My name is Maria del Carmen (Pérez Cancelas) Romañach. I was born in La Habana, Cuba, on November 15, 1945. I remember my family life in Cuba as a very simple and very happy one. My father owned a small grocery store, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I was the eldest of my siblings; my brother Raul was born when I was five years old, and my youngest brother, Carlos, when I was eight. Our lives revolved around school and visiting our grandparents and extended families.
My school was about six short blocks from my home. I used to walk there four times a day for the morning and afternoon sessions. I can still close my eyes and walk to school in Cuba in my mind. I was five years old when I started school, and I left when I was fifteen, so for over ten years, my school was a second home to me. I loved the school, the nuns, my classmates, and everything about it. The education I received there was excellent. The faith and values I acquired from the nuns were really the foundation of my life, even though I didn't realize it at the time.
But the best time of the year was summertime when my parents would take us to Varadero Beach for a whole month. My best memories of Cuba were probably from Varadero when my entire family, mother, father, two brothers, and I were together in this beautiful place that seemed like a paradise. The water was crystal clear, and you could see your own feet under the water as well as the little fish swimming underneath. The sand was white and very fine, like talcum powder, and you could walk inside the warm water for a long time without going any deeper. I have never again seen a beach as beautiful as Varadero, and those summer vacations have remained in my memory forever.
Even though I remember my childhood as free of worries and very happy as I was growing up, I became aware that not everything was as idyllic as it seemed. Fulgencio Batista was a dictator, and there were rumors of militiamen going to the mountains to fight against him. Then, on January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country, and the rebels came down from the mountains, rosaries hanging from their necks. It was a joyous day; everybody was outside, feeling happy and kissing each other because we thought this would be a change for the better. It was a day that I remember vividly.
But then things started to change very quickly. Before 1959, children loved to watch American TV series like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin or westerns like Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. We also loved the clowns, Gaby, Fofo, and Miliki, who had a weekly TV show. But everything changed after 1959, and the TV featured only scary impromptu trials with no due process, firing squad executions, and long speeches by Fidel Castro. The repetition of Revolutionary slogans and the singing of the communist world anthem, La Internacional, was constantly played on TV and radio. You couldn't get those songs or slogans out of your head because that is what we heard all the time. The violence that those firing squads left in my mind still makes me shudder with fear and anxiety. Before 1959 Cuba had no death penalty, so it was a shock for most Cuban people to watch these executions, especially since they were everywhere in magazines, TV, and real life. I could see my parent's worried faces and sensed that this was getting out of hand.
On November 15, 1960, I turned fifteen: "los quince," a magical and beautiful milestone for girls. Every girl dreamed of this day, where she would have a "quinces" party with all her family and friends, a beautiful and fancy dress and lots of pictures to celebrate the occasion. However, things were so upside down at that time that I told my parents I didn't desire a party. I was overwhelmed by what I was seeing around me, and I didn't feel like celebrating at all. My parents understood my decision but suggested that instead of a party, we could have a Thanksgiving Mass and a small breakfast at my school's chapel. So my "quinces" were celebrated in my beloved school, with my classmates and my closest family around me.
In April 1961, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was a rude awakening for most Cubans, as the hope for a fast resolution of the political situation was gone. Even worse, 1961 was declared by the Revolutionary Government as the Year of Education. In May 1961, the private schools were taken over, and the nuns and priests, who had been our teachers, were expelled from Cuba. In May 1961, Castro declared himself a socialist for the first time, and later in the year, stated that he had been a Marxist Leninist since the beginning, although he had denied it repeatedly. My parents were terrified.
Before my beloved school was taken over and fearing that all the religious articles would be destroyed by the milicianos, as they had already done in other schools, the nuns sent a message to their most faithful students to try to save the religious articles from being destroyed and keep them safely in our homes until we could go back to school in a free Cuba. There was an 18-inch statuette of the Immaculate Conception in every classroom, and I was given the one in my classroom. Things had gotten so bad that carrying a religious article in the street could be considered a crime against the revolution, so I wrapped the statuette in a towel and proceeded to take it home. As a terrified 15-year-oldgirl leaving the school with my precious possession in my arms, I saw one of my friends from the Marist Brother's school and asked him to escort me home. Fifty years later, we met again, and he told me he was more scared than I was that day, but he didn't want to tell me. He was only 17, but he knew how dangerous it was if the Comité de Defensa (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution)caught us. And there was one in every block. Luckily, we arrived home safely, but I never forget my mother's face when she saw me carrying the statuette home.
As I said, the nuns were expelled from Cuba, and by mid-May 1961, they were leaving for the United States in a cargo ship. I went with a few of my classmates to the Havana port to say goodbye. My mother insisted on coming with us. When we arrived at the port, a mob was shouting and swearing bad words at the poor nuns. That broke my heart; I had known these nuns for more than ten years, and I knew they were not guilty of anything other than belonging to a religious order. The amount of hatred and insults being thrown at them seemed such a huge injustice. My classmates and I started singing religious hymns to cheer the nuns. In our innocence, we thought that if they heard our singing, they wouldn't hear the insults. But this didn't last too long. A group of milicianos came our way and pointed at us with their machine guns. They shouted at us and told us to shut up or they would fire. We kept on singing. But my mother said, "let's leave now, or we are going to get us killed." That was a turning point for me, as it drove home the injustice of this communist regime. I remember thinking that I didn't want to belong to a country that did this to innocent persons.
After the Castro regime took over our schools, my parents feared that we would be indoctrinated in the communist dogma, which they did not support. They started considering the idea of sending us away to the United States for a short time to save us from danger. I remember my parents asking me if I was willing to take care of my younger brothers if they had to send us all away. I was terrified, but I knew we were in danger, and I told them I was willing to do it.
On October 19, 1961, I left Cuba and came to the United States through Operation Pedro Pan. I was only fifteen years old. My brothers Raul and Carlos, who were 11 and 7 years old, respectively, came with me. My parents had taken the most difficult and courageous decision of their lives to send us alone to the U.S. to save us from the Marxist ideology imposed arbitrarily by the unelected Cuban Revolutionary Government. I will always be grateful to them for their act of unselfish love, which allowed us to grow in freedom and practice our faith.
The day of our departure was a sad one. My experience in the pecera is something that, like most Pedro Pans, I had blocked from memory for many years. It was just too painful to remember. The feeling of sadness that I felt there was just overwhelming. My parents were on the other side of the glass and could see us, but they could not protect us. I remember putting my right hand in the pecera glass wall and my parents on the other side doing the same. It was so sad because we could not touch each other. Also, we were very much aware that we might not see our parents ever again. It was extremely painful.
I had heard many frightening stories about body searches, especially to the young girls, and I was afraid of that. I dealt with my fear by trying to keep busy taking care of my two brothers; that was the only thing that kept me going. When I finally got on that plane, with my two brothers beside me, I felt relieved. At least that part was over, and nothing major, or something that I could not handle, had happened. As the plane took off, I remember thinking my life would never be the same again. My adolescence was over; my life as a 15-year-old sheltered and a protected girl was over. I was on my own with two children who were looking up to me for guidance and protection, although I wasn't sure what to do. While studying psychology, I heard about "life-changing events," and my first thought went back to this moment. This was indeed a life-changing event if there ever was one!
The first thing I remember after our arrival in Miami was being picked up at the airport by George, an employee of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. He helped sort out the paperwork and facilitate everything that needed to be done at customs. My English was very rudimentary, and I could never have done it by myself. He tried to keep us at ease and gave us chewing gum and chocolate, something most Pedro Pan children remember too.
By the time we left the Miami airport, it was dark and late, and I recall George asking us if we were hungry. We were exhausted and famished, too, so he stopped to buy hamburgers and Coke. This was my first hamburger in the United States, and I remember it vividly since we were so hungry! The experience was unique as we ate in the small van while George drove us to Kendall Camp. The van was full of children; I was the eldest, and I remember some of them had been crying, but after we ate the hamburgers, some of the boys got excited watching the new 1961 cars. When we arrived at the camp, they separated me from my brothers, as they had to go to the boys' side. That was very difficult for me, as I was not expecting this to happen at all. While at the Kendall Camp, I remember going to the cyclone fence to talk to them every day. That was the most difficult thing for me; I wanted to be close to them and take care of them, but it was impossible. They were my brothers, and I wanted so much to be with them and comfort them! At night in my dorm, I heard the younger girls crying, and I wondered how my brothers were doing. I tried not to cry but felt very sad. Luckily, the nuns in charge of the Kendall Camp were the nuns from my school in Cuba, which made me feel better.
Four days after we arrived, my brother, Raul, fell from a shed at the camp and broke his arm. Somebody came to give me the bad news and take me to the hospital to provide his medical information. A lady was translating my responses since my English was rudimentary, as I said before. It was really frightening, and I felt so helpless. I had failed to keep him safe and felt guilty about it. I have never been able to thank that lady, but I will never forget her being with me at that moment. I was also apprehensive about my younger brother, Carlos, who was left alone at the camp. Later I found out that he used to sleep on Raul's cot during his stay at the hospital. Carlos should have been sleeping in his own cot with children his age, but the older kids in Raul's dorm hid him there and allowed him to sleep in his brother's bed. I guess sleeping there made him feel safer. These gestures stick in my mind as small but significant yet showing how the children bonded together and were compassionate of others.
My brother's accident changed the outcome of our stay in Kendall. My uncle Adolfo and my mother's cousin, Sara, who had left Cuba earlier and were living in Puerto Rico, found out what had happened and also that there was a possibility that the Catholic Welfare Bureau would send us to another state. They decided then to take care of us, something that was not part of the original plan. It was only nine days after we had arrived in Miami that we boarded another plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to live with our maternal relatives.
When we arrived in Puerto Rico, there was another surprise in store for me. The family had decided to separate us again; I was taken to my uncle's home and my brothers to our cousin's home. That was a big blow for me, as I had thought I could live with my brothers. I was very disappointed, but I understood that that was the best that could be done under the circumstances. My uncle never had any children of his own, and there was no way the 3 of us could go with him. Our cousin Sara had two small boys, a little bit younger than my brothers, and it would be easier for them to take care of 2 more boys, but they did not have money to take me as well. I took it upon myself as a duty to visit my brothers every afternoon. I never failed one day, rain or shine, and it rains a lot in Puerto Rico! We did not live that far away, but there was no transportation available to take me. I used to come home from school, have a bite to eat, and start walking for half an hour to see my brothers. I would spend the afternoon with them and have dinner there. After dinner, cousin Pablo (Sara's husband) would drive me to my uncle's home every night. After five months of this, I finally moved to the cousin's home with my brothers. That was heaven for me! I was delighted to live with them, and we became like a big family. Cousins Sara and Pablo became like parents to us; they were very affectionate and made us feel at home. We did not have much money, but we were happy!
In Puerto Rico, I went to high school at Colegio Espiritu Santo. All my classmates at my new school were happy and joking around all the time. I was very sad and remembered feeling very out of place and thinking: "I can't understand why they are so happy." All the classes were in English, and I did not understand a word, which was difficult for me, as I had always been a good student. For three weeks I didn't understand anything, which was so hard! But I started working hard and ended the year with excellent grades, which helped me in adaptation.
A year later, we were reunited with our parents, and the family settled in Puerto Rico. We were fortunate, as my parents had left Cuba just before the missile crisis in 1962. I can't even start to imagine what our life would have been like if they had not been able to reunite with us. Life was hard, and we did not have much, but at least we had each other again. We moved to a small apartment in Rio Piedras, and I started working at the new Sears Roebuck store. I was one month short of turning 17years old, and I told my parents that I wanted to use my first salary to buy my brothers a bicycle. We had no money, but that was a priority for me. I had seen their faces begging the other children for a ride, and I wanted them to have a memorable Christmas that year.
Life must go on, and our lives in Puerto Rico continued at a fast pace. Money was a problem at the beginning, and we had to make some adjustments. My father did not have a formal education and did not speak English, so he got only menial work, and my mother had to start working outside the home. As for myself, I continued working at Sears and had to start College at night. Eventually, my father found a job at a small supermarket, which was his area of expertise, and he thrived there. He became a partner in the business and finally owned his own supermarket two years after arriving in Puerto Rico.
As I got married in 1966 when I was 20 years old, I did not finish College. My family became my priority when our first child, Benito Alberto, was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. We returned to Puerto Rico, where our two beautiful daughters, Cristina and Susana, were born. In 1974, my husband was offered a job in Spain, and our youngest son, Daniel Eduardo, was born in Barcelona, Spain. Three months later, we moved to Málaga, in the south of Spain, and lived there for twenty-two years. So, there I was, a young mother of four, living away from my original family again! We used to go to Puerto Rico for Christmas every year, saying goodbye at the airport was always very difficult for me. It did not dawn on me at the time that this was related to my Pedro Pan experience in the pecera.
Because of my husband's job, we moved to the Bahamas for a short time, then to Jacksonville, Florida, for five years, and finally to Miami in 2002. In 2005, I decided to go back to school, and I finished my bachelor's and later my master's degree in Psychology at Florida International University. I am currently a Licensed Mental Health Counselor for the state of Florida. My mother came from Puerto Rico for my graduation ceremonies, and she was the happiest of supporters! It had always pained her that, knowing how much I loved school, I had been unable to finish College because I had to work at a young age.
In the meantime, our children were growing up, getting married, and having their own families. Currently, I am the proud grandmother of eight grandchildren. I love it when we all get together even though we have become such a big family that it is not so easy now.
For years I did not think of any of these things. Like many of us, I had blocked my memories in that place of your mind that you never visit because it hurts too much. By that time, I was living in Miami, and during the Elian incident, many of those memories were awakened again, and at that point, I felt the need to remember my roots and my country and all those things I had left in Cuba while being so young. Like many other Pedro Pans, I didn't know I was part of what is known now as Operation Pedro Pan. I didn't know how many people were involved in making our exodus a success, and I felt the urge to find out about the history behind it. I was surprised to find out all the details of the Operation and our exodus.
I would be forever grateful to my parents for their courage and sacrifice, to this country, which welcomed us, and Catholic Charities for taking care of us upon arrival. Thanks to their efforts, I have lived in freedom and practice my faith all these years, something that would have been very different had I stayed in Cuba. My parents were still alive then, and I was able to thank them for their sacrifice. I am so glad I was able to do it before they passed away. They were the real heroes of Operation Pedro Pan.
I started attending the Operation Pedro Pan Group Inc. reunions in 2006. The feeling is difficult to describe; it was like coming home and finding my brothers and sisters again. I decided to become involved in the organization and try to do my best to return with my volunteer work a little of what I was given as a child. The following year I became a member of OPPG's Board of Directors and continued to serve on the Board in different capacities since then. I have had the honor of serving as President and Vice President several times throughout all these years. Most importantly, I have been a member of OPPG's Historic Committee since its inception in 2010.
Our story is one of courage, love, and determination on the part of our parents. It is also a labor of love and generosity on the part of so many persons that helped us come to this land of opportunity and freedom. There was plenty of pain and sorrow and many difficulties, but overall, we Pedro Pans are living proof of a story that must be told to future generations.