They thought it was a vacation when they left Cuba as children. But it became a lifetime

Miami Herald |

--A large pot of rice cooking in a house in southwestern Miami is the warm heart to a reunion of girlfriends who shared their fears, hopes and lots and lots of cold weather more than 50 years ago in a Catholic school in Richmond, Virginia.

The laughter, stories and emotions reflected the friendships they established as they faced uncertain futures, living by themselves and missing the parents they had left behind in Cuba.

Norma Barquet, Mercedes Méndez Agraz, Marta Aguado, Lourdes Buján, Luisa Duarte, Charito Izquierdo, Maria Luisa Martínez, Benita McDermott and Elita Sotorrio Vázquez were part of the Pedro Pan exodus that saw more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors arrive in the United States from to to escape Fidel Castro's newly installed Communist regime.

The operation was carried out with the help of the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Msgr. Bryan Walsh and the U.S. government.

The reunion had been long-awaited, especially by Norma Barquet, a teacher and retired executive of Girl Scouts USA, who lives in Massachusetts and had not seen many of her friends from St. Joseph Villa -- the Catholic home and school in Richmond that the girls were sent to -- for 55 years.

Barquet brought a deck of cards to recall the games of canasta that filled their weekends when they studied at the school, run by the Sisters of Charity and a key part of their childhood.

When they came to the United States, many of them first went to a camp in Florida City that primarily took in older girls. They later were sent to Richmond, where they suffered the first blows of winter, a different language and separation from their mothers and fathers.

"We believed the separation was not going to last, that it was a long vacation," Barquet said of her trip. "We even had new clothes made. One week before, we were told that we could only take what we were wearing, and everything was left behind.

"It helped us a lot that we lived with the nuns, who were the teachers," said Barquet, who became emotional as she recalled her stay at the school run by the Sisters of Charity.

Marta Aguado, who was 16 when she arrived, said that being sent as a group to St. Joseph Villa was a "blessing."

"It was a wise decision by the Richmond archdiocese, to house all of the young Cuban girls together and in only one building," said Aguado, who now lives in Miami.

For her, the U.S. trip also did not seem permanent because her parents told her that "everything is temporary, because our idealized American friends were not going to allow communism to take over Cuba, a country with many business and historical ties to the United States."

Her mother told her that it would be a good opportunity to learn English and get to know U.S. culture, added Aguado, who was born in Pinar del Rio in western Cuba.

A few days before she left Cuba, with her 10-year-old brother, she started to get nervous.

By the time her airplane landed in Miami, she had become "a very quiet little girl, afraid of being without my parents and anxious because I did not know what lay ahead of me."

Her last image of her parents was their goodbyes from the terrace of Havana's Rancho Boyeros Airport.

"My mother raised her crutch so I could see her better. She had had an accident recently," Aguado recalled.

She understood that coming to the United States was a smart decision, even if it meant a lot of emotional upheaval. By that time, many of her family's friends "had left Cuba to wait for a solution to the chaos, intolerance, abuse, the confiscations of businesses and personal properties and all the violence and class hatreds that the Revolution was causing in the country."

Charito Izquierdo said she felt the same way when she was separated from her younger brother, who was sent to a boys' school in Virginia.

They established a code in case something happened to him. He would send her a message saying, "My little shoes are tight" -- a verse known to almost all Cubans because parents frequently sing it as a lullaby.

As she feared, Izquierdo received a message from her brother that his shoes were tight, very tight, the businesswoman recalled in a conversation.

Although he was treated well at the school, he suffered because of the separation from his family and the fear of the unknown.

That was perhaps one of her most difficult times in Virginia, Izquierdo said, because it was her brother who was suffering.

Aguado said she also suffered because Americans knew little about her country and its customs, and because "no one was interested in helping us to combat communism."

To the contrary, she complained, the U.S. news media, universities and many of its intellectuals were enamored of the Cuban Revolution.

"It was terrible to realize that perhaps there was no return, that our stay in this country could be permanent," she said. But she added she received much support and understanding as she adapted to her new homeland.

The American friends that the Cuban girls made at St. Joseph Villa would invite them to their homes and share family meals and even gifts during holidays.

Barquet recalled that the first football game she saw was at the home of the U.S. boyfriend of a Cuban girl at the school. "I remember it was around time, and the University of Michigan was playing," she said.

Nearly one year after she came to the United States, she was reunited with her parents and they settled in Michigan. She then worked at that same university for more than 10 years, and her son, an attorney, graduated from the school.

Aguado said the Cuban girls at St. Joseph Villa forged "an unbreakable sisterhood" because they lived together, sharing the language, food and traditions.

One of her favorite times was on Sundays, when the nuns served them lunch in the formal dining room of the home.

"It was always chicken pot pie by Swanson," said Aguado, who liked the lunches because the food at the school was "terrible, boiled, without any spices or taste," and made her miss even more the food back home in Cuba.

Today, thinking about the reunion with old friends, Aguado was thankful.

"I have always remembered them all, without exception, with affection and lots of gratitude for having shared part of their lives with me."


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