By Julio C. Zangroniz
Members of the Operation Pedro Pan Group are busily putting the final touches to their very first exhibit at CubaNostalgia, in Miami, from May 19-21.
Elly Chovel, chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the group, confirmed this week in a telephone interview that the Pedro Pan Group “decided to join Barry University at CubaNostalgia in 2006 “because we have a very strong connection with that institution… the Pedro Pan Archives were deposited there by Monsignor Bryan Walsh before his death.”
For those who don’t know the full history of the Cuban Exodus, Operation Pedro Pan was a highly-organized, somewhat below-the-radar effort that facilitated the escape of 14,048 unaccompanied children from Cuba’s Communist regime during 1960-1962, coordinated by Walsh, then a Miami parish priest, and a number of other organizations, including some U.S. government agencies. In the interest of total disclosure, it must be stipulated that this reporter, at 15 years of age, was one of those 14,000+ children (thanks, mom and dad!).
According to Chovel, the Pedro Pan exhibit at CubaNostalgia will include a display of old photographs taken during the years of Operation Pedro Pan, as well as some decorative eye-catching balloons with the logo of the organization stamped on them.
Volunteers will hand out special cards to CubaNostalgia visitors. “We are making an all-out effort to find ALL of the Cuban children who came through the Unaccompanied Cuban Children’s Program (which was the official name of the operation in the 1960s)… many of whom don’t realize that the name ‘Pedro Pan’ applies to them,” explained Chovel.
The Miami realtor recalled that the name “Pedro Pan” first appeared in writing in an article in The Miami Herald, written by reporter Gene Miller in 1962. Other than a couple of passing mentions after that, the name didn’t reappear in print again until 1988, in an article published by the Reader’s Digest, noted Chovel.
Since 1991, Chovel’s organization has been carrying out efforts to make the story known and to find all the surviving Pedro Pan children. “This is particularly important because the 50th anniversary of Operation Pedro Pan is in just four more years,” added Chovel, who emphasized: “We are assembling a historical collection of artifacts, with help from Miguel Bretos of the Smithsonian Institution,” to celebrate the anniversary milestone. This collection is expected to become part of a permanent exhibit on immigration in the United States to be displayed at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
As part of the effort to prepare the exhibit, the Pedro Pan Group is scheduled to meet with representatives of the Historical Museum of South Florida in Miami next week, declared Chovel.
The Pedro Pan Group has grown from 200 members “to over 2,000 in 16 years,” said Chovel, who continued: “About half of the Unaccompanied Cuban Children were reunited with family or friends at the airport [in Miami, after they left Cuba], while the others went to various refugee camps, from where they would be sent to foster homes, orphanages, etc. in many different states.”
For many of those children, it would be many, many years before they saw any of their relatives again.
Among the best-nown names who are members of the Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc. are author Carlos Eire, Armando Codina, Carlos de Cespedes, singers Marisela Verena and Willy Chirino, U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, Eduardo Aguirre and the Rev. Luis Leon, who was been called by the Washington Times “President Bush’s pastor.” Other luminaries such as the Bishop of Miami, Felipe Estevez and Monsignor Octavio Cisneros of the Archdiocesis of Brooklyn, one of the largest concentrations of Hispanics in the entire United States, also belong to the group.
On Wednesday, May 17, the Operation Pedro Pan Group will hold an installation ceremony for its new Board of Directors and Trustees. The event is scheduled at Casa Bacardi, at the University of Miami in Miami.
The just-elected Board of Directors and Officers are: Juan Pujol, president; Hector O. Fernandez, first vicepresident; Ivan Ceballos, second vicepresident; Frank Echeverria, secretary; Angel D. Cordova, treasurer, while the new directors are: Tina Gallinar, Alberto Hernandez, Leonor Rivacoba and Fernando Suarez.
The oath of office will be given by the Honorable Julio Jimenez, Judge of the Circuit Court, Florida.
The members of the Board of Trustees are: Maximo Alvarez, actress Lucie Arnaz, Miguel Bretos of the Smithsonian Institution, Carlos M. de Cespedes, Armando Codina, author Carlos Eire, Bishop Felipe Estevez, Eduardo J. Neyra and Father Fernando Rubio Boitel.
To contact Operation Pedro Pan Group, Inc., a national charitable organization of the former children of Pedro Pan, simply log onto http://www.pedropan.org or via their offices at 161 Madeira Avenue, Suite 61, Coral Gables, FL 33134. Telephone 305-554-7196. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the May 17 ceremonies, the Pedro Pan Group plans to unveil details of the Brickpaver Memorial Square in the Children’s Village, in Perrine, Florida. This project, according to Chovel, will consist of an area paved with bricks that will honor the names of parents, friends, relatives or even the Pedro Panes themselves. Each brick will cost $125.
The group will also announce its plans for the CubaNostalgia weekend, with the hope of attracting volunteers who will help staff its exhibit and distribute cards to visitors in an attempt to locate as many Pedro Panes as possible and add them to the group’s data base.
Chovel was quick to point out that “you don’t need to be a member to participate in any activity of the Pedro Pan Group… we want to include everyone, whether they are members of the organization or not.”
Chovel stressed the fact that the group is looking for “items of historical importance, such as photographs, letters, books, bags, even the clothes they came with…” all of which will be eligible for inclusion in the exhibits that the organization will help assemble.
The Operation Pedro Pan Group Inc. plans offers many individuals a chance to be part of the “official history” to be depicted at the National Archives and other institutions.