Vol. 14


Sobrevivientes (Survivors)

1961; Havana, Cuba; Miami, Florida, and Chicago, Illinois, USA

“He needs out! Right now!” I could hear mí madré1 sobbing from the other room. Children all over the island, five years old and up, were being sent to dreaded youth camps, where they would be put to work. Unfortunately for me, I, Sergio, was fourteen.

I needed out of the country desperately. Fortunately my family had a plan for my sister Elisa and me. We had recently moved closer to the biggest of the three airports in Cuba. My only hope of escaping was with the visa American “missionaries” had brought me. When they heard about Castro, priests all over the United States rushed to find a way to rescue kids from the mayhem. One American priest had the only good idea: He got help from some people in the U.S. government and several other organizations.2 Thanks to him, there I was, visa in one hand, sister in the other, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

The phone lines were tapped, and we didn’t know exactly when the plane would leave. A “code” was eventually used to let us know that the plane would leave at three o’clock that day.

I took my pocket watch out. “Let’s go!” I shrieked at Elisa. We scampered to the plane, but I sat far away from her. I was sweating, and my hands were shaking. I dared a glance back. Elisa looked nervous too, and I knew exactly why.

Everyone was nervous because there was a chance that this plane wouldn’t even get into the air. Men were sauntering down the aisle, nearing Elisa. I gulped. I prayed she wouldn’t get thrown off the plane like others had, and it seemed to work. A few minutes later we were in the air, and soon we landed in Miami, Florida.

A person from customs3 gave us papers saying that we were permanent political refugees. Then we stayed overnight with Spanish-speaking friends.

The next morning we boarded a plane headed for Chicago. When we landed, we were hopelessly lost in the enormous airport. We needed to find the plane that would take us to Peoria. Elisa and I wandered aimlessly, unable to read any signs or understand English. By some miracle, a man whose ticket matched ours helped us to our gate and bought us hot dogs on the way. We reached the plane just in time. The second we landed in Peoria, relief flooded over me.

I knew I was lucky. I had made it to America, and so had my sister. We stayed with another one of my sisters, who lived in America. I was only fourteen but had escaped one of Castro’s youth camps. I may not see my family for many years to come, but I will forever carry my memories of them in my heart. Madré would be proud of the life I have made for myself in this new country. I will never forget this part of my life as long as I live. I am a survivor. Looking back now as a seventy-two-year-old, I still remember it like it was yesterday. I will never forget you, querida familia.4

Ava Fernández, granddaughter of Sergio; Missouri, USA


1. Translation from Spanish: “my mother.”

2. This flight was part of Operation Peter Pan (Operación Pedro Pan) that moved 14,000 children from Cuba to the United States between 1960 and 1962. Parents had requested this opportunity for their children.

3. Customs is the place where documents and baggage of people entering a country are inspected by a government agency.

4. Translation from Spanish: “dear family.”



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