Exiles in America: Cuban Pedro Pans and Balseros was an oral history project designed to research and document the journeys and experiences of two distinct immigration/migration experiences of the Cuban diaspora. Steve Valesquez of the National Museum of American History Division of Home and Community Life conducted twelve oral history interviews between 2014-2015. The project was funded by the Consortium for the American Experience. Correspondence written by the interviewees (as children) was transferred, processed, and digitized in 2020 through funds awarded by the Smithsonian Institution's Latino Initiatives Pool.
Scope and Contents:
Exiles in America: Cuban Pedro Pans and Balseros consists of eleven born digital oral history interviews about the journeys and experiences of Cubans who came to the United States as unaccompanied children via Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s, and of those who fled the island as balseros—rafters—beginning in the mid-1990s.
There is also supporting documentation in the form of interview transcripts and summaries.
In 2020, correspondence written by some of the interviewees (as children) was transferred from the Division of Cultural and Community Life and digitized.
The collection is arranged in three series.
Series 1: Oral History Interviews, 2014-2015
Series 2: Supporting Documentation, 2014
Series 3: Correspondence, 1960-1969, undated
Biographical / Historical:
Exiles in America: Memory and the Lived Experiences of Cuban Pedro Pans and Balseros was a collecting initiative that looks at the journeys and experiences of Cubans who came to the United States as unaccompanied children via Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s, and of those who fled the island as balseros—rafters—beginning in the mid-1990s. Building on relationships already established with former Pedro Pan children, universities, archives, and museums in Miami, the project conducted research, recorded oral histories, and acquired collections to document the legacy of Cuban migration to the United States. This project was funded by the Consortium for the American Experience in 2014 and was part of the Smithsonian-wide Immigration Initiative and the National Museum of American History exhibit project, Many Voices, One Nation.
Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, many Cubans became wary of their country's new leader, Fidel Castro, and his Communist regime. Those who opposed the revolution sought ways to keep their family together and "save" their children from Communist indoctrination. This growing sentiment prompted underground forces in Cuba and the Catholic Church in Miami—with later assistance from the State Department—to establish Operation Pedro Pan, an underground exodus of approximately 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States, beginning in 1960 and ending in 1962. By 1961, the U.S. government waived all visa requirements for Cuban children and set aside federal money for their care. Under the auspices of Catholic Charities and the Catholic Welfare Bureau, the Miami diocese processed the Cuban children and placed them in shelters (foster care, orphanages, or with family) in forty-seven dioceses in thirty states. In 1962, the Missile Crisis severed all ties between the U.S. and Cuba, halting Operation Pedro Pan; some children waited years to reunite with their parents, others never saw their parents again.
In addition to the State Department's endorsement of Operation Pedro Pan, the federal government enacted policies such as the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 that provided federal aid and resources to help Cubans resettle in the United States and become permanent residents. Many scholars, such as Lillian Guerra, argue that these anti-Communist/Cold War policies ultimately influenced Cubans to embrace "Cuban exceptionality" as fundamental to their identities in the U.S.
In the summer of 2014 the project set out to collect stories and objects, via "collecting days" in collaboration with HistoryMiami. The project invited the community members to participate, record their stories, and collect objects (material culture) related to Operation Pedro Pan and balseros, respectively.
The goal was to research and document the journeys and experiences of Pedro Pans and balseros to understand how two distinct immigration/migration experiences of the Cuban diaspora have shaped the larger American and U.S. Latino experiences, affected the identity-formation of Cuban Americans, and how Latinos have shaped the nation.
Three interviews were collected prior to the collecting days (see Family of Voices (AC1365)) in Miami. Three were recorded in Miami. Four were collected in Washington D.C. and two over the phone. Collected by Steve Velasquez, Division of Home and Community Life.
The Division of Home and Community Life (now Division of Cultural and Community Life) National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution holds artifacts related to this collection.
Made by Steve Velasquez, curator, for the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution in 2014-2015.
Collection is open for research. Interviews and supporting documentation available only in the Smithsonian Institution Digital Asset Management System (DAMS). Correspondence is available for access (physically and digitally).
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Exiles in America: Cuban Pedro Pans and Balseros, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
The project was funded by the Consortium for the American Experience. The digitization of the addendum materials (Series 3) was made possible through a grant from the Smithsonian Latino Center's Latino Initiatives Pool (2020).