The Miami Herald
Fri, Nov. 12, 2010

Emotional Pedro Pans take tour of Miami-Dade camps that served as their first home in the U.S.


Nearly 200 Cuban exiles who arrived alone in the United States 50 years ago as part of the famed Operation Pedro Pan, took an emotional tour on Friday of the Miami-Dade camps where they were first housed as foreign children in a new country.

The camps -- Kendall, Florida City and Matecumbe in South Dade -- were the first stop for the 14,048 unaccompanied minors who took part in the clandestine program engineered by the U.S. government, the Miami Catholic church and Cuban parents on the island desperate to get their kids out after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

On Friday, some of those kids, who are now mostly in their 50s and 60s and visiting Miami for a weekend reunion, climbed aboard buses and headed for the camps -- some returning for the first time to the place were many spent their first night ever away from their parents.

"There is a lot of crying and reminiscing,'' said Carmen Valdivia, a Pedro Pan kid who lived at the Florida City camp for three years with her sister and is one of the organizers of the special activity during a weekend reunion for the Pedro Pan that culminates with a gala Saturday night sponsored by the Operation Pedro Pan Group.

At the Florida City camp stop, now public housing, current residents wondered what all the commotion was about, as the Pedro Pans fanned out of two buses and a van in search of the buildings that served as dormitories when they were children.

"We're explaining to people who live here now why we're here today,'' said Valdivia, who on Friday reunited with girls who had shared housing with her when they were teenagers. "I knocked on my house then and told them we lived here without our parents years ago and what this place means to us.''

In Operation Pedro lore, the camps are a crucial locale. The Pedro Pans, whose ages ranged from infants to teenagers, slipped out of Cuba with visa waivers and arrived at Miami International Airport. If they were not greeted by relatives, they went into the care of the church. A Catholic Charities employee named Jorge "George'' Guarch drove them to the camps run by nuns and priests and foster parents assigned to each house.

Most young girls and boys were taken to Florida City or the Kendall camp, which has since been knocked down except for a main building. Teenage boys were taken to Camp Matecumbe, later a Boys Town camp that is now unusued.

Universally, Pedro Pans tell of how their first nights at the camp were filled with the sounds of the newly arrived homesick children crying out in the night for their parents.

"As you can imagine, this tour takes us back to a very painful time in our lives,'' Valdivia said at the Florida City stop.

The group will end the tour on the outskirts of Little Havana at the Operation Pedro Pan Memorial dedicated last year by Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, himself a Pedro Pan.