Fifty years ago, one of the western world’s biggest secrets came to an end. The story began in 1960 in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Along the way, Cuban and American families were forever changed.
A story that hit the stands on March 10, 1962, in an Evansville newspaper may have been the first published report about “Operation Pedro Pan,” lifting the international secrecy surrounding the clandestine effort. Then, the international turmoil of the Cuban Missile Crisis put an end to the secret operation that sent more than 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba to the United States.
Today, the story still is widely unknown, even though it likely was the largest ever influx of minor refugees in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuban families sought to protect their children through the ultimate sacrifice of separation — sending them away from home and Castro’s communist principles to dreams of faith and freedom in the U.S.
“We left in the middle of the night, hoping the neighbors wouldn’t see us,” says Susy Garrandés Rodríguez, who was a child of 10 in 1962 when she arrived at St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Vincennes, Ind. After some months at the orphanage, her 9-year-old twin brothers were sent away separately — Antonio to a foster family in Darmstadt, Ind., Jorge to a home in Schererville, Ind.
A few miles south in Evansville, Berta Parravicini and her younger brother Humberto both went to Mater Dei High School but lived with separate foster families. Berta eventually married Ted Kares of Evansville. Because their firstborn son, Teddy, was born in America, he was able to bring Berta’s parents to the U.S. from Cuba.
It took five years for the Parravicini family to reunite. Some families were separated forever. Others, like the Garrandés family, would become part of a historic and troublesome international incident.
Manuel Garrandés, Susy’s older brother, took part in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a 1961 attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow the Cuban government. He was captured and then imprisoned in Cuba. In an exchange of prisoners with the U.S., Manuel came to America and was able to bring his father with him.
Eventually, the father reunited with his younger children who were “Pedro Pan” kids, Jorge and Tony. Susy stayed at the orphanage until September 1965, when Manuel, who was living in New Jersey, sent for her. She reunited with her mother a month later, but would not see her younger brothers until September 1966 in Miami.
The Great Migration
The name “Operation Pedro Pan” was given to the international refugee movement by Gene Miller, who reported the story 50 years ago in The Evansville Press. Miller had been a reporter in Evansville before taking a news job in Miami. He was on a plane from Miami with five of the 50 refugees who came to Evansville.
“This is the underground railway in the sky — Operation Peter Pan,” Miller wrote, adding, “Maybe it should be called Operation Pedro Pan.”
Miller revealed the story, but not the real names of the children.
“No one is telling exactly how it [bringing the children into America] is done. No one will. The risk of reprisal is too great,” he wrote.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner died in 2005.
A Catholic priest in Miami, Father Bryan Walsh, and the headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana, James Baker, initiated the operation. Walsh approached the U.S. government seeking funds to support the effort financially and requesting visa waivers for the children, and so commenced Operation Pedro Pan. Between Christmas 1960 and October 1962 — when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought a halt to the refugee movement — Cuban parents sent 14,048 children to the U.S. Fifty of them, ages 6 to 17, spent a portion of their young lives in Evansville and Vincennes, Ind., changing the lives of local families forever.
It is a bittersweet story for Francis and Dorothy Hillenbrand. Francis, at age 91, still lives in an independent apartment at the Little Sisters of the Poor facility in Evansville, and Dorothy now lives in a room with nursing care at St. John’s Home for the Aged.
Some of the details are fading from their memories, but the emotional connection they made with Antonio Garrandés and his family is everlasting.
“Monsignor Charles Schoettelkotte [founder of Catholic Charities of Evansville] called one day and asked if we would be interested and willing to take a child from Cuba into our home,” says Dorothy.
Tony came into their lives, joining the couple and their eight children in their home near Darmstadt.
Tony’s twin brother Jorge was living in Schererville, his sister Susy at St. Vincent Orphanage in Vincennes, and his parents were in Cuba.
“Can you imagine what it was like for a 9-year old boy?” Dorothy asks.
No one in the Hillenbrand household spoke Spanish.
“I tried,” says Dorothy. “I bought a book. I think that was one of the things that would have helped Tony. It must have been horrible for that little boy. But I loved him and he seemed to love me.”
The two Garrandés boys eventually joined their father in Florida. Jorge died in 2009. Tony lives with his family in Florida, and remains “troubled” by his childhood experience, according to his sister.
But the Hillenbrands keep in touch.
“When the phone rings and it is Susy calling, she just says ‘Mom,’ and I know who it is,” says Dorothy. “She tells her friends about her ‘Indiana mom and dad.’”
A Long Way Home
It was a long time ago when Berta flew from Havana to Miami and then to Evansville. “Looking down from the plane, it was very dark and gloomy, and it was beginning to snow,” Berta remembers. “I thought, ‘My God, where am I coming to?’”
Now, Berta is a wife, mother, grandmother, and successful businesswoman who operates Kares Inc. Painting and Wallpaper in Evansville with her husband Ted.
“I love Evansville,” the Cuban native says, but admits, “I hate snow.”
During a recent interview, Berta reflected on her life in Cuba, her high school years at Mater Dei, her marriage and family, and her home in Southern Indiana.
She was born and raised in Cárdenas, in the Cuban province of Matanzas, with her brother Humberto; they came to the U.S. in 1962, when she was 16 and he was 14.
“I could never ask for better parents,” says Berta. “We were not rich, but middle class.” When Fidel Castro proclaimed Cuba to be a communist country, Berta’s family, like many others, made the difficult decision to send their children away.
When she came to Indiana, she missed her family, her friends, celebrations of birthdays and Christmas, “dancing the conga in the park,” and the life of a teenager in Cuba.
Foster families were arranged through Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Evansville, with funds provided by the federal government to assist the foster families. Berta began her life in Indiana living with Jack and Florence Pfettscher of Evansville. They spoke no Spanish and Berta spoke no English.
“It was hard,” she says. “Very hard for the family I lived with. But somehow we made it.”
When her foster mother, Florence, went to the hospital to have a baby, Berta tried to help out at the home — even though she had never cooked a meal in her life.
“I boiled hot dogs for a week,” she recalls. Her foster father appreciated her efforts, but finally stepped in and said, “I’m going to fry chicken.” As time passed, the Cuban stranger became more and more familiar with life in Southern Indiana.
Through friends of her foster parents, Berta was introduced to now husband Ted. When she turned 18, she was no longer eligible for financial assistance and made plans to live with her aunt and uncle in California.
“On the day I left to fly to California, Ted proposed to me, and I accepted,” she says.
Ted followed her to California and soon brought her back to Evansville.
Five years after her arrival in America, Ted and Berta celebrated the birth of their first son, Teddy. Her parents, Humberto and Bertha Parravicini, left Cuba for Indiana, where they lived out the rest of their lives with their children and grandchildren.
For general information, history, reunions and activities, see www.pedropan.org.