History through art: Sarasota Contemporary Dance taps Cuban American history

Bringing the Pedro Pan exodus story to the dance floor in Sarasota.

Carrie Seidman writes in a Special to the Herald-Tribune:

Sarasota Contemporary Dance taps Cuban American history for world premiere

In the early ’60s, as Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban educational system, parents fearful of the indoctrination of their children and the loss of their authority asked the United States for help. They were willing to consider the unthinkable – sending their children away, alone, to another country, without knowing when, or if, they would be reunited, in order to save them from life under communism. 

Thus was born Operación Pedro Pan (Operation Peter Pan), a visa waiver program conducted by the Catholic Church and the U.S. State Department that, from December of 1960 to October of 1962, brought more than 14,000 Cuban children to this country. It was – and remains – the largest migration of unaccompanied minors in the Western hemisphere. 

 Among those children were the parents of Leymis Bolaños Wilmott, the director of Sarasota Contemporary Dance. Her father, José Miguel Bolaños, arrived in 1962 at 13 with his older sister, Marta, and was taken in by an aunt who lived in Florida. Her mother, Laida Ruiz, then 10, arrived in 1961 with two younger brothers, Justo and Leandro. With no relatives in America, they spent nine months in a Colorado orphanage until their parents could obtain visas to join them.  

Neither Bolaños, now 72, nor Ruiz Bolaños, now 70, has ever returned to Cuba. Their experiences have informed a new work by Sarasota Contemporary Dance entitled “Cuban Project: Historias – Mi Historia, Tu Historia y Nuestra Historia.”

The stories behind the history 

Though her parents had shared only fragments of this traumatic chapter of their childhood, Bolaños Wilmott, who grew up in Miami’s Hialeah neighborhood, had long considered tapping their story to create a dance tribute to the resiliency of the Cuban spirit and the strength of her family bonds. But years slipped by as she waited for the right moment to approach them about their painful past. 

Then, in 2018, her Uncle Justo, the family historian, passed away; six months later, so did her maternal grandfather. Bolaños Wilmott had not yet interviewed either one. She knew if she waited much longer, it might be too late. 

“That lent an urgency,” she says. “I was like … Ahhhgg … if I’m ever going to do this, I’d better do it now. And this was the right season for it.” 

The director had named SCD’s current season “GRIT,” to signify the organization’s determination and commitment to survival during the difficult pandemic period. What better time, she thought, to pay homage to her parents’ strength, faith and love and the indomitable courage of the Cuban people?  

Leymis Bolaños Wilmott, left with Michael Foley, Valda Wilmott, and Monessa Salley. Photo: Spencer Fordin-Sarasota Contemporary Dance

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