TAMPA — Celina Ponte stitched initials into her daughters' clothes, preparing for the worst sacrifice.
It was 1961 in communist Cuba. Her daughters, Blanca and Celina, knew English and were top in their classes.
Fears swirled that the Cuban government would ship well-educated young people to the Soviet Union. And under the Peter Pan Operation, a U.S. program, Cuban children could come to America — alone.
Mrs. Ponte didn't sugarcoat things. She told her daughters, 10 and 8, that they might never see their parents again.
She watched them get on a plane, uncertain of the future.
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Before this, life was idyllic. Mrs. Ponte was a kindergarten teacher in Havana. She played the piano and invented sing-along songs. She kept students in line but detested corporal punishment.
She adored her husband, a prominent Havana lawyer who drove her to work every day. The family split time between the big city and a family dairy farm in Matanzas, Cuba.
When Fidel Castro took over, it all felt apart. Mr. Ponte's office was sealed, putting him out of work. The girls left, and Mrs. Ponte went crazy thinking of them. When the Bay of Pigs Invasion failed, she knew she had to leave.
She addressed her husband, Francisco: "If you want to come with me, do, but if not, I'm going alone."
They found their daughters in an Illinois orphanage. Mr. Ponte landed work in Tampa, and his wife and daughters followed him by train. On the ride, Mrs. Ponte gave the girls a piece of cheese, the only food she had.
After a year and a half apart, they were whole again.
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They lived in Ybor City's housing projects. Mrs. Ponte worked odd jobs cleaning and caring for families. She pleaded with a Catholic school to let her girls attend, even though they had no money. Her husband, who had four college degrees, now made $40 a week as a bookkeeper.
There was no telephone, no car. Mrs. Ponte walked her daughters 16 blocks to school each day. The girls each had one skirt and two blouses, but she taught them to stay clean and proper.
"We were together at every point," said Blanca Ponte, now 57. "I don't know how she managed it."
The girls went to Academy of the Holy Names. They both earned master's degrees from the University of South Florida, emerging debt free.
Mrs. Ponte's husband died in 1994. Eventually, she developed vascular dementia. She died Tuesday at 88.
Her daughter cared for her at home, and the family stayed together.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.