Florida City Pedro Pan Camp was Home to Hundreds - South Dade News Leader: Florida City

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Florida City Pedro Pan Camp was Home to Hundreds

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Posted: Saturday, November 3, 2012 12:00 am

A group of girls who lived at the Operation Pedro Pan camp in Florida City stand in front of the building they called “El Barco” (the ship). The photo was taken in 1962.

Most parents would do anything to ensure the safety of their children — no sacrifice too great, no price too steep. In December of 1960, Cuban parents made just such a sacrifice, sending thousands of children across the Florida Straights to Miami, all to save them from the Marxist-Leninist indoctrination sweeping Cuban schools and government at the time. 

This mass immigration was known as Operation Pedro Pan (or Operation Peter Pan), and has had a lasting effect on the shaping of South Florida and especially Florida City, where one of the camps was located.

Operation Pedro Pan was a program created by the Catholic Welfare Bureau in December 1960. Parents sent their children to the United States, trusting they would be cared for while conflict in Cuba was sorted out.

Many parents were tried for crimes, jailed, and some were executed. 

The program ended October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but camps remained open for several years.

There were numerous camps in Florida for the children to reside in, but the Florida City camp, which used to be located on NW 2nd Ave., between NW 14th and 16th Streets, has received special recognition. This month it will become the home to a historical marker identifying the significance of the area and explaining some of its history.

Carmen Valdivia, a member of the Operation Pedro Pan Group and a Pedro Pan child herself, is one of those responsible for applying for the historical marker. Arriving in America with nothing more than the clothes on her back, deprived of her suitcase full of belongings, her parents, and with only her sister for comfort, Carmen feels as though it is important for everyone to understand the importance of the Pedro Pan camps.

“It was supposed to be temporary,” she explained, when asked about the operation. “We thought that the United States would never allow Communism within ninety miles of their shores, so it was just for us to be safe while our parents could try to get out of trouble in Cuba.” 

Her father was jailed by the Cuban government. Carmen and her sister spent three years in the Florida City camp, from 1962-1965. 

“The Florida City camp was for girls - older girls - and the young boys, under twelve” she recalled. “Then after October 1962 there were no more children coming, so the camps were not as overcrowded and the problem of relocation was not as imminent.” 

When the operation first got underway, around 200 children were expected. Miami ended up receiving 14,000 children within twenty-two months, the largest exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western hemisphere. 

Carmen remembered the dormitories, which housed about ten children on each side, and the ‘house parents’ who resided in the middle and did their best to make the children comfortable. 

She fondly remembered the basketball and baseball teams for boys, and the volleyball team she played on. The teams would compete against the local Catholic schools. Birthdays were celebrated with cake and dancing, and children were kept occupied during the day.

“At night was when your mind would go to Cuba,” she said. “That was when we’d start crying.”

Like many children, Carmen and her sister were eventually reunited with their parents, but the camp at Florida City would forever remain a part of their lives. In 2009, all of the children who lived through Pedro Pan camps would be given a reminder of their past in the form of a database, containing all the names of those who passed through Miami and filtered into the camps. 

“Little by little we started finding all the friends we had lost for years,” Carmen said. “It was very exciting. Everybody started wanting to go to the camp and asked how do we get there. We decided there really should be something marking the place, so people could find it.”

On November 16th a ceremony for the dedication of the historical marker will begin at 10:30 am. Afterwards, will be the unveiling of the street renamed Pedro Pan Place (formerly NW 2nd Ave). It was here where Carmen, her sister, and hundreds of other children “grew up overnight”, and where many called home for several years. 

“We hope that it will be an example,” Carmen expressed, “that no matter how low your condition in life is that you can always succeed I think that experience of all of the sudden finding yourself with only your education, it gave us such a sense of the importance of education and work, that anything can be achieved, and that’s what I want people to get from that. That nothing is impossible.”

 

Editor’s Note: Those wishing to find others in the Operation Pedro Pan database can visit www.pedropan.org.

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