People of Miami

Operation Peter Pan: The talents that Cuba brought

The story of the children who escaped from Cuba to the United States in the 1960s is known as Operation Peter Pan, and it marked a successful destination for famous personalities

Operation Peter Pan was an unprecedented child exodus. Between 1960 and 1962, more than 14,000 underage Cubans were sent alone to the United States because of their parents' fear they would be indoctrinated under communism after the triumph of the Revolution.

Fidel Castro assumed power on January 1, 1959, and quickly led Cuba to tyranny. The government seized almost all the private property, and most wealthy Cubans fled the island for Miami.

Rescue of children

Operation Peter Pan plan was coordinated jointly by the US Government, the Catholic Church, and exiled Cubans. It envisaged that the children would be reunited with their parents in a few months. Nevertheless, this was not the outcome in all cases.

The children traveled on KLM, National, and Pan Am airlines since December 26, 1960. In Miami, the Irish priest Bryan Walsh received them, who later helped them transfer to hospices, camps, or adoptive families. He also coordinated visa processing with Washington.

Operation Peter Pan culminated on October 23, 1962, when the Missile Crisis forced the suspension of flights between Cuba and the United States.

The 'Peter Pan' of success

The pain those parents felt sending their children alone to another country to give them a future of freedom is unimaginable.

But since everything bad has its positive side, thanks to Operation Peter Pan, many children were able to progress in the United States. They became important figures for the growth of the country and the Hispanic community.

Among them are Eduardo Padrón, president emeritus of Miami Dade College; Mel Martínez, politician and senator for Florida; Eduardo Aguirre, a diplomat who was ambassador to Spain and Andorra during the government of President George W. Bush, and the artist Ana Mendieta.

Willy Chirino

The singer-songwriter was a 'Peter Pan' who arrived in Miami in 1961, at the age of 14.

The hitmaker of "Black Sox" said in an interview about May 20, "Living resentful doesn't make any sense. You must do the best you can with what you have. They brought me to this country when I was just beginning my adolescence, and here I had the privilege of living in a wonderful land, having just the right opportunities and working to get ahead".

Miami is his home and the city where he grew up, but Chirino longs to walk the streets of his hometown, Consolación del Sur, in Pinar del Río again.

"It would have been very nice to know more about Cuba. I left when I was 14 years old, and I only got to know Pinar del Río, Havana, and Matanzas; I never had another chance. There is nothing more beautiful than living in your land and being surrounded by your people," he said in an interview with Diario Las Americas in 2017.

Armando Codina 

The real estate developer was one of the Cuban children who arrived alone in the United States through Operation Peter Pan.

When Codina arrived in Miami, he lived in various places until he could reconnect with his mother. At the age of 16, he had to go to work because his mother did not know English and had never worked.

He started working in a bank where he helped doctors with accounts receivables and health insurance. At the time, he asked for a loan to open his own company, which was a success. Then he sold it, and in the 1980s, he began doing real estate business with the doctors he knew.

Today Codina's ventures can be seen in Coral Gables, Miami, Downtown, and El Doral.

Margarita Esquiroz

The first Hispanic judge in Florida and the first Cuban-American in Miami-Dade County came to Miami for Operation Peter Pan as a teenager who had not finished high school. Her only practical training was a short course in typing.

However, Esquiroz went ahead and graduated with honors from the University of Miami School of Law, and in 1974 she joined the Florida Bar Association.

She worked as an assistant to the Florida Attorney General from 1974 to 1979 and later served as a judge for the Eleventh Judicial Circuit.

She received recognitions such as the Hispanic Heritage Award for Leadership and the Cuban Women's Club's Floridian Award during her career. After 28 years of work, she retired. She passed away in 2012.

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