It is a story of triumph over tyranny: A clandestine mission in 1960 to airlift thousands of unaccompanied children from Communist Cuba to the United States.
The program, which became known as Operation Pedro Pan, was orchestrated by Catholic Charities of Miami, sanctioned by the US State Department.
Among the 14,000-plus secreted children covertly moved in a two-year-period were eight members of the Fernandez family, who eventually settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The children were flown out of Havana in separate groups so as not to arouse suspicion in the gestapo-like state. A ninth child was later born in the US
“Every once in a while I cry. And everybody does that when they have trauma, right?” said Patricia Fernandez in an exclusive interview with the NBC New York I-Team.
The siblings had never spoken to each other about their trauma until News 4 asked them to come together for an emotional I-Team interview. They asked for several breaks so they could compose themselves.
“The fact that we couldn’t leave together, Cuba, it was very emotional. It was horrible because we didn’t know if we were going to meet again,” said the oldest brother, Jose.
Before their parents sent them away, the siblings described a fear of constantly being watched by government operatives.
“You know the fact that even in your own neighborhood, you couldn’t speak because you were afraid and my dad would warn me, ‘Don’t speak to anyone, you can’t trust anyone,’” said Bill Fernandez.
Three of the siblings ended up in a now-closed orphanage and reformatory on Staten Island.
“It was horrible,” said Ed Fernandez. “I felt it was my fault. Like I did something wrong.”
The father eventually found an apartment in Elizabeth for seven of the children. Daughter Beatrice, at age 9, was the last to leave Cuba. Her mother, a Spanish citizen, came later.
“I had no idea what was going on and all I remember is my mom saying don’t speak to anyone. “I had no idea I was going to an airport or where I was going,” said Beatrice.
Brother Juan, born in the United States, says the family never talked about their years of being split apart. Some lived in Florida in camps before rejoining the others in New Jersey.
“We were extremely close. We’ve always been close, we’ve always taken care of each other. But we never had a sense of sharing pain or anguish that everyone experienced here. This was years of therapy in one interview,” Juan recounted.
They now understand their parents’ excruciating decision: sending them away in hopes of setting them free.
“I never realized the sacrifices my parents made for us. At the time I was a 7-year-old. I thought I was abandoned,” said Bill Fernandez. “But looking back now, I really regret that I really never had a chance to say to my father, thank you for the sacrifice they made. And it was a sacrifice — eight kids — to send them off and never knowing you’re going to see them again.”
They have a new appreciation for what family means after being separated, and by sheer will, finding each other in a foreign land. They will be together this holiday season, as always. But now, for the first time, they will share their history with children and grandchildren — a true gift.
The majority of the more than 14,000 children were re-united with family in the US. There are thousands of Pedro Panners all around the country who are now connecting through social media, with so many more chapters to write in their incredible journeys.