Three powerful forces, the Vatican, Pan American Airlines, and the U.S. State Department joined together in 1961 to save 14,000 children from being kidnapped by a Caribbean dictator. One of these children was MAYDA CRUZ, now a Spanish instructor at DLIFLC.
Soon after Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba, rumors spread that the new government was aligned with the communist government in Moscow, and children, ages five to 16, would be taken from their homes and indoctrinated in Moscow. Operation Pedro Pan was a Catholic Charities program that was established to save these children from Marxist-indoctrination. Parents in Cuba requested help from the Diocese of Miami, Fla, to provide a way for their children to escape.
After diplomatic relations with Cuba broke in 1961, the U.S. State Department waived visa requirements for children coming from Cuba. This enabled the children to travel by commercial flights to Miami.
On the Cuban side of the water,Mr. James Baker, the headmaster of an American school in Havana, organized a Harriet Tubman-like underground railroad made up of Cubans and expatriates who helped the children escape from Cuba. Cruz, then eleven years old,was one of the 14,000 children who had to leave her home country. “I got on the flight and kids of every age were all crying. I was crying and everyone was nervous. This was a traumatic experience,” Cruz said.
Many families in Cuba believed that this would be a temporary solution and that they would also gain visas to join their children. But at this young age, Mayda only understood that her parents were sending her away. “Once you enter into customs, it is all glass. I could see my parents on the other side, and I was hysterical. I remember that I was crying so hard,” Cruz recounted.
“I always had the mind-frame, ‘I am going home, I am not worried about my parents coming here because I am going home.’ But as the years went by I started to embrace the new country and my thoughts began to adapt and change,” said Cruz.
On the other side of the 90-mile gap between Havana and Miami was the Catholic Charities representative which organized the children’s evacuation, provided a large school/foster care infrastructure, and offered the opportunity for the children to live free lives.
“There was an older lady at the airport in her 50s or 60s,” Cruz recalled. “She had a sign that said ‘Catholic Charities’ and she took us to our new home - little houses designed for 24 girls and a foster couple who took care of us,” Cruz said.
With only one phone call allowed to parents per week, not only was physical communication limited, but so was emotional communication. “Your parents were not telling you that they are not coming. Every conversation was like a little code, telling us about the situation in Cuba,” she said.
Cruz, did not see her parents again until she was a university graduate and a married woman. “Seeing my mom was moving, but at the same time I had grown independent and was not used to the Cuban way of life,” said Cruz.
Eventually Cruz found her way to DLIFLC. “I met a Soldier and married him,” she said. When her husband was stationed at Fort Ord, Cruz was able to find work at DLIFLC. “In 1991, I started working at DLI,” Cruz said.