Voyage to Neverland: Pedro Pan at Fifty

Fifty years ago in Havana, the last of the 14,000 children fleeing Marxist-Leninist indoctrination bid tearful good-byes to their parents and boarded planes bound for Miami.

courtesy       Distraught parents, panicking over rumors that Fidel Castro’s new government planned to ship their children to Russian (then Soviet) labor camps, made the unbearable choice of sending them away to the land of freedom, not knowing if they would ever reunite.

The clandestine program, dubbed “Pedro Pan,” backed by Washington and coordinated by the Catholic Church, helped Cuban children obtain U.S. visas and, once in America, find a family member or go to foster homes.  Many parents believed the United States would step in and topple Castro’s communist regime.  That was not the case.  As a result, many children languished in American orphanages and foster homes year after year.  Many never saw their parents again.

Few know about this story of anguish.  Carlos Eire, in his book Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy, describes the heart-rending experiences of a lonely boy abused by his foster parents in Little Havana: “To this day, hardly anyone in the world knows that all of this happened.”

Amazing that, according to Eire, professor of history and religion at Yale University, another 80,000 children were right behind the first group, ready to be scattered to the four winds just before the airlift shut down.

In my book Sylvia, I reconstruct the story of a friend of mine sent to live in a Miami orphanage.


You can read it here: (download the Kindle app to your computer or phone)

Like Eire, the protagonist grapples with adversity, but survives in a hostile environment, and even flourishes academically.  When her parents arrive in the United States, she faces a new phenomenon.  Eire explains it: “The time I spent there stripped me clean of any attachment I ever had to my parents. Bleached bones in the desert, buried by the drifting sands, that’s all that’s left of whatever I once felt for them.”

In the end, is it possible for anyone to heal the wounds inflicted in childhood?

Author Anais Nin optimistically writes:  “One is not in bondage to the past which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, and background.  All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us.  We can alter the chemistry provided we have the courage to dissect the elements.”

If her words are true, how long does the process take?  A lifetime?

One of the Peter Pan refugees, my first husband, was a lonely child who lived with his uncle while he waited for his parents.  I forget whether he slept in a laundry room or a closet tucked underneath a staircase until they arrived years later.

On a sultry summer night, frustrated by his lack of affection, I shouted, “why can’t you tell me you love me?”

“I can’t explain,” he said, “why I can’t say the words.  I just can’t.”


Welcome to My World of Writing!

In this blog, I will be publishing memoir, short stories, personal essays and poetry. I will be discussing writing, literature, culture and the creative life.

I will begin with sections from a book-length memoir, but  occasionally digress to other forms of writing to give you a sensation of reading several works at once.  Many readers, including myself, often stack  a handful of books on their night tables to savor as the mood unfolds.

The memoir, LEAVING LITTLE HAVANA,  has been my major creative undertaking.  For ten years, I have imagined and reimagined the narratives of my life and finally glued together all the flying — and  jagged — pieces of a particular time and place.

While the book tells my story, it brings to light the plight of thousands of people like me: the children of the first Cuban exiles who abandoned their homes almost immediately after La Revolucion in 1959.

Here’s a brief synopsis:

It is the story of a girl uprooted from her comfortable middle-class home in La Habana by parents desperately fleeing for their lives in Fidel’s communist Cuba. Haunted by memories of loss of home and family and fighting to overcome cultural and language barriers, she rebels against her immigrant parents and descends into drugs and sexual profligacy while she searches for love and attention. She deals with the pain of a philandering father, who eventually abandons the family, and a mentally ill  mother, who weeps for a lost life back in Cuba and hears voices outside her window.

The teenaged girl must fend for herself and struggles to survive in a low-income Little Havana neighborhood. She talks her way out of a
shop-lifting charge, plans her own quince mini-extravaganza, and sidesteps a high school ruling that bars her from graduation.

Only when her fellow students from Miami High School go on to prestigious universities like Radcliff and Harvard does she pull herself back together. She begins taking journalism classes and lands a spot on the community college newspaper as a reporter. She applies to half a dozen universities and gets accepted to all. She chooses the one farthest from home, marries her boyfriend and sets out — husband in tow — on a quest to construct a future as a writer.

In the same way that DON’T LET’S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT by Alexandra Fuller and ‘TIS by Frank McCourt examine life in a foreign country, my memoir takes a look at how immigrant children either survive or self-destruct in a new land they must eventually make theirs. While many memoirs by Cuban-Americans, such as SPARED ANGOLA by Virgil Suarez and WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA by Carlos Eire, revolve around childhood scenes in Cuba and explore the experiences of a boy, my book is the first to focus on the journey of a Cuban girl struggling to learn the value of her own inner strength as she clears a path to her dream.

The immigrant experience leaves a permanent imprint on all children who start life anew in the United States.

I look forward to reading your aesthetic and intellectual responses to my work.

Leaving Little Havana by Cecilia M. Fernandez is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.