University Plans Open Data Base on Pedro Pan Airlift

MIAMI

Barry University and the Miami Herald, which has been credited with coining the phrase Operation Pedro Pan in a story in 1962, are creating a public, searchable Internet database of the names of all children airlifted from Cuba as part of the project that began the day after Christmas in 1960. 

“In terms of cultural wealth, we want to maximize the potential of the archives and make them available to the people that came with this program, their families and future generations,” said Thomas Paul Severino, associate vice president at Barry, a private Catholic university in suburban Miami.

The newspaper recently launched a similar database for Cuban exiles who arrived in the United States on the Freedom Flights from 1965 to 1973.

When Eloisa Echazabal looked through the Operation Pedro Pan archives housed at Barry University a few months ago, her eyes filled with tears.

 Echazabal had found a written record marking her arrival in Miami as part of a historic migration. Nearly a half-century had passed since Fidel Castro’s climb to power that prompted Roman Catholics to assist in the airlifts that brought her and 14,000 other unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States. Those arrival records, including a handwritten log, represent the most complete registry of the only political exodus of children in this hemisphere.

Cuban families sent their children to the United States alone for various reasons: the rumors in Cuba of legislation that declared all children the property of Castro’s Revolution, the fear of Communist indoctrination, the closing of Catholic schools and the deportation of clerics. The parents intended to reunite eventually with their children in the United States. In some cases, that took years.

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Among the best-known Pedro Pan exiles are  U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.; the singer Willy Chirino; President Eduardo Padron of Miami Dade College, and Armando Codina, a Miami developer.

The keepers of the archives, owned by the Archdiocese of Miami, are trying to raise $150,000 from the community and private sector to organize the 7,618 personal records of the minors, ages 6 to 18, who clandestinely boarded regular commercial flights out of Cuba to Miami between Dec. 26, 1960, and Oct. 21, 1962. That was when the Cuban Missile Crisis ended all commercial flights between Cuba and the United States.

The effort to catalog, scan and digitize the official record of each child who passed through the program began in the mid-1990s.

A highlight of the collection is the thousands of immigration cards that bear witness to the arrival of Echazabal and the other children. Those immigration cards were created by Jorge “George” Guarch, who was hired by the Catholic Church to welcome the children and deliver them to private homes and shelters.

The archives also contain notes and comments by Monsignor Bryan Walsh, the tireless protector of the young refugees and one of the founders of the program, who died at age 71 in 2001. The records also list children who went to shelters scattered throughout the country.

By October 1962, about 4,300 Cuban children remained in shelters or lived with guardians, while thousands more lived with friends and relatives while waiting for their parents to arrive. The archives also contain documents on  money paid by the federal government and charities to support the Cuban children  Unpublished photographs, newspaper clippings and a documentary about the operation entitled The Lost Apple by the producer David Susskind, done at the request of the U.S. Government, are also in the archives.

According to Yvonne M. Conde, the author of Operation Pedro Pan: The Untold Exodus of 14,048 Cuban Children, a Miami Herald reporter, Gene Miller,  first called the effort “Pedro Pan” in a 1962 article, borrowing from the well-known story of Peter Pan, who also flew unaccompanied by his parents.

Echazabal, who came to Miami when she was 13 years old with her sister and lived with a foster family in Buffalo, N.Y., for eight months, assists Barry University with preserving the archives.

She said the archives are an important part of  South Florida history.

“Many of us Pedro Pan kids are in our 60s now, so we need to get these records done and make them available to those who came here through the program and also to the public,” she said.

The Freedom Flight Memories database of the 1965-73 exiles can be found at MiamiHerald.com/flights.

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