Cuba’s Operation Peter Pan boys lead productive lives in U.S.
FORT WAYNE — Among those attending a Central Catholic High School (CC) reunion June 27 will be a handful of successful businessmen who were once refugees in this country — Cuban refugees.
Pedro Ledo, Julio Garcia, Cesar de la Guardia and Mike Barnett were all adolescents during the initial reign of Fidel Castro in Cuba in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Each recalls a strong and virtuous home and faith life, educational opportunities and family ties. And each recalls the day in the early 1960s they separated from their families, boarded an airplane alone and flew to America to begin a new life of educational and political freedoms.
Shortly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 coup, when industries became nationalized, Catholic schools and churches were closed, and children were sent away to distant school camps to be indoctrinated into communism, the U.S. government and the Archdiocese of Miami worked with Cubans on what became known as Operation Peter Pan.
Operation Peter Pan
Operation Peter Pan is considered the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western hemisphere, according to the Web site www.pedropan.org, where over 14,000 young Cuban boys and girls were flown into Miami to escape the political wrath of the times — all between 1960 and 1962. The children were placed in camps in Miami until the Catholic Services Bureau could place them in 30 states around the country.
Pedro Ledo was only 14 when he arrived in the U.S. in July of 1962. He left his parents, brother and sister in Cuba after waiting nine months to escape Castro’s regime. He had been forced from his Cuban-based Catholic school in 1960 and remained unable to attend any school for two years. He says emphatically that he didn’t come to America to find a better life than his parents offered in Cuba — rather he came to find freedom and live according to the values his parents instilled in him.
Julio Garcia was one of the youngest adolescent refugees to arrive in Miami in 1961 at the tender age of 13. His parents had prearranged a foster home for him in Miami where he would attend area public school. The young boy later joined Ledo at the area boys’ camp and remained in Miami until 1964.
Cesar de la Guardia arrived in the U.S. via Operation Peter Pan in 1962 leaving his parents and sister behind in Cuba. He was only 16, but says he chose to leave his home country knowing well the political implications for his future education.
At 15, Mike Barnett said farewell to his parents and grandparents in Cuba and arrived in America in summer of 1961. The men all agree that times in Cuba were bleak then and the U.S. held the promise of a brighter future.
Thriving in Fort Wayne
Each of the four boys was selected, with close to 40 others, to travel to Fort Wayne where there was a strong Catholic community to welcome them. They each came in different groups of boys to live at St. Vincent Villa and attend Central Catholic High School (CC).
Msgr. J. William Lester, who was superintendent of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend then, and also the chaplain of St. Vincent Villa, says, “As superintendent I welcomed the boys to Central Catholic High School. I was on the grounds of the Villa with 23 boys. I became close friends with the boys through counseling, summer trips and stopping fights when needed,” he says chuckling.
Of the boys he mentored Msgr. Lester says, “The Cubans are highly motivated people, especially in education. The boys are all a success,” he says.
Msgr. Lester was instrumental in ensuring the boys had what they needed, including classes to learn the English language. Each of the boys participated in sports and were assisted in finding after school jobs. He also assisted their families upon their arrival in the Summit City.
Two of the boys, Carlos Rozas, who became pastor at St. Paul Parish and now deceased, and Felipe Estevez went on to become priests, with Estevez becoming the auxiliary bishop of the Miami archdiocese.
In 1962 a house that eventually served as living quarters for 16 boys was purchased by the diocese on West Wayne Street. Many of the boys from the Villa went to live there with Msgr. MacDonald, who now resides in New Mexico.
Barnett says, “I considered the boys a big family. We learned to be together and to help each other.” As groups of boys graduated and left the house, more refugees were sent from Miami to fill their places.
All the men agree now that the sisters who taught at CC, Msgr. Lester and Msgr. MacDonald were instrumental in their care and well-being. But it was the family upbringing by their faithful parents that made them resilient.
“I was blessed with a great family … strong people with vision and direction. They told me to go over and do right. The goal was to make the sacrifice worthwhile for everybody,” says Ledo.
Though for most the language barrier made life difficult, they did what they needed to do to adjust and survive. “It was tough,” says de la Guardia, adding, “But we learned fast. We had no other choice.”
Leading lives of freedom
Pedro Ledo’s family was able to migrate to the U.S. in 1966, the same year he graduated high school. He went on to earn an accounting degree at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne (IPFW) when it was one building downtown and made a career in the magnet wire industry. He and his wife Sharon, of 38 years, have three grown children and two grandchildren and have attended St. Charles Parish since 1975.
His faith was instrumental in his passage into adulthood. “Faith,” he says, “definitely played a part — you know it’s always there. I’ve been blessed.”
Julio Garcia couldn’t agree more as he recalls becoming a convert to the Catholic faith when he was 15. “I found the Catholic traditions to be to my liking ,” he says. Though his only experience with Catholic education was his time at CC, he and his wife Gwyn ensured that their eight children receive a Catholic education. All eight are Bishop Dwenger graduates, six of whom are also graduates of Notre Dame. The Garcias have nine grandchildren and are parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Parish.
Garcia was able to live with his parents who arrived in the U.S. in 1966, at which time Msgr. Lester assisted them with job placement and living arrangements. Garcia earned a bachelor’s degree from then Saint Francis College and a master’s from IPFW in Spanish and eventually taught and coached in the Fort Wayne Community Schools at Northside High School where he remains today.
Cesar de la Guardia’s mother and sister joined him in Fort Wayne in 1979 to begin a new life, but he never saw his father again. De la Guardia graduated in 1964 and went on to attend Saint Francis College and subsequently University of Northern Iowa where he earned two masters’ degrees in Spanish and secondary education. He has retired from his position at Snider High School as Spanish teacher and enjoys traveling.
Barnett embraced his newly migrated father in 1966 with his mother following years later. He graduated from CC in 1963 and studied chemical engineering at Indiana Tech for a year. He later worked and has since retired from 37 years at Seyfert’s Potato Chip factory. He and his wife of 13 years, Maria, enjoy their two children and two grandchildren and are parishioners of St. Patrick Parish.
Of his faith Barnett says, “In the Bible it says God never abandons his children. The Catholic Church played an important role in looking after people from Cuba.” These now grown Operation Peter Pan boys all agree that life in Fort Wayne has been good.
Many of those boys have kept in touch over the years meeting for reunions and dinners as well as funerals and weddings. Ledo says, “I have the realization that they (the boys) were the only family I had for those four years. There is a camaraderie … I realize we made it through.”
They are all looking forward to the Central Catholic reunion to be held on June 27, when their boyhood friend Filipe, now Bishop Estevez will celebrate Mass with them in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. A dinner with music will follow at the Grand Wayne Center.