By Amanda Gonzalez Garcia
Empty desks, being separated from your parents, losing personal belongings, and getting heirlooms seized. The feeling of uncertainty and a lack of belonging yet clinging to a glimmer of hope. This was the reality of the Pedro Pans—the group of 14,000 unaccompanied minors who fled Communist Cuba to the United States between1960 and 1962.
Dr. Giselle Elgarresta Rios, music pro- gram director at Barry and founding director for the Institute for Immigration Studies, is a Pedro Pan descendant.
She remembers her mother, Gisela Nieto Llerena, going through the harrowing experience.
“I had always heard the term Pedro Pan growing up but didn't understand the profound impact. She never shared the details of those years, so it is now that I am learning the story and the impact on South Florida,” said Rios.
In February, Rios led a tour for the Marta’s Cuban Book Club: On Our Diaspora, History and Culture through Barry’s Operation Pedro Pan exhibit.
“It is very moving for me personally to see Pedro Pan participants here at Barry and the exhibit being moved to tears over the memories it provokes. I am a proud to have the Operation Pedro Pan story here for students and faculty from over 80 countries to learn about this specific immigrant story,” she said. “We all have an immigration story. When you speak about immigration you need to share these stories in order to be able to open the hearts and educate.”
Operation Pedro Pan: The Living Legacy Exhibit was unveiled last November at the Monsignor William Barry Memorial Library. This immersive exhibition offers a glimpse into the experiences these children endured. On display are are items like maps, model airplane seats, and items that were seized, bearing importance to the culture at the time.
Its growth and success are from the sincere generosity of donors like Sunshine Gas, Bacardi Foundation, Padron Family Foundation, and the Bussel Family Foundation.
The Institute for Immigration Studies (IIS) works to promote the education on the South Florida immigrant experience while preserving artifacts, documents, and stories.
The institute has grown significantly since its inauguration, and Rios has many plans for it.
She said they have developed a curriculum to incorporate an immigration studies minor at Barry in the fall.
The institute has selected two faculty fellows and has collaborated with the community to become a higher education partner. In addition, they will host an International Immigration Conference and Festival in the spring of 2024.
The fellows are Barry’s own, Dr. Sabrina Des Rosiers, professor of psychology and Dr. Celeste Landeros, professor of humanities and English.
To the right of the library’s entrance, this exhibition still represents the flashback into the 1960s.
The Freedom Tower at Miami-Dade College was a processing center during those years and served as a hope for opportunity and growth. Roughly, 650,000 refugees passed through and underwent interviews to establish their unique needs, according to Daily Commercial. They were given identification cards, medical examinations, dental care, and financial assistance.
Barry’s exhibit also serves to highlight the contributions and achievements these children have had on their surrounding communities and beyond. It has drawn visitors from all over the region.
Marta “Riquelme” Mayer is a retired Spanish teacher and founder of the Cuban book club.
“I was born in Cuba but was exiled very young at age four with my family in 1962, and I wanted to be able to understand our plight and history better. I formed the book club as a way to discuss the books I was reading with other interested parties. I announced the new book club on a Cuban author/friend’s Facebook page and quickly people joined the group,” Mayer said, who is also a Dali Museum docent.
Additionally, from the wide variety of exhibition items on display, Mayer noted “la pesera” (Fishbowl), the glass-wall enclosure in the Havana airport where the children and their parents were separated to await their flight.
“The account of being held in “la pesera” and seeing the replica there, was so moving---you could envision the children in anguish, holding back tears for fear of retribution, separated from the secure arms of their parents, going to the unknown, and to add to their unspeakable pain, they were searched and humiliated, and their precious few belongings ripped from their bodies----“my mom’s gold crucifix---please, sir, no!” she said.
Clinical psychologist Martha Corvea, Ph.D., is an active member of the book club and have met over Zoom since 2021. The group gathers members from California, Jersey, and Central Florida. This event was able to bring them together to meet for the very first time.
The Operation Pedro Pan exhibit is free and open to the public.