The Secret Story of Operation Pedro Pan

More than 50 years after a little-known mass exodus of children from Cuba, Maria Martinez looks back on the plane flight that changed the course of her life—and eventually led her to Rollins College.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Maria Martinez didn’t understand it at the time, but boarding that plane for Miami meant life would never be the same. Only later would she come to terms with the magnitude of the situation: Her parents had made the toughest, most gut-wrenching decision imaginable.

The day was Aug. 21, 1962, and 10-year-old Maria felt excited to be at Havana Airport, ready to go on a vacation with her two sisters, 12 and 14.

“We’ll see you very soon,” her parents assured them. And with a goodbye kiss, the girls literally flew into history as part of Operation Pedro Pan, a highly classified humanitarian mission that, even now, remains an obscure footnote in the annals of the Cold War.

From December 1960 to the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami—in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State—helped more than 14,000 Cuban children flee the new communist regime of Fidel Castro, creating the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.

Rise of a Dictator

In the years before that fateful flight, the Martinez family lived a pretty basic, middle-class life. Dad was a grocery storekeeper. Mom was a homemaker. The girls attended public schools and had lots of family nearby.

But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the changing political climate was becoming too much for many families to bear.

“It was very tense from a child’s point of view,” Martinez says. “There was a lot of ‘hush, hush, don’t talk too loud.’ Castro’s people were going through neighborhoods finding Batista supporters, and we saw a lot of atrocities on TV like torture and the shutting down of Catholic churches. There were rumors that children were going to be kidnapped and sent to camps to be indoctrinated in the communist regime. My parents took me out of school the year before I left, because the government was really brainwashing students.”

Thousands of Cuban parents feared the worst for their kids. Even a life of permanent separation, they reasoned, was better than growing up in a dictatorship.

For those who turned to Operation Pedro Pan, American relatives or friends met about half the children once they arrived in Miami. Most of the others were placed in orphanages or foster homes and, eventually, paired with families across 30 states.

Unfortunately, Martinez and her sisters had nowhere to go. So the girls joined about 35 Cuban children who were shipped to the St. Francis Home Orphanage in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

“We lived there for a couple months until we were taken in as foster children by a family in eastern Pennsylvania,” Martinez says. “A lot of siblings were being separated, but my oldest sister was pretty adamant we had to stay together.”

All things considered, Martinez recalls, she and her sisters had an acceptable life as part of the Scott family. Their classmates and teachers helped them learn English very quickly, and everyone at school was extremely friendly. 

As months passed, the memories of war-torn Cuba grew more distant. Still, Martinez longed for the day her family could be reunited.

A New Life Together

In November 1965, twice-daily Freedom Flights began allowing Cubans to leave for America, and parents of Pedro Pan children were given top priority. It took nearly another two years, but Martinez’s mother and father—along with her grandmother and two other family members—finally stepped foot on U.S. soil. It had been a long five years, but now the family was together at last.

All eight would move into a two-bedroom apartment in Easton, Pennsylvania. Her father worked two full-time factory jobs, and her mother worked in a lingerie factory. At 14, Martinez got her first job helping a housekeeper with her cleaning duties.

“My parents never learned the English language, so my sisters and I were their translators,” she says. “We’d take them to doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, things like that. Having to be a ‘parent’ at the age of 14 or 15 makes you grow up quickly. We became very resilient and tough.”

After graduating Notre Dame High School and DeSales University, Martinez earned her master’s in Human Development at Lehigh University. In between, her family had moved to Boca Raton in 1987. Not long after, Martinez moved to the Sunshine State as well, becoming the director of Human Resources at Rollins College on March 1, 1988. She’s been on campus ever since, now serving as associate vice president of HR and Risk Management.

“I often think about what my life would have been if I’d stayed in Cuba,” says Martinez, who has never returned to the island but is considering a possible visit with her sisters. “My parents are total heroes for what they did. When faced with the option of communism or freedom, they chose to give us a better life … at a tremendous sacrifice.”

As for the state of Cuba today, Martinez understands the view of those who want no part of restoring diplomatic relations. Yet she is also hopeful that a new approach could lead to a more promising future.

“This regime has been there for over 50 years and nothing has changed,” Martinez says. “If anything, Cuba has just gotten worse. … What we have in America is the opportunity to become better. And that’s what they’re missing in Cuba. They need to be free.”