tv Legacy of Operation Pedro Pan CSPAN January 24, 2015 1:06pm-1:51pm EST
a special thank-you for coming. i want to acknowledge pedro pan is not strictly or even primarily a topic for academic analysis and that you are the experts in this history. it is with that recognition that i will share a few thoughts with you today, but i do so with humility and appreciation for the opportunity to be with you today. between the fall of 1960 and october of 1962, the parents of more than 14,000 cuban children made the heartbreaking decision to send their children alone to the united states where they were cared for by friends, relatives, foster parents, as well as in camps and orphanages. the reasons why parents did this were varied. many feared for the spiritual well-being of their catholic children after an increasingly radicalized cuban revolution began to oppress religious
expression, close schools, expel priests and religious orders from the island. others feared growing interventions into family life and panicked after rumors that castro intended to deprive parents of legal authority over their children began to circulate. parents also sought to protect their children from communist indoctrination. revolutionary schools. with the help of james baker, an american school headmaster in havana, the support of a clandestine group of anti-castro cubans, in miami a young miami -- young irish immigrant priest, along with the support of the u.s. state department and most likely the central intelligence agency, cuban parents began spiriting their children off the
island and into the care of the catholic church in the united states. they believed their separation would be temporary since few believed the united states would allow castro's increasingly left-leaning revolution to survive. after the failure of the bay of pigs invasion in april 1961 and the october 1962 missile crisis destroyed their hopes, most of the parents of these children fled to the u.s. and reclaimed their sons and daughters in exile. however, a number did not see their children again for 5, 10 and even 15 years. some of them were never reunited. these in broad brush strokes are the facts of what have become known over time of operation pedro pan. the facts that most cubans in the diaspora and on the island largely accept. however, cubans in the u.s. and
on the island have come to attribute very different meaning to the children's exodus. they disagree about the motives that inspired it, about whether to remember it as a humanitarian or politically motivated event. and they disagree about the impact the familial separation and life in catholic charities administered camps, foster homes, and orphanages had on young cuban refugees. these competing collective memories have emerged over time as pedro pan children grew matured, attended college, and began articulating their own identities. as they watched television news stories about child refugees coming to the u.s. from south vietnam in the 1970's, and as they watched new generations of unaccompanied central american haitian, and even cuban children arriving in the u.s., as they married and had their own children, and as they confronted changing political circumstances on the island and in the u.s. that allowed for dialogue and
travel to the island beginning under the carter administration in the 1970's, and during the pope's historic visit to cuba in 1998. their competing collective memories about pedro pan came to the forefront of politics with a new degree of urgency in 1999 during the transnational custody battle for the five-year-old elian gonzalez. for cuban americans who identify with or as cuban exiles, it has emerged as one of the principal metaphors for and symbol of the exile from a regime so oppressive and atheistic that loving parents were willing to sacrifice their children and send them into exile alone to protect them from communist indoctrination and preserve their catholic faith. pedro panists have become living symbols of that. their parents' decision and the
decision of all exiles to flee was a heroic deed and patriotic sacrifice, an act of love and loyalty to the dream of a democratic cuban republic. in cuba, pedro pan is remembered as an american imperialist attack initiated and managed by the cia and the catholic church. on the island, upper and middle-class families could destabilize a young revolution that enjoyed widespread popular support. in castro's words, during operation pedro pan, 14,000 children were virtually kidnapped by the united states when counterrevolutionary groups organized by the cia distributed false government bills to spread the criminal lie that children's custody would be taken from their parents. panic was sown.
these children were separated from their parents and sent to orphanages and detention centers. these dramatically opposed memories of operation pedro pan nonetheless share something in common. they all wrestle, albeit in very different ways, with the themes of faith, family, and freedom. these echo throughout the testimonies and narratives produced in cuba and its diaspora as cubans have attempted to make sense of the children's exodus. the term "operation pedro pan" was first used on march 9, 1962, when "miami herald reporter gene miller wrote a front-page story about an underground railway in the sky that brought cuban children fleeing the revolution to the u.s. he called this exodus operation pedro pan, a cubanized version
of james m barry's novel of the little boy that flew away to live with other lost boys. even at the height of the operation, miller was aware that not everybody was likely to understand the exodus as a humanitarian one. in fact in the early article, he , noted the communists are sure to call this child smuggling. however, this perspective would remain a minority one, at least in the united states. a series of articles on the cuban children's exodus would appear throughout 1960's in local, state, and national newspapers describing cuban exiles and refugee children. these articles praised the humanitarian and anti-communist motives, which at that time were seen as the same thing, of those who administer the program and cared for the children. however, these articles would gloss over the origins of the children and how they ended up
in the u.s. they rarely featured the voices or perspectives of the children themselves, but rather they framed their experiences as grateful, well-adjusted children eager to adapt to u.s. culture and felt a growing patriotic attachment to their new nation. these articles in the 1960's did not use the term "pedro pan." however, less positive memories of the exodus remained alive in the hearts and minds of the small number of former child refugees. in 1978, a group of radicalized cuban-american groups collaborated with a group in havana to publish a book of testimonies about the process of radicalization and alienation they experienced from both the american mainstream and their
own exile community. the first section includes testimonies which describe the experience of these children now young adults, on them having left cuba. many of them as unaccompanied refugees, although they too did not make reference to operation pedro pan. these testimonies downplayed their parents' fears and expressed a sense of betrayal and even resentment towards parents who told them their separation from family and home would be a vacation. and a short one. these early narratives highlighted the unceasing pain of parental separation. they described poor conditions in the pedro pan reception camp where children have been housed and even physical and sexual abuse at the hands of fellow campmates, house parents, and
even priests and nuns charged with their care. these radicalized youth charged the u.s. of having manipulated and destroyed cuban families. perhaps equally damning, they -- the book claimed the exile from the cuban community and the growing support for the cuban revolution began in the camps where they had been sent to shelter them from atheistic communism. beginning in 1977, a small number of these radicalized pedro panists also traveled with the first brigade. the mission was implicitly linked to the operation of pedro pan since one of its goals was recapturing a sense of connection to cuba for the children torn from their homeland. the decision to visit the island provoked pain and conflict among
families already strained by years of separation. it also understandably provoked anger in the community who felt their choice to return was a betrayal of exile commitment to a free and democratic cuba. their choice to return to communist cuba rendered their parents sacrifice meaningless. in cuba however, the brigadistas were welcomed. their ambivalence about their parents choice to send them alone into exile, their pain confusion, and resentment were acknowledged. however, this was not necessarily in the interest of allowing a greater interpretation of the exodus to be heard. rather, it was because they left positive portrayals reinforced the competing collective memory of a drove pan that emerged on
the island. that first visit was recorded in a documentary that we told for the cuban audience the painful story of operation pedro pan which it portrayed as a deliberate and politically motivated u.s. plot to destroy cuban families and intervene in the island's sovereign affairs. only a small number of pedro panists participated in the production of the book project. even fewer visited the island in the late 1970's. however, these first critical testimonies motivated cuban americans to begin articulating a collective memory that appeared to more closely reflect the perspective of many pedro panists, their exiled family members, and the american mainstream. that operation pedro pan had been an inevitable humanitarian-inspired, and
largely successful child saving operation. in 1978, a first attempt was made to organize pedro panists as a group in the first pedro pan foundation which planned an homage to monsignor bryan walsh in miami to honor him for what they called his mission of love amongst cuban refugee children. the event was attended by hundreds of cuban exiles and pedro panists. in 1986, they organized again. this time, the “thank you, america” committee registered as a florida not-for-profit corporation. in june, the “thank you, america” committee held their first event, a picnic to raise funds for catholic charities programs still administered by monsignor bryan walsh to serve abandoned and neglected children in greater miami. their community work reflected
the 2500 committee members' gratitude to the united states for offering them refuge as children fleeing communist cuba. we are grateful to this nation said the president of the committee, in a june 9, 1986 interview to the "miami herald." "if i was still in cuba, i would have nothing. i would be in jail." in the autumn of 1990, a group of pedro panists gathered at a shrine in miami to ask monsignor walsh's blessing on a new pedro pan foundation. the group dedicated itself to fundraising on behalf of refugee minors, including cuban children rescued during the crisis. it also raised money in support of catholic homes for children which had been destroyed by hurricane andrew. it also raised money to support
boys town, a catholic shelter for abused, homeless, or unaccompanied minor boys 12 through 18, which had been constructed at the site of a former pedro pan camp. operation pedro pan group incorporated was motivated by its members' belief they were fortunate to find shelter in the united states. the miami media and especially the exile media agreed with this interpretation of the exodus. beginning in 1992, they began to publish a steady stream of news stories featuring pedro pan members stories and their own memories of the exodus. one such story quotes president chavez. [speaking spanish]
she'd knowledge to the experience -- she acknowledged the experience of most pedro panists was difficult, but her story nonetheless was the story of adversity overcome with a happy ending. "the herald" took this one step further, claiming these men and women had been protagonists in one of the most beautiful pages in the history of cuban exile and they are conscious of this. they have made their lives. many of them have achieved in business, art, but they don't forget. it is not possible to forget the generosity and support of those around you.
in its zeal to recognize the real achievements of many of miami's former pedro pan children, it failed to recognize that in fact most pedro pan children had not been protagonists of their childhood flight from the island. in most cases, the decision to come to the u.s. was a decision made for them by their parents and even in some cases, against their wishes. in spite of this triumphant public discourse, amongst themselves, the members of the operation pedro pan group understood many of their members still needed support to overcome the psychological wounds their extended separations from their family. in march of 1992, operation pedro pan group held its first national conference. more than 100 pedro panists and their parents with monsignor walsh came from across the u.s. to share their experiences.
this conference gave participants permission to speak about their less positive memories. news coverage in the miami media acknowledged pedro panists had both positive and negative experiences. an article in a news magazine admitted that for some of the bigger children, coming to the u.s. was like coming to a summer camp. it went very well for them. however for others, especially for the littlest ones, they lived a nightmare. however, in the end, news coverage of this cathartic event concluded in line with the exile community's agreed-upon narrative about operation pedro pan. with a happy ending. "we are survivors," the article said. today, the immense majority are responsible citizens of the society we live in.
any blame for their suffering fell strictly on the castro regime. "we were politically abused by a cruel system that separated us from our parents and tried to rob our culture, our language, and our customs. but it did not succeed." the article concluded overall that the departure from cuba was -- because we grew up in freedom and we are grateful for that. throughout the 1990's, operation pedro pan group played an essential role in reinforcing a positive collective memory of operation pedro pan and its children as successful, well adapted, and grateful to their parents, the catholic church, in the united states for guaranteeing them religious and political liberties. they also initiated a history project which increasingly has attempted to include a diversity
of perspectives on the exodus. the pedro pan archives were moved from miami's catholic archdiocese to barry university. operation pedro pan group committed itself to trying to make contact with all of the more than 14,000 unaccompanied children who had come to the u.s. through operation pedro pan. as part of this new interest in the 1990's amongst pedro panists who are now parents and in some cases grandparents in preserving their memories of the exodus the cuban-american playwright began interviewing prominent exiles and leaders and participants in operation pedro pan, including monsignor walsh and jim baker. these, together with oral histories, are archived in the cuban living history collection housed here in the special collection.
growing interest for operation pedro pan in miami also produced a ripple effect. interest grew on the island as well. in 1996, the revolutionary film producer, whose brother frank had left cuba as a pedro panist in 1963 when he was 10 years old, produced a documentary which consisted of a series of interviews with cuban-american women who had been pedro pan children. the documentary examined the emotional toll the experience of separation had on these women's lives. however, despite recognizing the material well-being and success these women achieved in the u.s., the documentary portrayed these women as suffering still and struggling to understand the role played by the u.s. government in stimulating the children's exodus.
this transnational contest between competing collective memories of operation pedro pan reached a peak between 1998 and 2000 when wpbt channel 2 in south florida made several documentaries about operation pedro pan and several books were published. the research was not struggling -- strictly motivated by academic curiosity. in a letter to monsignor bryan walsh, he admitted he sought to paint a positive picture of the exile, which he felt was especially important in light of previous negative portrayals like those found in the book. -- the book -- in november of 1999, a five-year-old boy was rescued
off the coast. his mother died. his miami relatives immediately claimed him as their own while his father called for his return to his island home. overnight, the elian gonzalez custody battle infused the contest with memories of peter -- pedro pan with a painful new urgency. the small boy became, for miami's cuban-americans, a symbol of all of the 14,000 pedro panists whose parents had similarly taken great risks to secure their freedom and future in the united states. returning him to castro's cuba they argued would be an affront to the memory of the sacrifices and hardships of their parents and those endured by all exiles. cubans on the island also linked elian to the children's exodus.
in cuba, a new book was hastily put into production. [speaking spanish] "operation pedro pan: the case of psychological warfare against cuba." the promotional tag called it the story of 14,000 elians. castro declared his efforts to rescue elian and reunite him with his father symbolically repaired the injustices committed on the thousands of cuban families destroyed as a result of the u.s. operation pedro pan. we all know how that story ended. elian was returned to cuba. the collective memories of the struggle to keep him in the u.s.
and collective memories of operation pedro pan persist in havana and miami. on both sides of the florida strait, scholars and artists have continued retelling the story of the children's exodus. on the island and in the diaspora, cubans affected by operation pedro pan continue to try and make sense of their shared history. they also continue to face public and private pressure to tell their stories in ways that do not threaten the competing collective memories of the operation that has become so important to both the island and diaspora cuban communities. this is unfortunate because both versions flatten more than 14,000 difficult, complex, and deeply personal stories into a narrowly defined and highly politicized morality play in which there is little room for individual experience,
questioning, ambivalence, or contradiction. allowing a greater space for individual voices means challenging both the official and island memories of pedro pan. it may also perhaps be one way of offering these former child refugees exactly the kind of freedom their parents hoped to secure for them when they made the heartbreaking decision to open their arms and let their babies fly away. thank you. [applause] >> i am wondering if you interviewed them now how they would feel. most of the children, the decision to come had to be made by their parents. all of the pedro pan people i
know that came at 16 or 17 tell me they made the decision. they went to their parents and said, “i have to get out of here. otherwise, you'll lose me.” the younger children, the parents had to make the decision. who heard of a 10-year-old making their own decision? >> i think you are right on both points. i will take the second first because it is quicker. i'm a parent. i make decisions for my child. the reason i bring up the idea that many children did not make this decision for themselves is that because of the discourse surrounding freedom and personal liberty that is so essential to the way we tell the story of pedro pan, many of the people who have talked about their more negative experiences in testimonials mentioned they felt the freedom to choose had been taken from them by the parents. to one degree that is -- to what degree that is inevitable, i take freedom away from my daughter every day
right? but it bears noting it is one of the contradictions at play when we talk about the notion of freedom. to the first point about the radicalized youth that went to cuba with the brigade in the late 1970's, i think that is going to be an extremely important part of this project. this lecture is the first of my presentations on what is a very new project for me. my first book deals more broadly with the politics of childhood and the revolution and exile community. i've only begun working on pedro pan as a specific topic recently, so there is an enormous amount of research to be done. i think that will be an important part of the story. i have cut this lecture at 2000. although many things written academically and in popular forms of publication in the last decade speak to that.
one of the academic books written in 2004, which i understand was not very popular amongst many pedro panists, was maria's book, "the lost apple." she went with the brigade in 1978. one thing that is interesting about the introduction to this book is she addresses the question you just raised. she experienced a profound disillusionment with the revolution when she was in cuba because she realized that although the revolution was welcoming these brigadistas and i welcoming these brigadistas and surrounding their arrival with a family centric rhetoric in fact when they arrived, their ability to access the family members, which is what motivated many of them to go, was severely restricted. they were told spending too much time with your family is an ideological weakness.
if you want to be here, you need to be committed to the revolution. she talks in the introduction of her book about how the cuban government manipulated them and made them into mouthpieces for their own political agenda. those of you that have not read the book that are sort of uncomfortable with the fact it does offer a critical view of the operation, i recommend you read it because i think she is struggling with some of those issues you raised. yes. >> i have a question. if the nazis were still in power and had their version of the holocaust and the people who suffered had their version would you compare them or is that insulting to the people who suffered? we had to suffer twice. first what we went through, and now what cuba is saying happened to us. is that fair or insulting?
>> i guess it depends on whether you are approaching it as an academic or as a person. an academic walks a fine line. >> does it give credence to what nazis say they did during the holocaust, holocaust deniers? >> i doubt any academic would give credence to that. but i do believe many academics, in fact scholars i am friends with, have studied the nazis and the ways they formed and socialized children to make them be members of the nazi youth. they have studied them not necessarily to legitimize what they have done but as a way of attempting to understand how it happened. >> i understand that. but to try to compare our
collective memory with their collective memory, which is not their collective memory, but their way of making history. trying to rewrite history. to try to compare what we went through to what they are saying we went through is unfair. >> i apologize that you feel that way. >> you said some things i don't agree with. i won't get into it because it will be too long. have you thought about comparing our stories with the children of our generation that stayed? because it is unfair to compare us to elian. you have to compare us to the people who stayed and suffered. they suffered a lot. we are starting to hear stories even though they're well known for not letting things out.
they don't have the freedom to say what happened to them. it would be very interesting. i think it would be good to study these cases of those who had to stay behind. >> i think that is an absolutely essential -- >> they went through separation. it is not like we had a choice. we were going to be separated. the idea was whether we were going to be separated to have the castro regime handle us or the separated and be handled by catholic charities. by the way, i know our stories. we were all in the operation pedro pan. maria is our vice president. elena is on the board. it was very difficult. we begged our parents to let us go. it is not that they made the decision.
we made the decision. >> i would never contest that. i believe that is 100% your experience. i do know there are other pedro panists who understand it differently. >> just as i think it is important to interview those who were brigadistas, i think you should continue those who were not because every story of pedro pan is a different story. the older you were at the time you came in pedro pan, the more you would have begged your mother like i did. i begged my mother to let me come because my family was being persecuted. i had relatives who spent 20 years in prison. we were really harassed. i was suffocating in cuba. when i was told by the regime i had to go to the countryside and labor when i had graduated as a professor of music, i went crazy
and begged my mother. if i stay, i will end up in jail or crazy. i begged my mother and she let me come. the older pedro pan at the time of arrival, the more they would have understood the decision of the parents to allow them to come here. i don't believe anybody who has never lived in a country where there is oppression can understand the desperation of being in a country where you are not supposed to express yourself, ok? that is hard. only a person who has experienced that can understand the real purpose of seeking freedom, and i believe that was the purpose of my arriving. i thank my parents every day of my life for allowing me to come. although it is hard when
children from their parents, that is their security blanket. when you separate children from their parents, everybody is going to suffer. it is going to be a rough experience. but if you say 100 might have become brigadistas out of 14,000? that is a pretty good record. the majority of pedro panists are very blessed to be in this country and thank this government and the archdiocese of miami for making it possible for us. >> i think i have made that clear in the lecture, that the majority of pedro panists share your feelings about this. >> thank you for your presentation. i was with ramon florez, part of the group that created the “thank you, america” committee. i think when we incorporated it
was the "thanks, america" committee. i was the vice president. ray was the president. i think what i take from your presentation is not that you are giving credence to what castro was doing. you have to understand on our side anytime somebody talks about it, you will get this kind of reaction. we are very emotionally connected to anything or anybody that says what they are saying is true because we know it is not true. they are trying to change history. from our side, you're going to get this kind of reaction. from what i gather, you're doing an academic study and it is saying this is what they are saying in cuba, and you are just capturing what they are saying. hopefully in your book, at some point, you are also saying the majority do not agree with that
point of view. >> absolutely. >> like you are hearing. i want to bring attention to the picture of elian. no one has done research on a particular point i was very involved in. this happened on easter saturday. that whole week of easter, it became very obvious it was very contentious. we were national news. it became obvious something was about to happen. i together with ray and a couple of other folks contacted monsignor walsh and sister jean to see if there was any way the pedro pan members could sponsor the staying of elian because they were saying he had to go back. because we were such an important image of what could happen to elian because we lived through it, that we would cover the cost of having him stay with
sister jean, with a particular sister that had been with him and that he loved. that was the whole week. friday, easter friday, i had assurances from someone who worked for janet reno who was the attorney general, the u.s. attorney general, that they would allow us to do that. friday afternoon, i got a call back from somebody in the state department saying that. we called ray. we called everybody. we were at peace. we figured let's get through easter week and then we get it done. easter saturday morning, this happened, in the early morning 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning. by noon, castro had in his plaza over 100,000 people with a big
banner with elian being returned. the logistics of being able to move 100,000 people, it was like he had to have known this was going to happen. no one has done a study on that. the u.s. government knew that this was happening. when they started to hear there was movement within the community, that we would take responsibility for elian because he could not get to the family courts in atlanta, if that happened they would probably rule to keep him with his uncle and aunt the united states. we had to make a quick move. that picture you have up, i have been struggling from the moment you put it up because of what we went through to try to keep elian. you are right, and it is not
correct to compare his experience to ours. completely different. just so that you know that is , something i tried to tell the "miami herald," and it did not want to deal with that story. if anybody goes back and looks at the facts, this happened saturday morning between 4:00 and 5:00 in the morning. by noon, he had an entire plaza full of people and the banner of returning elian. how could that happen if they did not know? they had to take the buses, go pick up people, tell them you're coming. that takes two or three days to put together. the fact they had that, the u.s. government knew that was going to happen saturday morning. >> that is a terrible and painful story. >> maybe that is a new line of research you could take on. >> in my book, in the epilogue
i talk about how elian was perceived as a betrayal in a series of betrayals that have taken place in the u.s. government's commitment to cuba. i acknowledge that absolutely. i want to clarify the comparison being made between elian and the pedro panists in this lecture does not originate with me. it originates on the island and in miami. there are multiple examples of priests, the pedro panists, of community members drawing that comparison themselves. what i have done in this lecture is simply draw attention to the fact that pedro panists on both sides of the strait have made this comparison. i did not make this comparison. i did not live through this experience. i am not entitled to make that comparison.
>> you can make that comparison as long as you realize our parents are heroes. >> we are going to have to end. [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2015] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] >> you are watching american history tv. 48 hours in american history every weekend on c-span3. follow us on twitter for information on our schedule, upcoming programs, and to keep up with the latest history news. >> up next, a panel of historians talk about the history of race relations in ferguson, missouri, and address methods of teaching about protest. they examine how policing and the criminal justice system have historically related to racial conflict.
this session from the american historical association's annual meeting is about two hours. my students struggle with this. -- >> good morning. i am going to be filling in today as your chair. thomas came down with a terrible stomach bug and is not able to be with us today. we all will miss him terribly. many of you who came to see tom are disappointed. we wish him well. we will proceed in his absence. there are a couple of housekeeping things. let me get it out of the way. the hashtag is fergusonaha. there are