Translated from Spanish by

Deborah A. Dougherty

(Alma College, USA)


ISBN: 978-1-952799-48-8

268 Pages


On January 3, 1961, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, making it impossible for Cubans to obtain a visa to enter U.S. territory. A few days later, Frank Auerback called me from Washington to tell me that the Department of State would accept a letter signed by me in lieu of a visa. Such was the beginning of the famous Visa Waiver that allowed the Catholic Welfare Bureau to sponsor the passage of Cuban minors to the United States. The first Cuban children arrived the twenty-sixth of December 1960. The last, the twenty-second of October 1962, the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis or the “October Crisis.” Those children, their children, and even their grandchildren remain a part of my life even today. In truth, there are fourteen thousand stories to tell. Relying on the testimonies of just some of those fourteen thousand refugee children, and of some of the adults who helped them, Josefina Leyva tells their stories. They are filled with nostalgia for their homes, the difficulties they faced, the kindness they received from strangers, the misunderstandings caused by linguistic and cultural differences, their adaptation to a new way of life and how they adapted once again when they returned to the bosom of their families when at last their parents arrived.

The “Pedro Pan” children forged their lives in this remarkable land we call the United States. They are Cuban Americans, but they have never lost their love of their homeland, the “Pearl of the Caribbean.” Some have made the pilgrimage back, searching for the street where they lived and the home they vaguely remember. They were shocked by encounters with the places of their childhood, noting how much smaller everything seemed than how they remembered it. In exile, they have seen their children grow and become adults. Some of the “Pedro Pan” children are now grandparents. Others have passed away here in the United States. Many have buried their parents in this foreign country that now feels like home, although they will always be strangers within its borders. Many have achieved great things in this adopted land. The majority has settled in and become a part of the great American experience as members of the middle class. They see their own children and ask themselves if they would be able to send them into exile if circumstances repeated themselves. Now middleaged, they ask themselves how their parents could have made such a torturous decision. Since they always felt protected as children, many have never fully understood the choices their parents were forced to make, or the risk and sacrifice it all represents. Josefina Leyva’s stories recreate life in Cuba as it was during the early 1970s, and offer some answers.

How did this come to be called Operation Pedro Pan? It was important from the very beginning that we in Miami avoided anything that could jeopardize the exodus, or the people in Cuba who worked to make it possible. We were never under the illusion that the Cuban government was unaware of what we were doing, nor that any publicity could easily have been used as propaganda to provoke some reaction. Therefore, we remained silent. Inevitably the Miami press discovered what was going on. When they came to me looking for a story, I told them the truth; but I asked them not to report it. The press cooperated and gave our work the code name Operation Pedro Pan, perhaps because the first unaccompanied Cuban child who arrived in Miami under our protection was named Pedro Menéndez. Family or friends took in approximately half of the children who arrived. We placed the rest in foster homes or in orphanages spread across thirty-five different states. The majority of the children stayed for four years. When the “Freedom Flights” began in December 1965, their parents were given first priority by both governments to come to the United States. Some children remained in our care until adulthood; there were some whose parents never came. Others felt the separation was too much and they returned to the Island of their own accord. Operation Pedro Pan opened the door to the United States for more than fourteen thousand unaccompanied children. Under the 1965 accord, only those Cubans who had close family members in the United States could come to this country. Perhaps this accounts for the one hundred thousand Cubans who clung to this hope and embarked on the “Freedom Flights” that departed Cuba for Varadero. Still now, in 1993, middle-aged Cubans in possession of a Visa Waiver ask me if it will still allow them to enter the United States. For them, it is too late; the Visa Waivers ended with the Missile Crisis in October 1962.

Monsignor Bryan Walsh C




Josefina Leyva is a Cuban novelist, journalist, and poet. She published eight novels and one book of poetry. She participated in many book exhibitions in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, since she left Cuba in 1983.       

Alma College: Faculty Appointed to Endowed Professorships

Deborah A. Dougherty is Charles A. Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Alma College (USA). She translated several novels written by Josefina Leyva, all published by The University Press of the South.


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