Remembering ‘Operation Pedro Pan’

Two Lansing men recall their journey from Cuba to Lansing 50 years ago

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As a kid growing up in Havana, musician Mike Eyia wasfascinated by images of people skiing on TV. Thanks to Fidel Castro,his skis have been waxed for decades.

“If I’m going to be here, I might as well enjoy the damn winter,” Eyia cracked.

Eyia and his friend, Norbert Fernandez, are Lansing-areamembers of a little-known club celebrating its 50-year reunion thisweek.

In the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolution, 14,000 Cubanchildren came to the United States between 1960 and 1962 as part of amass exodus called Operation Pedro Pan.

The unprecedented airlift was arranged by frightenedCuban parents, anti-Castro dissidents, Miami’s Roman CatholicArchdiocese and the United States government — including the CIA,according to some historians. The documents on the airlift are stillclassified.

In 2009, Castro was still fuming, calling Pedro Pan “acynical publicity maneuver that would have been the envy of Goebbelshimself, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda.”

For two 13-year-old kids, it was like “The Wizard of Oz”in reverse. A funnel cloud of cold war and tropical revolution sweptthem from an emerald island and dropped them in a drab black-and-whitecity neither of them had ever heard of.

Far from home, unsure whether they would see theirparents again, they can be forgiven for battling with nuns, stealingice cream and raising minor hell at St. Vincent’s Children’s Home inLansing before becoming productive members of their adopted society.

“I didn’t appreciate difficulty of it until later,” Eyia said. “At the time, it felt kind of like a dream, just floating along.”

When temporary camps in south Florida filled up, thePedro Pans dispersed throughout 35 states, with about 30 ending up inLansing. Many have left the area, but Eyia and Fernandez are stillhere. Fernandez is a banker; Eyia is a guitarist and composer. In the1970s, Eyia founded Lansing’s sizzling Latin combo, Orqestra Ritmo,which is still going strong under his leadership. 

This week, Fernandez and Eyia fly to Miami for a 50-year reunion of Pedro Pans, and they’re excited. 

“Because of the shared experience, you meet someone who went through it and there’s an instant connection,” Fernandez said.

“There’s dinners, music and dancing — I can hardly wait,” Eyia chimed in.


Growing up fast

On summer vacations at his grandfather’s farm in the late1950s, Norbert (or Norberto) Fernandez sat up in bed and listened toshooting in the hills close by. The revolution was sweeping across Cuba.

Among middle-class Cubans, there were widespread rumorsof military conscription if the rebels took over. Other parents fearedan American invasion of the island and full-scale war.

Fernandez grew up in rural Manzanillo, a small waterfronttown near Guantanamo. His father, Felix, was an attorney and chief ofpersonnel for Banco Nunez, one of the biggest Cuban banks. The familymoved to Havana in 1958, when his father was transferred to the mainoffice.

Word had spread that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese ofMiami, working with sympathetic Cubans, was taking children out of thecountry and providing food and placement with host families or in grouphomes.

On April 17, 1961, the day of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigsinvasion, an angry crowd occupied the square in front of the Catholicschool, De la Salle, where Fernandez studied.

“There were a lot of bad feelings, the perception that we were a higher class because it was a private school,” Fernandez said. 

That was the last day of school in Cuba for Fernandez and his brothers, Luis and Gustavo.

“My classroom faced the street and I could see the crowdgathering,” Fernandez recalled. “They closed the windows. My mothercame and took us out of school, through the priests’ quarters in theback, and we never came back.” Other parents were already pulling theirkids from school.

“Somebody would come in and say, ‘Smith, you’re wanted in the office’ and we would never see him again,” Fernandez said.

Miguel (later Mike) Eyia lived in Vedado, a district ofHavana, where his father, also named Miguel, was an accountant. “Weweren’t super-rich, but we had everything we wanted,” he recalled.

The Bay of Pigs invasion sharpened fears of war and military conscription in the Eyia household.

Eyia missed almost a whole year of school before leavingthe island in June 1961. “I was told to stay at home,” he recalled.They were trying to keep me out of sight, and my sister too. I wassurprised and scared.”

“I was young,” he said. “I didn’t think a lot about it. All I know is all of a sudden I was told, ‘You’re going to leave.’” 

Like other middle-class Cubans, Eyia’s father didn’t wantto walk away from the business he had grown for 20 years. “He feltthings were going to change and before too long, everything would beback to normal.” Eyia said.

Norbert Fernandez and his brothers left the Havanaairport Sept. 13, 1961, for the 45-minute flight to Miami. He wasn’tallowed to take currency out of the country, so his dad packed him upwith two boxes of Cuban cigars to sell in Florida.

“When that plane took off, we left a lot of our childhoodbehind,” Fernandez said. “We didn’t know when, or if, we would see ourparents again. We were going to places unknown. We grew up a lotquicker than most kids.”


Follow the drips

For several days, Fernandez and Eyia stayed at KendallChildren’s Home, a 60-bed Catholic Social Services camp in rural DadeCounty. Soon after, they were transferred to Camp Matecumbe, insouthwestern Dade County on the fringe of the Everglades.

As Operation Pedro Pan continued through the fall of 1961, Matecumbe swelled to 400 boys.

Eyia remembers his first job there: cleaning the swimmingpool. “It was like a summer camp, with the pool and all,” Eyia said. “Iknew English so I didn’t have to go to a lot of the classes. The foodwas good.”

As more Pedro Pans flew into Miami, Catholic SocialServices called on contacts across the nation, from prospective hostfamilies to institutions such as Lansing’s St. Vincent Children’s Home,2800 W. Willow St., where the influential monsignor, John D. Slowey,sponsored them.

“Where you ended up was just luck of the draw,” Fernandez said.

In early October 1961, Eyia and Fernandez were at CampMatecumbe watching the World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgerswhen a man called them to the office and told them they were going toLansing. Fernandez only knew two things about Michigan: the Great Lakesand the Detroit Tigers.

Neither Eyia nor Fernandez will forget the drive down Michigan Avenue.

“Coming from Cuba, getting up here in October, when it’sdreary and cold, to an orphanage run by a bunch of nuns — that was ashock,” Eyia said.

“It’s cloudy, it’s cold, it’s misty, and we’re going toan orphanage,” Fernandez said. “There are yellow leaves or no leaves.We’ve never seen this before.”

To hear Eyia and Fernandez describe it, life at St. Vincent’s was a mixture of “Boys’ Town” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

“The nuns had a tough job,” Fernandez allowed. “We werenormal teenagers. We liked sports, we liked girls, and we didn’t wantto go to bed at 8 o’clock.”

“Some of the nuns were really nice, some of them were,well … ” Eyia said, leaving the sentence unfinished. “Some of the guyscoped by laughing and giggling all the time. We all adjusted.”

Late one night, Eyia, Fernandez and other boys put onwinter gloves and disconnected the wire to the 6 a.m. bell that rangfor Mass. The next morning, the nuns barged into the rooms withhandbells.

Another skirmish broke out when the boys deemed the required baths disgusting and demanded showers.

“It became a war,” Fernandez said. After they thought thenuns were asleep, they snuck into the shower. “One day they locked mein the bathroom while I was in the shower,” Fernandez said. “I almosthad to sleep in there.”

On another memorable night, Fernandez, Eyia and otherboys staged their own Bay of Pigs and raided the walk-in freezer. “Inour minds, the nuns and Monsignor Slowey were eating steaks and lobsterwhile we were eating bologna,” he said. He quickly added that suchCastro-like thinking was the product of “the 14-year-old mind.”

“I hope they did eat steak, having to deal with us,” he said.

The boys broke into the garage, shimmied down adumbwaiter into the kitchen, snuck into the freezer and grabbed cartonsof ice cream and other goodies. After whisking the ice cream to theirrooms, they carried it across the grounds to the girls’ dorm. The nunsreconstructed the crime by following the sticky drips across thecourtyard.

Tensions over the freezer revolution led to an escape attempt.

“That was an elaborate plan to meet at this building onthe grounds where they kept slats and things,” Fernandez said. “I hadno clue what the hell we were going to do after that.”

The nuns put a stop to that, too.

On occasion, hapless volunteers from MSU who helped mindthe kids at St. Vincent’s were swept up in the mischief. One was EugeneBuckley, then 19 years old, who later ran unsuccessfully for mayor ofLansing in 2000. One cold winter afternoon, Eyia and Fernandez weredispatched to Cristo Rey for confession, with Buckley driving. The boysdidn’t want to go.

“We let the air out of one of his tires,” Fernandez said.

They only made it a few blocks.

While Buckley was fixing his tire, the boys sat in theback seat and laughed. Fernandez finally made confession, andapologized, to Buckley 40 years later.

Eyia and Fernandez have fun swapping stories now, but their year at St. Vincent’s wasn’t all hijinks and camaraderie.

“When it gets dark at night, that’s when you think about things,” Fernandez said. “Am I going to see my Mom and Dad again?”


‘I was taller’

Norbert Fernandez’s parents arrived in Lansing in 1962, almost a year after he and his brothers left Cuba.

When he arrived in Lansing, Felix Fernandez described asmall but telling revolutionary vignette to his son. At the airport inHavana, his father recognized the officer processing his papers as theman who used to wash his expensive 1957 Impala — made for the Americanmarket, Norbert recalled, because it had a heater.

Now the car was sold, the old life was gone and 40-year-old Felix Fernandez didn’t know what was next.

But Monsignor Slowey seemed to know everybody, fromSpartan head coach Duffy Daugherty to Howard J. Stoddard, founder ofMichigan National Bank. Slowey helped the senior Fernandez get intointensive English classes and got him a job at Michigan National, wherehe retired as a vice president 20 years later.

When it became clear to Eyia’s parents that therevolution was not a passing phase, they left Cuba to join their son inLansing. Eyia’s father arrived in 1963 and found work with the Harris,Reames and Ambrose accounting firm.

“When I saw my folks again two years later, they hardlyeven recognized me,” Eyia said. “My dad had aged incredibly in thattime. I was taller than my mother. That was a strange feeling.”

Eyia and Fernandez went to different schools and losttouch with each other. Fernandez went to Gabriel’s, now CatholicCentral High School, and Eyia went to the O’Rafferty campus on the westside, since closed. Fernandez graduated in 1967, was drafted and servedin Vietnam for a year. He went to work for GMAC, retired from there andnow works for Case Credit Union.

The comrades in petty sabotage and theft firstreconnected in the 1970s, when Eyia started Orquesta Ritmo and theirdads started a Cuban-American association.

“You see each other after a long time and it’s likeyou’re still kids at St. Vincent’s,” Fernandez said. “Some of thestories will always be kept here.” He pointed at his chest.

Whether Operation Pedro Pan was a modern miracle or amass abduction — a timely rescue or a deliberate brain drain of Cubanyouth and talent — depends on whom you ask. One prominent Pedro Pan(and University of Michigan graduate), Professor Maria de los AngelesTorres of the University of Illinois, believes that the CIA spread therumor that kids would be taken from their parents.

There may be 14,000 different shades of opinion among thePedro Pans themselves, now living all over the country. Among the morefamous are former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, Denver Mayor GuillermoVidal and former U.S. Ambassador to Spain Eduardo Aguirre. Latin salsaman Willy Chirino, himself a Pedro Pan child, wrote “Our Day isComing,” the unofficial anthem for Cuban exiles.

Mike Eyia, for one, doesn’t like to be told he was a pawn in a political game.

“That’s a bunch of crap,” he said. “No one had toindoctrinate me. You can tell what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’sbeen going on [in Cuba] for the past 50 years is wrong.”

For his part, Fernandez doesn’t seem to care much whether Tinker Bell was CIA or not.

“For us in Cuba, it didn’t matter,” Fernandez said. “I’vethought about it, having kids. I’d like to think I would have had thecourage to do it. I’ve never had any regrets my parents did that. Theygave us a shot we would not have had in Cuba.”

 

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