Hispanic Heritage Month: South Florida Museum showcases the history of the Cuban exile community

Posted at 6:30 PM, Oct 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-07 18:30:39-04

Carmen Valdivia is the executive director and curator of The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora. Valdivia dedicates her life to sharing stories of Cuban exiles.

One major event exhibited at the museum is Operation Pedro Pan, the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied children from Cuba. Valdivia was one of them.

"It was always that when you go to bed at night, you cry because you don’t know whether they’re alive or they’re dead," said Valdivia.

A large map in the museum tells the story of Pedro Pan children, an operation that brought 14,000 children from Cuba to the United States. The red dots show where the children were placed.

The operation involved the U.S. government and the Catholic Welfare Bureau.

"I came with my sister, I was 12 and she was 14. We went to live in a camp and it took three years to get together with our parents," she said.

About half of the children who arrived reunited with relatives or friends. The Catholic Welfare Bureau cared for the rest by providing shelter for the children.

"When we left Cuba we were told to ask for George Walsh. He was at the airport everyday waiting for us. He had a little book and in that book he would write the date, name of the child, date of birth, place we were sent to and the type of visa that we had," said Valdivia.

The exhibit contains personal documents and photos of the children. Among them are Mike Bezos, father of Jeff Bezos, former senator Mel Martinez and resident Juan M. Gonzalez.

"My brother and I left May 27, 1962," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was 12-years-old, moving from camp to camp living an out of ordinary life for a pre-teen but creating friendships along the way.

"When we left Matecumbe [camp], there were 14 of us, and we still know each other till this day. We became brothers," he said.

Gonzalez recognizes the vital role of his parents in ensuring his and his brother’s safety and freedom.

"We’re very thankful that our parents were courageous enough to make the decision that they did," said Gonzalez.

"It’s not only for my sister and I but for our children and our grandchildren that they’re able to live in freedom because of the sacrifice of our parents," said Valdivia.