El Malecón in Havana, Cuba – 2011
Photo credit: Amy Strassburger VanStee

One evening in October 1960, a radio station made an announcement that the government would soon take schoolchildren away from their families, sending them to Russia to be indoctrinated in communism. The news spread like a terrifying wildfire among upper-class parents. Soon the growing fear led parents to send their children off the island to avoid communist indoctrination.  In January 1961, an exodus of Cuban children began by way of a visa-waiver program.

My mother, my relatives, and the nuns at school did an exceptional job of sheltering us children from the tidal wave of panic that was washing over the island. I never had a clue. When I asked Mami about the rumors I had heard from Bernadette, she dismissed them as nonsense and quickly changed the subject. But as Christmas drew near, we heard of more and more neighborhood children and girls at school who were suddenly going on vacation alone to spend time with relatives or family friends in America—a Neverland from which they would never return. (From Palm Trees in the Snow)

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Gloria's passport picture

Passport photo of Gloria at age twelve, when she left the island

In 1961, I became a statistic when I fled Cuba as part of Operation Pedro Pan, one of the largest exoduses of children in history. Between 1960 and 1962, approximately 14,000 children were sent out of Cuba by panic-stricken parents to protect them from a future under communism. Around 7,000 of these children, myself included, arrived in Miami, unescorted. Some were not as fortunate as I; they didn’t have relatives to live with until they could be reunited with their parents. These children were taken to temporary camps in Miami until provisional homes across the country were found for them.