By Julio C. Zangroniz
A Monday column in The Washington Times, penned by John McCauslin and called “Inside the Beltway,” contained the following item:
Church and state
It’s not easy being the president’s preacher.
Inside the Beltway has written numerous times about the Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, a Lafayette Square landmark overlooking the White House and where, on most Sunday mornings, you will find President Bush seated quietly, hands clasped in front of him, in pew 54.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Leon, a Cuban immigrant, have become close friends in recent years. Not only has the rector been Mr. Bush’s White House dinner guest, the president honored him earlier this year by having him deliver the inaugural prayer.
In a sermon earlier this month, Mr. Leon was discussing the importance of experiencing God beyond simply attending church and following ritual. Certain churchgoers, he noted, apply political “checklists” to their faith, with questions such as “Are you for same-sex marriage or not?” (Word is Mr. Bush chuckled along with the rest of the congregation.)
Reading that column took me back to the evening of October 27, when I attended a special presentation of Operation Pedro Pan Inc. at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The Rev. Leon was one of three panelists, led by moderator Elly V. Chovel, who brought into sharp focus for an American audience the experience of over 14,000 Cuban children who had left their island home in the early 1960s, alone, as their families, which had to remain behind, desperately tried to keep them out of the clutches of the impending Caribbean Communist tide then taking over the island.
Operation Pedro Pan was a multi-layered, well-organized and highly efficient effort to get as many children, particularly males, out of Cuba under dire circumstances. Many of those young refugees, now responsible and productive adult men and women, have reunited under the banner of Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., a charitable organization whose goals are to help needy children, as well as to preserve and make known the history of the Pedro Pan Exodus.
The October presentation in the William G. McGowan Theater was part of the Hispanic Culture Month festivities. Chovel, a South Florida real estate entrepreneur who is also the founder and chairperson of Operation Pedro Pan Group, and three distinguished Pedro Pan alumni gathered in the nation’s capital to share their experiences with an eager –and for the most part, fairly young– audience, which of course was peppered with many a salt-and-pepper-tinged “Pedropanes.”
The panel included:
–the Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House.
—Maria de los Angeles Torres, a professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago, and author of “The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the US” and “The Promise of a Beter Future,” as well as “In the Land of Mirrors: The Politics of Cuban Exiles in the United States.”
—Eduardo Aguirre, Jr., who currently serves as Ambassador to the Kindgom of Spain and the Principality of Andorra after he was named by President George W. Bush to the post.
The panel’s presentation was preceeded by a screening of a 28-minute black and white film called, fittingly enough, “The Lost Apple,” which featured instantaneous English translation as it presented an overview of the experiences lived by slightly over 14,000 (the “official” figure is 14,048) Pedropanes who escaped from Cuba unaccompanied in their search for freedom.
The 1963 release, written by Allan Sloane and directed by David Suskind for the United States Information Agency, illustrates the experience of children such as 8-year old Roberto, 5-year-old Serafina and a teenager named Barbara, who breaks into tears as she speaks with relatives in Cuba by telephone. “I’m crying for happiness, honestly!” she declares, in a feeble attempt to keep her real emotions from her family.
The name of the film is allegorical of a Cuban nursery rhyme that talks about a child who is crying, ostensibly because he has lost an apple (“Se~nora Santana, por qu’e llora el ni~no? Por una manzana, que se le ha perdido…). And even though the child is offered another apple as a replacement, he insists that he doesn’t want another one, or even two… he only wants the one that he lost.
Other scenes in the film include some children at play, wrestling on a “ring” improvised with mattresses on the floor, and participating in a talent contest, where a young girl recites a poem about her lost country. One girl, Dulce Mar’ia Sosa, sings a patriotic song.
Chovel, who admits that she has seen the film dozens of times, concedes that it always tugs at her heartstrings. And many in the audience were visibly affected and tears flowed freely.
For the Reverend Leon, originally from Guantanamo, it was the first time he had seen “The Lost Apple,” which he called “a hard movie to watch,” because his family sent a total of seven “Pedro Panes” to the U.S., he said. He himself arrived on August 13, 1961. “I remember that day as if it was yesterday,” he stated.
Maria de los Angeles Torres, the university professor, recalled that “less than 700 youths had come (unaccompanied) to the U.S. before the Bay of Pigs invasion” (which took place on April 17, 1961).
The political climate on the island continued to worsen, she explained, through many factors, including mass arrests, firing squads, the closings of private schools. Most parents would have travelled to the U.S. with their children, if given the opportunity, she noted, but the totalitarian regime already entrenched in power would not allow them to exercise that right.
The final speaker, Ambassador Aguirre, emphasized that each Pedro Pan had been “unceremoniously uprooted from their environment in Cuba,” so each one had to learn how to cope, and many did thanks to the values instilled in them by their families in Cuba: respect for others, a love of God, honesty, hard work.
Aguirre remembered that he was all of 15 when he had to leave Cuba and became a resident of Camp Matecumbe, then little more than a clearing with a few wooden cabins and Army tents on the outskirts of the Everglades in South Florida. “The pain of withdrawal from family and friends was very intense,” he said.
After he became reunited with a younger brother, Aguirre added: “I gave up my childhood… in Cuba (he and I) fought like cats and dogs… but in Matecumbe, he became my best friend.” When he reunited with his family, “I was almost 17 and I had discovered freedom, women and beer.” In his own words, paraphrasing popular American comedian Steve Martin, he ventured: “I was some kind of wild and crazy guy!”
Though there were many conflicts with his family after they reunited, Aguirre said he persevered to graduate from Louisiana State University and become a successful banker. Eventually, he ran the Export-Import Bank for the United States, before he was elevated to diplomatic status.
“In America, we have no second-class citizens. That’s one of the lessons that we as Pedro Panes have learned,” he continued. And the Ambassador closed with a very simple assessment: “I’m still in awe of it all.”
A short question an answer session covered such topics as how long it had taken for the unaccompanied children to reunite with their families; where the Pedro Panes had gone after they left the refugee camps in Florida; what their favorite food was (usually, ice cream) as well as their least favorite (the universal winner in this category seems to have been peanut butter).
Moderator Chovel termed the program “a major breakthrough” for the Cuban exile experience, which will now occupy a place of honor in American history. A formal, permanent exhibit on immigration is currently in preparation by the U.S. government facility. “It’s always Divine Providence that is opening the doors for what we do,” declared Chovel during an exclusive interview after the presentation at the National Archives.
The Operation Pedro Pan Group Inc. is, therefore, raising funds for the permanent exhibit, as well as looking for donations of material artifacts that have survived the Unaccompanied Children’s Program, such as photos, suitcases, clothing, letters, films and videos.
For more details about the organization, simply log onto Operation Pedro Pan
Julio C. Zangroniz is one of those 14,048 unaccompanied children who left Cuba through Operation Peter Pan. At 15 years of age, he lived in Camp Matecumbe, in South Florida, from July 1 through Dec. 6, 1962, when he was sent to an orphanage in Staten Island, New York, where he would remain until his family was able to abandon the island nearly four years later, in June 1966.