TAMPA — Eighth-graders at Berkeley Preparatory School are immersed in a class-wide documentary project that will tell the story of a little-known moment in history when more than 14,000 Cuban children were sent unaccompanied to the United States.
This effort, dubbed Operation Pedro Pan, gave parents a chance to save their children from indoctrination under Fidel Castro's regime. Between December 1960 and October 1962, it marks the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.
The idea for the documentary was sparked by a summer reading selection, 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. English teacher Susan Alexander and her colleagues were discussing the novel, which relays a fictionalized account of Operation Pedro Pan based on the author's own experience, when Alexander recognized a real-world teaching opportunity.
"We knew that Tampa was home to many Cuban-Americans and we thought that if we got out in the community we could find people who would be willing to speak to the students," Alexander said.
She took the idea to Buck Johnson, assistant director of the middle division. Together, they devised a plan to seek out area Pedro Pans (as participants of the exodus are known) and have eighth-grade students create a series of documentaries to tell their stories.
It was an ambitious undertaking and would require a collaborative effort. The history department graciously agreed to alter their curriculum to cover the events that precipitated Operation Pedro Pan. The English department incorporated further reading on the subject. "We like to share ideas and build on them. If we are flexible and open and excited about learning, the students will be too," Alexander said.
When it came to finding Pedro Pans, Johnson knew to turn to a Berkeley mom, Patsy Feliciano. Feliciano, who was 13 when she came to the United States from Cuba as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, was eager to help.
"The school is presenting these kids with a story they may have never stumbled upon themselves," she said.
Because of her strong ties in the Cuban-American community, Feliciano was able to produce an impressive list of participants. Notable names include Carlos Eire, National Book Award winner for his memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, and former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida. On Sept. 17, six students traveled to Orlando to conduct the first interview with Martinez.
The project gained momentum when a television production team from New York City arrived on campus several weeks ago, thanks to a Berkeley father who is vice president of operations for a major television network. They provided the students with a crash course in interviewing, camera operation, video editing and post-production.
Students put these lessons to use the following day when they welcomed several Pedro Pans to campus and the stories began to unfold. Stories like those of sisters Celina Joszi and Blanca Ponte, who were just 8 and 10 when they arrived in the United States.
Before the interview, Joszi had never spoken publicly about her experience. But she agreed to be a part of the documentary because it came at the request of the students.
"It is so valuable for your generation to understand how fragile the gifts you have are. How precious freedom of speech, freedom of religion, just freedom, period," she told the students.
Like many of the Pedro Pans, Joszi and Ponte were eventually reunited with their parents. But the raw emotion in their words so many years later speaks to the tremendous impact this moment in history had on them and so many others.
"It definitely puts a whole new perspective on life in general," said Andre Armero, the student who interviewed the sisters. "We had done the research, but it was a completely different experience being face-to-face."
The project has been an eye-opening experience for all involved and Alexander plans to keep it going indefinitely.
"We want Berkeley to be that place where people can come to tell their stories," she said.
If you or someone you know has an Operation Pedro Pan story to share, email Susan Alexander at [email protected]