On Christmas Eve, he was a happy child in Cuba. On Christmas Day, alone in a new country

The author’s ninth-grade class from “el Colegio Salesiano de Guines” in Cuba. Pictured in the center is the principal from the school, Father Mendez, (no relation). Armando Mendez, the author, is the second boy from the left in the front row. The photograph is from 1960-61, the last school year Armando Mendez completed in Cuba.

The Miami Herald

On Christmas Day, 1961, I lost my innocence.
Instead of waking up to presents given by loving parents, family and friends, I received goodbyes from aunts, uncles, cousins, school friends, my dog, my town, my school, my parents and my grandmother.
In my suitcase, I packed my memories. Would I ever see my beloved Güines again? I could hear my mother and grandmother crying behind closed doors, and my father giving me advice on what to do and not to do as I left for this flight — the flight of Pedro Pan into Never-Never Land. I didn’t understand the reasons why; I only knew that my parents and all the adults, including the headmaster of the Salesian school where I had been since kindergarten, thought that this flight was for the best. Best because I would be going to the promised land of freedom, even though I had to go by myself, like Wendy and her siblings, leaving my parents behind.
I remember arriving at the airport of Rancho Boyeros and going into the “fish bowl,” sitting next to other children of all ages who like me were looking at their parents behind the glass. We put up a brave front, although inside we were all crying. We were stripped of not only our personal possessions, such as the ruby ring given to me by my grandfather, but of our happy times together with our families. Parents and children separated by glass and by a Communist government that was going to indoctrinate their children. As I ascended the stairs to the plane, I kept looking back trying to catch a glimpse of my parents; I don’t know if it was the tears, but I was unable to see them one last time.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miDuring the 45-minute flight, a myriad of thoughts assailed me. I was afraid of how I was going to survive separated from my parents. Who was going to take care of me? Where would I sleep? Where was I going to live? How was I going to survive when I didn’t even know English? Too soon, and before I had answers to any of these questions, we arrived at our destination: Miami.
As I and approximately 150 other children arrived, we were herded like cattle, according to our age group and gender. The girls were sent to Florida City; boys 16 years old and older were sent to Matecumbe in the Keys. I, along with boys 15 and younger, was sent to Kendall. The Catholic Welfare Bureau had set up these centers to house the children of Operation Pedro Pan.
Upon arrival at the Kendall camp, we were assigned a bunk bed, shown where to put our meager possessions and have a meal. I quickly remembered my father’s words when I was presented with the first plate of food in a new land, cornmeal, which I didn’t like. “Eat son, whatever is put in front of you, because you don’t have a choice. It’s either eat or go hungry.”
How different it was. At home, if I didn’t like something, Abuelita prepared something else for me. Here, at the Kendall camp, the lessons started right away: Eat cornmeal or go hungry. As we were getting ready for bed, I looked at the sad faces of my companions, the children of Pedro Pan. I’m sure my own face also reflected the sadness that overwhelmed all of us because of the separation. Each one of us dealt with our loss differently – some cried, some nervously giggled and one boy started taking flight with a knife because he wanted to go home. When he was finally calmed down by the counselor, he started whimpering like a wounded dog; his heart, like mine, was wounded by leaving behind all that was near and dear to us.
As I lay in bed that Christmas Day night, I thought how quickly and irrevocably life changes. On Christmas Eve, I was a happy, innocent, pampered child, and on Christmas Day, I became a man. How ironic that they chose that name for this operation, Pedro Pan – Peter Pan, the child who never grew up. No, I grew up overnight; I ceased being a child the moment I became part of the Pedro Pan Operation and left Güines, Cuba, never to return again.

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