HistoryMiami's "Operation Pedro Pan" Tells the Story of Cuban Children Sent to America

The only luggage Pedro Pan children were permitted to bring along.EXPAND
The only luggage Pedro Pan children were permitted to bring along.
Courtesy of HistoryMiami

Like most museum exhibitions, HistoryMiami's "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" has been planned for years. Museum President Stuart A. Chase has been gathering financial resources and artifacts in anticipation of the exhibition since 2012.

It's pure coincidence that the exhibition debuted only months after President Obama announced he would begin the process of normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba, in the midst of a series of regulations easing restrictions in place for over 50 years. News out of and about Cuba is dominating national headlines, with Americans eager to learn more about the thousands of stories that make up the fiber of a tiny island lost in a bygone era.

HistoryMiami's exhibition unravels only one thread within the Cuban diaspora, but one that powerfully illustrates the loss suffered by the millions of Cubans that have fled their country in search of freedom. Operation Pedro Pan recounts the experiences of thousands of unaccompanied children exiled to the United States at the height of the Cold War missile crisis, using powerful imagery, stolen mementos, and video testimonials by surviving Pedro Pan exiles.

From 1960-1962, over 14,000 children were secretly migrated with the aid of the Catholic Church, placed children in foster care, reform camps, and orphanages. It would take years for many to be reunited with their families, if at all. One survivor recounts that her father died in a Cuban prison; it had been ten years since she had last seen him.

Organized in a chronological fashion, the exhibition walks patrons through scenes like a gripping documentary film narrating a mass exodus. Enter the museum's second floor exhibition space and in the corner sits a plastic table and chairs, dishes haphazardly strewn after dinner, with a vintage television displaying footage from 1960s Cuba: scenes of Fidel Castro rallying the masses with unorthodox laws, of soldiers shooting dissidents by firing squad, of supporters looting and taking what now presumably belongs to everyone.

Some of the artifacts recovered from 1960s Cuba.EXPAND
Some of the artifacts recovered from 1960s Cuba.
Courtesy of HistoryMiami

"We want to make sure people understand how everything interacted to cause these problems, communism and Castro caused this thing to happen, and the chain effect is really multiplied. It was kept quiet for so long and no one really spoke much about this, and I think people have come of age and they're ready to tell their story," said Chase.

Turn another corner and cut to the next scene, a simulation of the "fish bowl," the glass-walled holding cell that Pedro Pan children were interrogated in as their parents sat and watched a few yards away. The personal items they were forced to give up, the teddy bears and mementos from their childhood ripped from their hands by gruff officials, now encased in curios as proof of their struggle.

In another room, see the letters sent back home, begging their parents to come get them from the camps, totally disconnected from the life they once knew. The exhibition does not delve into the reported physical and sexual abuse many of these children suffered in reform camps and orphanages, today a truism of the Catholic Church, likely out of respect for those involved.

Whether intentionally or not, HistoryMiami's "Operation Pedro Pan" serves as a poignant reminder of why the U.S. declared a trade embargo against Cuba. For many Cuban exiles, the suffering endured over the last 50 years cannot be erased with a simple declaration that it's over. To them, ignoring the millions of lives affected by Cuba's oppressive political system is a blatant example that the recent easing of relations has more to do with money than with basic human rights.

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In another way, HistoryMiami's exhibition seeks to bridge the gap between the various cultures across the globe that have been forced to seek refuge from tyrannical regimes in a country that would wind up becoming an unexpectedly permanent home. "There's no reason to limit this to one particular group," Chase said. "You don't have to be Cuban to view this exhibition and understand its importance in the fabric of Miami and the rest of the nation."

"Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" is on view at HistoryMiami through January 2016. Fore more information, visit historymiami.org.

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