When Allison Rodriguez ’13 applied to participate in History 244: Revolutionary Cuba, an abroad course offered this past Interim, she told only her father. He first arrived in the United States 50 years ago via Operation Pedro Pan — a secret evacuation program run by the U.S. State Department, the C.I.A., and the Catholic Welfare Bureau of Miami that brought Cuban children to the United States to escape the Castro regime. Lasting from November 1960 to October 1962, it brought more than 14,000 children to this country.
Rodriquez’s father does not like to talk about his experience. In fact, it wasn’t until her first year at St. Olaf that he began writing about his experience. Nonetheless, he was “elated” when she told him of her decision to visit Cuba as part of a class. But when other relatives found out, some initially expressed concern and dismay. One even asked her to reconsider.
“They’re still very upset about the revolution,” says Rodriguez. “There are a lot of deep-rooted emotional issues.” But she was resolute in wanting to break the psychological barrier in her family that has impeded them from traveling to Cuba during the past half century. “I adamantly wanted to go to my family’s hometown. I wanted to be a representative for them and see things for them and take pictures for them,” she says.
And as part of the second generation of the first wave of Cuban exiles, she also hoped to explore her roots. “It’s always been fairly difficult for me because I don’t look Cuban,” she explains. “I wanted to cement what I have been feeling for 20 years as a strong part of my heritage.”
In 1961 Ubaldo Rodriguez was sent to the United States at age 7 because his parents, like thousands across Cuba, feared that the Cuban government would take away their children. The catalyst for his journey came in late 1960, when a C.I.A.-operated radio station began broadcasting false claims that the Castro regime was going to take away parents’ patria potestad — the legal authority over their children.
After arriving in Miami, the young Rodriguez was placed in an orphanage for several months After arriving in Miami, the young Rodriguez was placed in an orphanage for several months before being sent to Detroit, where he lived four years with a foster family. He was then reunited with his mother (his father had since died in Cuba) and they settled in southern California.
“You can imagine a young boy from Cuba who didn’t speak English going to Detroit to live with a foster family. I’m sure that a lot of who my dad is has been affected by that,” his daughter explains.
Making it real
Due to travel restrictions that have only recently been eased, eight years have passed since History 244 last visited the island nation. While in Cuba, Rodriguez and her classmates, led by Associate Professor of History Jeane DeLaney, made a day trip to the Rodriguez family’s hometown of Ciego de Ávila. There, Rodriguez located her family’s church, the last apartment where her father lived, and the family store. The excitement of the day was tempered only when she found her grandfather’s cemetery, but was unable to locate his grave.
Back at home in California, Ubaldo Rodriguez hosted a large family party for his daughter to show her photos. Some 40 of her relatives crowded into a room and watched in excitement as she narrated the images. It was a profound moment for the family, who knew very little about modern day Cuba, and it gave Rodriguez a chance to reflect on what the trip meant to her.
“Now I feel more confident in my heritage,” says Rodriguez. “I met so many Cubans who were excited by my story, and they openly accepted me as a Cuban.”
And in uncovering her own roots, Rodriguez helped her father approach coming to terms with his. “My experience made it real to him. He feels conflicted in his Cuban identity because he had to Americanize very quickly. He was so excited when he found out I was going. That to me is the biggest indicator that he is emotionally ready to visit Cuba and wants to do it. I’m going to work on getting him to go. A trip like that would be amazing.”