Fifty years ago this week some 14,000 Cuban children were part of a Miami-based project called Operation Pedro Pan. They were brought to the U.S. In hopes of having a better life instead of the almost certain abject poverty they would experience under the Fidel Castro regime.
One of the men who headed up the project was a simple man named George Guarch, who worked with the Catholic Welfare Bureau to arrange the lift. He was of Cuban origin himself, speaking fluent Spanish and English. He would be the one person who these kids would meet when they first arrived.
In all cases, as near as I could tell, the parents voluntarily sent their children even though it meant separation from them—the chance at a better future was the price exacted for such a steep sacrifice.
Fifty years later one of those children, Pedro Noriega—now 67, and George’s own daughter, Lynn Guarch Pardo, met to record their thoughts for NPR’s StoryCorps.
They talked of the trip, of what it meant to a child to leave its parents and home, of his recollections of seeing her father when they arrived in Miami. He recalled being taken with a good number of other children to their home where George’s wife made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. “I will never forget that,” he said. He also recalled meeting the daughter for the first time and that of a family which would “find a way” to make things work.
He also remembered George working with customs officials at the airport that first day on American soil. one eighteen-year-old boy had been sent with some siblings, and apparently coffee had been “accidentally” spilled on the paperwork
thus smearing some of the data on the forms. One of the areas needing to be re-filled was the date of birth, which was adjusted so siblings wouldn’t be broken up or older—’adult’—children wouldn’t be released onto the streets merely by virtue of their age.
It sounded like lots of coffee was wasted that day.
As the two spoke and remembered this man George you could hear their voices break, if only slightly. “He was one of my best friends,” Pepe says. Years after Pepe came here he and George began to meet once a week for lunch, until one day George didn’t show. Pepe found out his mentor had died the day prior.
“I’ve got five fingers. I only can count all my good friends with one hand, and George was maybe number 1. And every time we talk about him, you’re going to get wet eyes, too, believe me.” After an emotional pause, Pepe shakily says “I still miss him.” Lynn replies, just as tenderly, “I miss him too.”
This one man—and his family—sacrificed as much as the Cuban parents to give these children the gift of America and all the hope she promises. All the war, abuse, instability, politics, terrorism, and overall dark side of humankind can indeed be swept aside by a solitary, powerful idea. powered by Deeds Of Unselfishness.
If you’d like to hear the interview between Pepe and Lynn you can find it here.