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21Country: ‘Operation Pedro Pan’ youth reuniting 60 years after arriving in Fort Wayne

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - From 1960 to 1962, more than 14,000 Cuban youth left their families to pursue education and freedom in the U.S.

With the aid of the Catholic Church and U.S. Dept. of State, Monsignor Bryan Walsh helped organize the Cuban Children’s Program during the Cuban Refugee Crisis.

‘Operation Pedro Pan’ would distribute unaccompanied children and teens from Cuba, fearing the rise of Fidel Castro and indoctrination, to the safe haven of 48 states.

Fort Wayne received 41 kids, which include Nelson Ayala, Miguel Barnet, and Pedro Ledo, Jr.

Each of those men still call 21Country home today.

Nelson Ayala

“[I] came to the United States in 1962,” Ayala said, sharing his story, “my experience is no different than any Cuban that came to the United States: we came here for freedom, and opportunities.”

“I was locked up in Cuba at the age of 16, for posting anti-Castro propaganda that simple said, ‘Cuba sí, Castro no’,” he continued, “I was fortunate enough they sprung me out! I ate some of the propaganda on the way to the police station, my friend, wasn’t as lucky. He still had a bunch of them in his pockets. He spent 18 years after I left in Cuba, for the same offense.”

Instead of imprisonment, he received, and seized opportunity and freedom.

Ayala began his new life in Fort Wayne.

But the goodbye to his mother then, as a teen, is still etched clearly in his mind.

“I’m not sure I can repeat my mother’s words as I went in that plane,” he said with emotion “she was in tears, and said ‘son, this is the best we can do for you.’”

Ayala credits support from the priests and staff at the former Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne.

He worked his way up to Vice President of Operations as Rea Magnet Wire.

He also traveled the U.S., but returned to Fort Wayne where his kids and grandchildren live.

Patriotism is an important issue to him today.

“I think that it is extremely important to the people of the United States, that if they don’t want to hear the National Anthem, and they don’t want to see the American flag,” Ayala said, “they should go and spend a couple of months in Cuba, and see what communism is all about, and see how much freedom we really have in these United States.”

Pedro Ledo, Jr.

“I recall my mom saying, ‘hopefully those stars shine in Miami, and that every time I would be feeling empty, sad, melancholic,” Pedro Ledo, Jr. explained, “to look at the stars, and she would be in Cuba looking at the same stars, and we would be touching each other.”

As a 15-year-old, he too said goodbye to his parents, and arrived in the U.S. July 1, 1962.

A year later, he found himself in Fort Wayne, attending the same school as his fellow Pedro Pan boys Ayala and Miguel Barnet.

He attended IU, and also became successful in the copper magnet wire industry.

He has been married over 50 years with his wife, a Fort Wayne native.

“Our parents, God Bless them, had their vision of what took place in Cuba,” Ledo said, “they put forward the sacrifice.”

“United States is our homeland, [Cuba] that’s our birthplace,” Ledo shared, “freedom is the greatest right that a person should have.”

His experiences often make it easy, to connect with other Pedro Pan adults, whether he’s known them for years, or meeting them for the first time.

“What’s there? It can never be broken.”

Miguel Barnet

“I was 15, and I was in the program until the age of 19,” Miguel Barnet said, “and then I was on my own. I was working for Seyfert’s potato chips.”

“The only reason my parents decided to send me over, because they trusted the people of the U.S,” Barnet explained, also taking about his challenges, “number one was trying to learn English, because we couldn’t!”

“We had to do things,” he said making a gesture for thirst, “I want to drink Pepsi, or whatever. And how do you say this, and how do you say that? Finally we were able to communicate with others. It was tough years, but finally we were able to overcome the odds.”

A moment he will never forget, was the silence among all passengers on the plane from Cuba to Miami, until they hit U.S. airspace.

“And I remember perfectly well,” Barnet said excitedly, “the pilot said… ‘Welcome to the USA’. Everybody clapped, everybody said all kinds of “wonderful words” to Fidel Castro and his company’s regime, and everybody was so happy I don’t know how the airplane didn’t explode!”

Years passed before he saw his mother again.

His growth from adolescence to adult, was jarring for her.

“It was kind of troublesome for her, to adjust herself,” he explained, “I’m not a little kid anymore. I’m 23, I’m going and dating girls here and there, I drive my own car, I work - ‘Hey, you don’t have to babysit me anymore!’”

“We were happy. It was the beginning of a new life.”

Pedro Pan Boys Meet 60 Years Later

This weekend, about a dozen of those Pedro Pan boys who came to Fort Wayne so many years ago, some even making it their home, will gather this weekend to honor the 60th anniversary.

With their families, they plan to go out to dinner, tour several areas of the city, and attend a special mass held by Bishop Kevin Rhoades.

They hope to express their gratitude for acceptance and aid, to the City of Fort Wayne, its people, and the Catholic Church.

Unrest Remains in Cuba

Ayala, Ledo, and Barnet endlessly express how grateful they are, to have had the opportunity and freedom 60 years ago, from communist Cuba, to American soil.

But feelings that they need to do more, remain as they watch unrest unfold in their former country.

“They don’t necessarily want to have that much money, or food, or medicine. They just want freedom!” Barnet said.

“I want people to remember what the Cubans are struggling with, and what they are fighting for: freedom, something they need, so they can succeed,” Ayala told us, “all they want to do is succeed, but the government doesn’t allow them.”

“And now that we are here,” Ledo gestured, indicating they each met their American Dream, “I think it’s our place, as they so vividly and clearly stated, for us to do what we can, for those still down there. I believe this would be the third generation, under the Castro regime, God willing they’re showing what it requires.”

“They want freedom,” he continued, “they want the possibility of the pursuit of happiness, which I believe everybody should be given that. And our responsibility is to do whatever we can to make sure that happens.”

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out:

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