MIAMI – The last thing 13-year-old Mercedes Argiz's father told her before she boarded the plane from Cuba to the U.S. was: "I will see you for Christmas."
That was nearly half a century ago, just days before the Cuban Missile Crisis. She never saw him again.
Argiz was one of more than 14,000 Cuban children spirited out of the country between late 1960 and 1962 on the so-called Pedro Pan flights organized by Catholic Church leaders following the Cuban revolution. On Friday, she flew from northern Virginia to join more than 100 other Cuban-Americans in Miami to mark the 50th anniversary of their exodus and tour the South Florida refugee camps they first stayed in.
Operation Pedro Pan — the term is Spanish for Peter Pan — was organized at the behest of Cuban parents, fearful of the new communist government's efforts to take control of their children. Most of the refugees spent time in one of several Florida refugee camps before they moved into foster homes or orphanages around the country.
The children thought they would be reunited with their parents within a few weeks. But heightened tension between the two countries following the missile crisis — the nuclear standoff over missile sites on the island — meant many had to wait years to see their parents again. Some never did.
On Friday, dozens of Pedro Pan veterans cheered and shouted as they hugged friends they had not seen since childhood. They waved American and Cuban flags and sang the camp songs they learned upon their arrival, Spanish children's tunes exhorting communists to leave Cuba while promising "Americans" they would be friends.
Cuban officials and some researchers have long maintained the effort was a CIA-backed plot to create a brain-drain from the island. The U.S. government denies those accusations.
The effort drew its name in part from an unaccompanied minor from Cuba named Pedro who came to the attention of the late Bryan O. Walsh, an Irish priest who headed the Catholic Welfare Bureau in Miami. Walsh, who died in 2001, was instrumental in providing care for the young refugees.
Argiz, who now goes by her married name Precht-Matuschek, says it was her own experience that prompted her departure. After the government shut down her Catholic school, she was transferred to a communist-run public school where she excelled. Asked to recite a poem at the school year's closing ceremonies, she planned to thank her family, friends and God, she says. A teacher warned her to replace God with the name of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. Precht-Matuschek didn't, and the local dignitaries in attendance were not pleased.
A short time later, her family was informed she was selected to go to Russia to continue her studies.
Precht-Matuschek's family was able to get her a temporary visa, promising she would soon return. After a brief stay in the camps, she ended up with a wealthy family in Cincinnati until she was reunited with her younger brother and mother five years later. She says her father, who had owned a canning company before the revolution, was not allowed to leave.
At Camp Matecumbe in the south Miami suburb of Kendall, the former Pedro Pan children walked the grounds of what were once dorms for the newly arrived teenage boys. Julio A. Martinez, now a Miami-Dade County civil engineer, recalled sleeping in tents as the number of children arriving outpaced dormitory space, unable to fall asleep because he was terrified of the rattle snakes that haunted the nearby pine and palmetto tree woods.
Housing developments and shopping malls have displaced most of the tangled forest. The camp is now an activity center for children with disabilities. But for Martinez and his friend Andres Garcia Fernandez of San Francisco, returning for the first time in 50 years, it was as if time had stood still.
They recalled desperately trying to help their parents leave Cuba as they were bounced from camp to camp.
They were both eventually able to help get their parents out as part of the 1963 prisoner exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba following the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of the island by Cuban exiles. Martinez said he was able to convince a Bay of Pigs veteran to claim his stepfather as family because the two shared a last name.
"We had to survive. We had to figure it out. We were adults at the age of 15," he said, blinking away tears.
Martinez says he is ever grateful to the U.S. for giving him the chance to remake his life and raise his two daughters and grandchildren.
Nearby, Garcia's adult daughter, sporting a video camera and nose ring, watched her father protectively.
"It is so good for my dad to be here with his friends," said Rachel Garcia, 22. "He's always talked about it. And he carries so much sadness and grief from that time, but no one where we live in San Francisco has any idea about it. It's just not history people know about."
Precht-Matuschek, a retiree who lives in Spotsylvania, Va. near her two daughters, says her father was forced to work once a week cutting sugar cane after she left as punishment. Years later, she moved to Germany with her husband, and in 1973 became pregnant with their daughter. Her father was finally granted a visa to visit her there.
He died of a heart attack at age 47 before he could make the trip.
On the Net: www.pedropan.org