Children’s Harrowing Journey Depicted in Operation Pedro Pan Exhibit

Children’s Harrowing Journey Depicted in Operation Pedro Pan Exhibit

From December 1960 to October 1962, more than fourteen thousand Cuban children arrived, unaccompanied, to the United States. Known as “Operation Pedro Pan,” it was the largest recorded child refugee exodus in the Western Hemisphere.

Since it opened in June 2015, more than 15,000 visitors, including the Cuba Journal, have journeyed alongside the Cuban children at the exhibit “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” at HistoryMiami Museum in Miami.

After six months, the exhibit closes today.

“Over the past 6 months, we’ve witnessed an incredible interest in an immigration story and in an American story,” Jorge Zamanillo, HistoryMiami museum director, said in an interview with the Cuba Journal.

“It touches on many levels and I think anyone that comes through the exhibition, whether they are Cuban or not, will connect with the storyline.”

Constructed in collaboration with Operation Pedro Pan, Inc., an organization that documents the stories of those children in the program, HistoryMiami Museum constructed a 5,000 square foot exhibit that includes video testimonials, photographs, journals and recreations of scenes so permanently imprinted in the minds of the children who left Cuba alone 55 years ago.

“Operation Pedro Pan” began in November 1960 after director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, Father Bryan O. Walsh, learned of Pedro Menendez, a 15 year-old Cuban boy who had immigrated to Miami to live with his relatives.

After Pedro arrived in Miami, his relatives went to the Catholic Welfare Bureau for help to care for the young boy.

After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, parents feared that the Castro government would make efforts to indoctrinate their children into communist dogma, so they made the difficult decision to send their children to the U.S.

A photograph of Cuban children who left Cuba alone from 1960 to 1962 as a part of Operation Pedro Pan. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A photograph of Cuban children who left Cuba alone from 1960 to 1962 as a part of Operation Pedro Pan. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

The Catholic Welfare Bureau worked with a network of Cubans looking to expatriate the Cuban children to the U.S. and, once in Miami, the Eisenhower Administration agreed to provide funds to care for the children.

Over the course of 20 months, over 14,000 children made the 228-mile journey to Miami.

About half of all children were reunited with their parents or relatives at the airport. The Catholic Welfare Bureau placed the rest of the children in shelters across 35 states.

It’s only a perhaps a coincidence that the opening of the exhibit comes after the announcement of normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. in December 2014.

“Cuba is a popular topic today…It’s hot topic and a current event, so [the exhibit] is very timely,” Mr. Zamanillo said.

To capture the complexity and emotion of the children’s stories, development for the “Operation Pedro Pan” Exhibit began several years ago and the HistoryMiami Museum worked to acquire several items and pieces from the University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection as well as items on personal loan to the museum.

But Mr. Zamanillo estimates that about 90 percent of the artifacts and collection for the exhibit from Operation Pedro Pan, Inc.

“Over the years, they’ve had a couple of individuals that have gone around to their membership and collected and borrowed items from Pedro Pans with the hope to do an exhibit one day,” Mr. Zamanillo said.

The children’s passports, airline tickets, suitcases and clothes are on display. Scenes are reconstructed, transporting visitors to Havana 55 years ago. Video testimonials given by several living survivors are projected on the walls, giving a tangible sense of the emotional trauma and dislocation suffered by the “Pedro Pans.”

According to Mr. Zamanillo, one of the most powerful points of the exhibit, which in his opinion left a lasting impact on visitors, is the “fish bowl.”

HistoryMiami brought in animators to help recreate and construct a replica of the holding area in the Havana airport, known as a “fish bowl,” where the children were held prior to boarding their flights to Miami.

White silhouettes touch hands as a part of the "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

White silhouettes touch hands as a part of the “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

“It’s like a glass enclosure, a glass room with glass walls and the children would be in there, sometimes for hours, sometimes for the whole day waiting for their flight,” Mr. Zamanillo said.

On one side of the exhibit, white silhouettes travel along a long, black wall making their way to the glass enclosure and on the other side of the enclosure, children place their hands on the glass.

“Many of the [children] recall looking back through the glass, putting their hands up to the glass and touching their parents hand for the last time,” Zamanillo said.

As the exhibit closes its doors today, communities affected by Operation Pedro Pan in Tampa and Orlando have expressed interest in continuing the exhibit.

But despite the exhibit’s closure, the story of Operation Pedro Pan is ultimately still a current one.

“There are many stories going on globally regarding immigration and I think a lot of people connect to that,” Mr. Zamanillo said.

“It’s people coming here with very little and struggling and being in a tough situation but making something of themselves.”

For further information about the exhibit, click here.

Entrance to the "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Entrance to the “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A map depicting where Cuban children were placed after arriving in Miami in the "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A map depicting where Cuban children were placed after arriving in Miami in the “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Visitors gather at the "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Visitors gather at the “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Father Bryan O. Walsh (center) started Operation Pedro Pan in 1960 after learning that Cuban children were making up a large portion of refugees fleeing Cuba for the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Father Bryan O. Walsh (center) started Operation Pedro Pan in 1960 after learning that Cuban children were making up a large portion of refugees fleeing Cuba for the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

About half of the 14,000 children were reunited with family in Miami, the rest were placed in shelters across the U.S. by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. (Photo Courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

About half of the 14,000 children were reunited with family in Miami, the rest were placed in shelters across the U.S. by the Catholic Welfare Bureau. (Photo Courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Lilia and Beatris Serio Varona (pictured here) were a part of Operation Pedro Pan, a program that saw more than 14,000 children enter the U.S. unaccompanied. (Photo Courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Lilia and Beatris Serio Varona (pictured here) were a part of Operation Pedro Pan, a program that saw more than 14,000 children enter the U.S. unaccompanied. (Photo Courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A photograph taken in 1964 from Casa Suarez a camp in Florida City that housed children from Operation Pedro Pan. (Photo Courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A photograph taken in 1964 from Casa Suarez a camp in Florida City that housed children from Operation Pedro Pan. (Photo Courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A child's shirt on display in the "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus" Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

A child’s shirt on display in the “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus” Exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Zamanillo/HistoryMiami)

Children’s Harrowing Journey Depicted in Operation Pedro Pan Exhibit was last modified: January 17th, 2016 by Contributor

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