OperationPedro Pan

The Cuban Children’s Exodus @ HistoryMiami

Previously Published By Knight Arts – Anne Tschida


Of the many traumatic stories that have surrounded the history of Cuban exile since 1959, none resonates as much as Operation Pedro Pan. That’s because it involved thousands of children sent from Cuba, unaccompanied, to the United States–many of them understanding they might never see their parents again. The more than 14,000 children put on planes by their families from 1960-1962 represents the biggest documented child refugee migration in the Western Hemisphere.

At HistoryMiami, a 2014 South Florida Knight Arts Challenge winner, an incredibly moving and intimate exhibit about this exodus takes over the second floor of the museum’s new space (HistoryMiami recently expanded into the building vacated by the former Miami Art Museum).

The introduction to the exhibit is a subdued room with two dueling school classroom settings. Education is crucial to understanding why parents would send their children to a foreign country, with some knowledge that it could be a life-long separation. As the Cuban revolutionary regime took a hard turn to the left, the schools became the battleground over ideology, and the curriculums increasingly resembled Soviet-style indoctrination centers. Some parents decided that the radical new education systems reflected a broader shift towards totalitarianism, and they chose to get their young ones out.

To illustrate this, one little desk has items that would be familiar to a classroom in the pre-revolutionary world of the 1950s; the other has Socialist-themed paraphernalia. The desks and chairs are so small–the installation does a good job of drawing us in, and making the visitor aware that the children were innocent victims of bigger geopolitical struggles. Most of them were between the ages of 8 and 12, although some were younger.

But the most heart-wrenching installation comes later on, which involves video projection and a glassed off sector. Eerie, white silhouettes of kids walk along a black wall toward the glass room and “enter” this glass cage, turning and waving goodbye. While the new Cuban government was letting these children leave officially through the Havana airport, it was made an intentionally cruel departure. The glass room represents what was called the “fish tank,” where the minors were cordoned off for hours, able to see but not hear or touch their relatives.

The children were also only allowed one small, uniform-size suitcase to bring all their belongings for a new life. The cases and the contents make up another installation, which also includes tiny bunk beds. This is the world in which they landed.

While many were placed with family when they arrived, others went to camps run by the Catholic Church and other civic institutions. By most accounts–and you will read and hear about them while walking the exhibit–camp life was not bad. Nonetheless, these were camps (both here in Miami and across the U.S.; exile children were sent to 30 states). Again, when looking at the little suitcases and seeing the dolls and other bits and pieces from previous lives, it’s hard not to be deeply touched.

“Each suitcase has a story,” said Michael Knoll, the museum curator. “This is a view of their first experiences in America.”

We hear about one of these experiences in a wall video testimonial, a recounting by former Florida Senator and Pedro Pan child Mel Martinez. He becomes choked up as he recalls the realization after coming to the United States that separation from his parents might be permanent. Others tell their own video stories as well. There are photographs, passports, visas and various memorabilia hanging on walls and in one case set on a dining room table–a family setting where the first discussions of the children’s exile took place?

Table with encased Cuban memorabilia.
Table with encased Cuban memorabilia.

While these were drastic decisions for parents, many of them truly thought the exile would be temporary, that Castro would shortly be overthrown and the minors would return. As well all know, that did not happen. However, according to the exhibit, about 90 percent of those remaining in the children’s camps in the U.S. in 1965 were reunited with their parents after what would be called the Freedom Flights of that year, when Cuba let the parents leave the island as well.

While that is one good ending, the exhibit, through testimonials like the one from Martinez, highlights how the Pedro Pan experience changed these children’s lives, having lived through trauma of exile, alone, at such an early age. But some say that the hardship made them develop a fortitude that would help them later in life.

The exhibit is presented in conjunction with Operation Pedro Pan Group, which has preserved many of the artifacts shown here.

In its new space downtown, HistoryMiami is also expanding its dedication to documenting experiences such as Pedro Pan with a new project called the Center for Photography–the focus of its $150,000 grant from Knight Foundation. This will be an ongoing program, involving collecting archival photographic Miami material from private and public sources, and also creating its own through contemporary documentation.

For instance, said Knoll, when President Obama first announced the opening to Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014, HistoryMiami went over to Little Havana to photograph the reactions. “We want to collect the histories here, but also make sure to be current as well,” he said.

Knoll pointed out that the project won’t just be a series of exhibits, although that will be part of its work. The broader goal is to make the center the main South Florida repository, bringing in and working with other groups that are also collecting.

That said, a big photography fest will be one of the Center for Photography’s inaugural events. During Art Basel Miami Beach in December, HistoryMiami will host the Miami Street Photography Festival, featuring photography from established and emerging artists, with workshops and lectures during Basel art week. For several months, it will also highlight 100 finalists from the fest’s international competition, from November through mid-January.

HistoryMiami is expanding and fitting into its new digs, and new goals, nicely.

“Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” runs through Jan. 17, 2016 at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-1492.