Unaccompanied minors from Cuba, all grown up

Decades before today's child migrant crisis, there was a wave of Cuban migrant kids -“ sponsored by the U.S. government

Updated Aug. 14, 2015: As the American flag flew above the US Embassy in Cuba Friday for the first time in more than 50 years, two people who fled the country as part of Operation Pedro Pan told America Tonight they have mixed feelings about the countries celebrating renewed ties.          

“I can’t watch it,” said Carlos Eire, a Yale professor who left Cuba when he was 11. “It would be like watching members of my family being beheaded,” he told America Tonight.

Eire said the steps the United States is taking to rebuild relations with Cuba, is one of the “stupidest things an American president had done.” Until Cubans enjoy free speech, freedom of the press and free elections, Eire won’t return to his home country.

Lissette Alvarez, the daughter of Cuban performers Olga Chorens and Tony Alvarez, described Friday’s ceremony as bittersweet.

“It’s so emotional to see the American flag in Havana,” she said. “It looks so beautiful, but what is happening is a different story. There is nothing the government has done to change the conditions on the island.”

The actions of the United States, she said, is “just helping these people have more repression.”

“I love my country,” she said.  “I will go back to rebuild, but [only] when there is freedom of speech and no people in jails for what they think.”

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Original article: Carlos Eire was 11 when he left Cuba. He packed a tiny duffle bag filled with three changes of clothes, a hat and a book, and boarded a flight to Miami alone, never realizing it would be the last time he would see his father alive.

It was 1962 and the height of the Cuban revolution. Food was rationed and scarce. And with rumors of indoctrination camps, many parents decided it was better to send away their children, like Eire, to America.

Over two years, more than 14,000 Cuban children were quietly smuggled out of their country by Catholic Charities and with the support of the U.S. government. Before the current child migrant crisis, Operation Pedro Pan was the largest recorded emigration of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.

“I was scared about leaving my parents. But, I felt life was so horrible that seemed better to me,” Eire, now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University, told America Tonight.

Between 1960 and 1962, two flights a day packed with Cuban children landed around Miami. There, the children were housed in shelters, before project leaders placed them in longer-term care with relatives or in orphanages, foster homes and boarding schools across the country. Many thought their stay in the U.S. would be brief.

“The plan was to reunite as quickly as possible, either in the United States….Or most people believed the Castro regime would collapse, and we’d return to Cuba,” Eire said. “But my parents told me frequently, ‘You know, there’s a chance this is permanent.’”

For nearly all the Pedro Pans, it was a permanent move, with parents following within a few years. And while their experiences vary, their mark is permanent too.

Not an orphan

Reverend Luis Leon, the rector at St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., remembers a sinking realization around him that Castro was there to stay.

"The rumors were that the children were going to be sent to Russia, to be educated in Russia, so there was a lot of nervousness about that happening to your children,” Leon said.

The summer before he fled alone to America, he remembers going on a lot of fishing trips with his dad. At age 11, Leon knew that his father, who was sick, would never be able to follow him to the U.S.

He also remembers clearly the hectic moments of boarding the plane. "When they finally gave us the final go-ahead to get on the plane, it was pretty rushed,” he said. “I just had a glance back towards my mother and she was waving good bye.”

When he arrived in Florida, Leon was placed in an orphanage, where he was so insistent to the orphans around him that he was not in fact an orphan -- that his parents were alive -- that it was hard for him to make friends, he said.
America Tonight

When he arrived in Florida, Leon was placed in an orphanage, where he was so insistent to the orphans around him that he was not in fact an orphan -- that his parents were alive -- that it was hard for him to make friends, he said.

“Your only way of identifying yourself is threatened by the fact that you’re in an orphanage,” he said. “…It’s a survival mode, that’s what it felt like.”

And when his father did die, news delivered by telegram, it triggered something deep inside, he said, calling it, “probably a release of a lot of pent-up stuff.”

Unlike many of the accounts of Pedro Pan alumni, Leon said his family reunion, after a four-year separation, was no simple, joyful thing.

“The hardest part of it all was, I think, for my mother. She goes through this huge, Herculean effort to get to the United States,” he said. “And when she gets here, she finds two children that are very different from the two that she had sent.”

“She was trying to reclaim a family unit that didn't exist anymore.”

An anti-Castro rebel

Today, Lissette Alvarez is a Latin music star
America Tonight

During the revolution, Lissette Alvarez posted fliers on the street with political slogans, like “Down with Fidel!” It was an act of teenage rebellion more dangerous than she knew, and her terrified parents, the very famous Cuban performers Olga Chorens and Tony Alvarez, decided it was too risky for their daughters to stay.

“My parents got very desperate because they started indoctrination in [Cuban] schools and a lot of children or older children turned against their parents,” said Alvarez, who’s now a well-known performer herself, living in Miami. “It was becoming a real tragedy.”

Alvarez thought her trip out of the country would be brief, like the summer camp she attended in Virginia four years earlier. Her younger sister, however, just 5 years old, didn't understand why they had to leave.

“How could you explain to a 5-year-old child that she had to leave her mother and father?" she asked. "Very painful."

Alvarez said she and her sister did stay at a sort of camp with other Cuban children when they first arrived in America. Then they boarded a plane for an orphanage in Iowa, where they were separated at first.

When Willy Chirino and Lissette Alvarez met as adults, they discovered they were both Pedro Pan children.
Lissette Alvarez and Willy Chirino

"I don't know why they separated my sister and I,” explained Alvarez. "She was the only thing that I had. And I was her only family, her only person that she knew. She didn't speak English, and the nun didn't let her speak Spanish, so it was very traumatic."

The Midwest was a shock in many ways to two daughters of the Carribbean. “It was just getting cold and we were Cuban girls, tropical girls,” she laughed. “I’m so cold.”

Eventually, a foster family agreed to take care of them, while they waited the three years for their mother to escape Cuba. In that time, music was Alvarez’s outlet.

“I remember the first song that I ever wrote, it was a song for Cuba,” she said, remembering the tune, and translating it in English:

Oh my – oh my hometown, nobody’s doing anything for you?

“It’s like a question,” Alvarez said. "Like a cry.”

Though she didn’t know him then, Alvarez’s future husband, Willy Chirino, also came to the U.S. by way of Operation Pedro Pan as a teenager.

“None of us had the idea of leaving Cuba forever,” he said. “That was not in our wildest imagination.”

Unlike his wife, Chirino doesn’t remember his experience as a lonely one. “I was surrounded by 86 kids just like me,” he said.

But together as adults, Chirino and Alvarez believe their Pedro Pan childhoods somehow set into their bones. They take in lots of foster kids and Alvarez has a passion for rescue animals.

And Chirino, now a Grammy-winning Latin music star, penned the song “Our Day is Coming,” which just happened to become an anthem for Cuban exiles around the world. 

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