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.
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.”