Uprooted by Revolution

FSU professor recalls tumultuous times in Cuba

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Dr. Angel Gonzalez fled Cuba at the age of 10 and has since made a better life for himself and his family. 

Reflecting on a lifetime spent working in government and academia, Dr. Angel Gonzalez takes pride in his adaptability. For the recently retired FSU professor of hospitality administration, it’s almost second nature to make adjustments in life, dating back to his time growing up in San Jose, Cuba, and Lincoln, Nebraska.

He can also take pride in being a gifted storyteller, able to draw from vivid memories to retrace a childhood shaped by forces beyond his control. 

When Gonzalez was only 10 years old, Fidel Castro’s revolution arrived at his family’s doorstep. In 1958, he recalled, rebels began attacking targets to sow fear and uncertainty in his hometown on the outskirts of Havana, placing his parents, older sister and him in the crossfire as both sides battled for control of Cuba.

“There were times you could not go to the movies because of the fear that a bomb may explode,” Gonzalez says, now 68. “Other times, you could be walking around the town at night, hear a boom and the power would go off. It was war.”

A year later, Castro seized power and established a communist government. 

With Gonzalez’s country gripped by revolution, the “wonderful time” he had as a child abruptly ended. He and his sister Inés fled Cuba in a mass exodus of 14,000 unaccompanied youths in Operation Pedro Pan — an operation developed in secret by the U.S. government and the Catholic Church in Miami. It lasted from December 1960 to October 1962.

For Gonzalez’s parents, the tipping point came after government reforms altered education to serve the state. Gonzalez’s new curriculum in school? He marched several hours each day and was taught how to fire submachine guns.

Realizing his children had no future in Cuba, Gonzalez’s father, Turiano, a cigar manufacturer whose business was nationalized, used his connections to get them out. That day came in June 1962 when Gonzalez and his sister were whisked away to the airport for an afternoon flight to Miami, each with a duffel bag in tow — but their bags were taken away.

When they arrived in the U.S., Angel and Inés had nothing: no belongings to call their own, nor family or friends to take care of them. 

“When we arrived at Miami International, we had nothing except the clothes we were wearing. No money, nothing,” Gonzalez says. 

Instead, they were taken by van to separate military camps modified to host Pedro Pan children in Miami, sponsored by the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB), where they spent their summer before Angel was relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Inés was sent to nearby David City.

Though dozens of Pedro Pan children were sent to Lincoln, the educational system struggled to adjust to their arrival, as many of them spoke only Spanish.

“Back then there was no bilingual education. I found myself in a school where I was expected to perform like anyone else,” Gonzalez says. “It was sink or swim. Being 13, it was very frustrating.”

In 1964, Angel and Inés were reunited with their parents, who were among “the lucky ones” to get out, he says. The CWB helped them find service jobs to make ends meet and provided them with a sparsely furnished home. 

Gonzalez lived in Lincoln until 1969, when he moved to Tallahassee to study international affairs at FSU; he graduated in 1972. Though he lives in Florida with his family, he still has fond memories of Lincoln and has visited several times.

Though diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba are warming, Gonzalez has no plans to visit anytime soon. He stays connected to Cuba by learning its history and by attending events including a Pedro Pan reunion meeting last year in Jacksonville, where he met other Cubans who grew up away from their homeland. Despite his difficult circumstances long ago, Gonzalez remains grateful.

“We were so fortunate and grateful that we wound up in a community like Lincoln,” Gonzalez says. “We were so well received by the church and the community. Not just us as children but our parents as well. The people made the difference.”

Operation Pedro Pan 

Operation Pedro Pan is the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere, numbering 14,000 young children. Beginning in December 1960, the operation came to an end in October 1962, when commercial flights between Cuba and the United States were halted as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. While half of the minors were reunited with family once they landed, the other 7,000 children were relocated to 30 states; 70% of the resettled minors were boys over the age of 12.

Categories: In Their Own Words