Of his time in the fishbowl, accountant Tony Argiz, who toured the exhibit with Martinez, recalls a pyrrhic victory.
“My great passion was baseball. And I told the militiaman to let me take my baseball glove and ball, and he let me,” recalls Argiz, president of the Miami-based accounting firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz and Farra, which has more than 500 employees and offices in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and New York.
GROWING UP QUICKLY
Argiz was 9 when he left Cuba without his parents and joined his brother in Tampa. He didn’t see them again until May 1967, when he was 14.
“At that age, I had more experience than a son of mine who is 20,” says Argiz, who was so desperate to see his parents again that he wanted to drive to Miami to join them at the Freedom Tower, where recently arrived Cubans were taken to fill out immigration documents.
According to Martinez, the defining moment of his exile happened at Miami International Airport, when officials asked the 11 children traveling by themselves to form a separate line.
“That’s where my life by myself started,” says Martinez, who was taken to Matecumbe, one of the camps for the Pedro Pans in southwest Miami-Dade, then later placed in a foster home in Orlando, where he says he felt like part of the family.
Martinez’s father wasn’t allowed to leave Cuba because he was a veterinarian. On occasion, representatives of the government told him that his son Mel had to return. It was a condition his father never accepted.
“That’s why I identified so much [with the case] of Elián González,” says Martinez, who realized at an early age that the best thing to do was to adopt a positive attitude and accept life in his new country.
When his parents arrived in 1966, Martinez already had savings.
“We meshed as a family again immediately,” he says, though his mother noticed that her son had changed and asked him “if I had any surgeries done on my face.”
Somehow, roles became reversed. Martinez became the caretaker of his parents and his younger brother Rafael, also a Pedro Pan kid who had initially lived with relatives in Miami.
“I was always the head of the family. My dad didn’t make any important decisions without consulting me,” says Martinez, who wants his children to visit the exhibit so they can understand his experience.