A terrified Mariateresa Gomez was 6 years old the day in 1962 when, in a glass-walled room at the Havana airport, she watched Cuban security dismember her doll Pepito just before she and her brother flew without their parents to Miami. Where the children knew no one..
“They pulled off the legs, arms and head. They were looking for anything being smuggled,” Terry Gomez Lombardi, now 60, says of the memory. It still has the power to make her weep.
The girl could see her parents outside the glass wall but couldn’t touch or talk to them, Security left Pepito in pieces. Someone, probably a stewardess, put Pepito together for the little girl.
Her doll was made whole that day, but her childhood blew apart.
Her parents were sending them to America, out of the reach of the Castro government, which was seizing homes, businesses and money; closing schools; exiling clergy; and rumored to soon be assuming parental authority over all children.
It was the last time she or her brother saw their father. They didn’t see their mother again until 1965. By then the siblings were in East Hartford in their second foster home since arriving in America. Terry had lost her accent. She was more American tomboy than the dress-wearing Cuban girl who used to roller skate near the presidential palace in Old Havana.
Lombardi’s life story has special relevance today with the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba — the nation that her parents tried so hard to separate her from — and the massive emigration of refugees from civil war in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, which has similarly split families and sent displaced populations into an uncertain future in a foreign land.
But for decades, Terry Gomez Lombardi didn’t know that her personal journey was part of a larger program, kept quiet by design, that from 1960 to late 1962 airlifted 14,048 unaccompanied Cuban children ages 3 to 18 to the United States.
Or that the program had a name: Operation Pedro Pan.
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