‘Peter Pan’ Recounts Anguish of Cuban Kids Sent to U.S. in ’60s
by Leon Lazaroff, 13 April 2011.
One Cuban-American says it was “like pulling a young tree out of the ground.” Another describes it as a “sword” that split children from their family, friends and homeland.
The speakers were among 14,000 Cuban children separated from their parents and brought to the U.S. in the early 1960s, when Cold War tensions between the two countries were at their peak. A half-century later, now parents and grandparents themselves, nine of them talk about their harrowing experiences in a new documentary, “Operation Peter Pan: Flying Back to Cuba,” that is playing at the Havana Film Festival New York.
Ed Canler, who was 10 at the time, tells how leaving Cuba was like uprooting a young tree and hearing “the roots cracking and snapping.”
“I was ripped away from Cuba,” recalls Canler, who says the emotional scars of that separation still haven’t completely healed.
Canler’s parents left Cuba a year later and were reunited with their son. His mom said the boy was sent to the U.S. because of rumors that Castro’s government was going to take children from their families and send them to revolutionary training camps.
“I was so upset I couldn’t live,” she says in the film.
The documentary was made by 78-year-old Estela Bravo, who was born in New York and moved to Cuba in 1963 with her Argentine husband to support Castro’s revolution.
Bravo says the operation to move the children was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and carried out by the Catholic Church. However, she said, many questions about the operation remain unanswered.
“The CIA won’t open files about the case so it’s hard to know what the government hoped to gain by bringing over children without their parents,” Bravo said this week during an interview in New York.
Using grainy footage shot by the State Department and found at the National Archives in Washington, Bravo shows children disembarking from planes in Miami and being taken to orphanages and camps.
Flora Gonzalez, a college professor who teaches Latin American literature at Boston University, was 13 when she was sent to the U.S. She tells the filmmakers that her parents didn’t think the Cuban Revolution would last, that she would benefit by getting an English-language education and that she would soon return to her homeland.
In fact, almost all of the children remained in the U.S. Most, but not all, of their parents joined them. Some never saw their parents again.
In 2009, Bravo managed to bring five Peter Pan adults to Cuba, their first trip back to the island. Some returned to the homes where they grew up, glad for the chance to reconnect with the Cuba of their childhoods.
Two weeks ago, Bravo flew from Havana to Miami to visit her three grown children and two grandchildren. Flights between Cuba and the U.S. have increased since 2009 when the Obama administration loosened travel restrictions, making it easier for transplanted Cubans to visit relatives on the island.
“There are five charters between Havana and Miami every day,” Bravo said. “It’s only a 45-minute flight.”
“Operation Peter Pan” will be shown at New York’s Quad Cinema tomorrow at 2:50 p.m. The film also will be screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.