administrator's blog

My visit with my Foster Parents

by Ricardo J. Cata

Baldwin High School Nexus- June 2013

On October 12, 2012, I visited with my foster parents, Vinnie and Jeanne (Graven) Barbato '42 of Baldwin. My brother Jose and I arrived at the Barbato household on November 14, 1962, a very cold day 50 years ago. They still live today in the same house as in 1962. I was 15 and Jose was 16 at the time. We were refugees from the Castro regime in Cuba. Our parents sent us to the United States alone to get us out, and to give us a future and a hope. Our parents, Manuel and Maria, and my sister Maria who was 13 at the time, came to the U.S. in June 1963. My mother, brother and I then set up our new home in North Grand Avenue, with the help, support and guidance of Vinnie and Jeanne.

My brother and I arrived in Miami on August 12, 1962 as part of the "Pedro Pan" program (see: www.pedropan.org), which was a program created in 1960 by the Catholic Welfare Bureau in conjunction with the United States State Department. About 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children (boys and girls) below the age of 18 years came out of Cuba through this program between 1960 and 1962. My brother and I stayed in Army tents at Camp Matecumbe in Southwest Miami-Dade County with about 400 other boys for 3 months, until the time we were sent to the Barbato home.

My brother and I were blessed to come into the Barbato household. Vinnie and Jeanne, and their twin boys, Steve and Stanley, were wonderful, caring and loving to my brother and me. I have told Vinnie and Jeannemany times since then how blessed I feel, because I had two sets of parents, my natural parents, and Vinnie and Jeanne.

It was a sweet visit with Vinnie and Jeanne this past October, talking about memories from 40 to 50 years ago. We went to mass at St. Christopher's' Saturday morning, and then for breakfast at the Coach Dinner. I left from there to the airport. It seems incredible that 50 years have gone by since that November day in 1962. I recall that when we went to register at BHS, they had to call the Spanish teacher down to administration (a German
fellow), because no one else spoke Spanish.

I left Baldwin in 1975, after 2 years in the Army, and graduating from College and St. John's Law School. Vinnie and Jeanne were great mentors for me and played no small part in keeping me from dropping out of law school during my first year. I have lived, and practiced law, in the South Florida area since 1975. My wife Ani has visited Vinnie and Jeanne on two occasions. With the perspective of the years and having a family and grandchildren, I have come to fully appreciate the enormous sacrifice my parents made back in August 1962 to give my brother and me the guarantee of freedom. I bless their memory.

I also salute, hug, kiss and bless Vinnie and Jeanne for their great act of love and compassion, initially with my brother and me, and later on also with my mother and sister. Well done good and faithful servants!

MATECUMBE

By JUAN PUJOL

El sábado 8 de Junio estuvimos reunidos en Camp Matecumbe para celebrar el 50 aniversario de la graduación de la única clase de “seniors” de Matecumbe High. El calor y la humedad imperante no se podían comparar con el calor humano en los abrazos y saludos de todos los que allí estábamos celebrando con ellos.

Como siempre que nos vemos en ocasiones como esta, tal parecía que nos habíamos visto recientemente, que nunca nos habíamos separado, aunque en muchos casos no nos habíamos visto más desde que nos despedimos al irnos del Campamento.

Matecumbe es un lugar muy especial que a veces es difícil de explicar, yo viví allí casi un año de los tres que estuve en el programa. Viví en tres campamentos; pero ningún otro dejó en mi las huellas que dejó Matecumbe.

No negaré que sufrí conociéndote aquel día...” como diría el poema sobre Matecumbe en el ultimo numero de Forja. (Publicación mensual de Octubre del 62 hasta Mayo/ Junio del 64).

Llegué una noche de agosto en medio de una tormenta tropical y al acostarme en la litera que me asignaron, sin sábana o almohada, me quedé dormido sintiendo las gotas de la lluvia cayendo en el techo de la carpa que me cubría, pero muy contento y agradeciendo a Dios el llegar a tierras de libertad.

Al otro día tuvimos un día bello y los rayos de sol se filtraban entre los muchos pinos que nos rodeaban, lo vi como una señal que mi pesadilla vivida en mi Patria en el último año, quedaba atrás como la tormenta de la noche anterior y mi vida comenzaba una nueva etapa llena de esperanza.

Después de vivir allí, yo estuve listo para todo lo que enfrenté más adelante, tal vez fue por aquello que oía de “me roza, me patina, me resbala y me pasa por el lado y ni me echa fresco” o los ratos que, solo con los pinos y los montes me ponía a hablar con Dios o el compartir con aquellos que tenían los mismos valores que yo y veíamos el tiempo en el Campamento como estar en una fragua forjándonos para el futuro.

Todos nosotros tenemos la responsabilidad de proclamar nuestra saga, de contar nuestra historia personal, de que se sepa que estamos orgullosos de ser llamados Pedro Pan, de que estamos agradecidos a nuestros padres que hicieron el sacrificio de enviarnos a un futuro incierto; pero que ofrecía más tranquilidad y seguridad de lo que estábamos viviendo en Cuba.

Camp Matecumbe es el lugar ideal para mantener físicamente recuerdos de nuestra historia, vamos a unirnos todos, no solamente los Matecumberos, sino todos los Pedro Pan.

El Board de Directores de OPPG ha tomado la iniciativa en dar estos primeros pasos y les estamos muy agradecidos por su esfuerzo.

Hago un llamado a todos a trabajar unidos para conseguir que podamos decir MATECUMBE VIVE.

“Matecumbe, nombre indio, coraje y abnegación
Matecumbe, tu recuerdo, vivirá en mi corazón…”

Camp Matecumbe Celebration 2013

Camp Matecumbe Celebration 2013

Click on the image
Click on the Image

Saturday, June 8, 2013
Camp Matecumbe
13841 SW 120 St
Miami, Fl 33186


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Matecumbe High School Class Reunion- A 50 year reunion chronicle

by Daniel Arco Reyes

In the morning of Saturday June 8th, the grounds of Camp Matecumbe were visited by a crowd in excess of 200 people which included former residents of the camp, their spouses, children, grandchildren and friends as well as many other Pedro Pan kids that were housed at different facilities and their families.  The large crowd included a Pedro Pan mother, Leonor Valdivia, representing the brave mothers of the 14,048 Pedro Pan children, the women that courageously chose freedom for their sons and daughters over oppression at the price of separation.

The gathering marked the Golden Anniversary (50 years) reunion of the first and only graduating class of Matecumbe High School.  For this special and uplifting event several of the grads were reunited once again as they have done before. Guys travelled from different parts of the country to attend the festivities, to rekindle the friendship and brotherhood forged under the tents and on the shadows of the pine trees of the camp.

The program was initiated inside the Gran Cabana with a Thanksgivings Mass officiated by Father Sergio Garcia-Miro, one of the four former camp instructors also in attendance.  Some of the members of the '63 graduating class participated in the liturgy. During the school year of 1962-63 Fr. Sergio was the instructor in charge of this group. Immediately following the mass, Carmen Valdivia, representing OPPG’s Board of Directors with the assistance of the former instructors, presented each of the grads present a certificate commemorating the historical occasion.

The attendees enjoyed a plethora of hors d'oeuvres before a delicious paella was served to everyone's delight.


Back row left to right: Leandro Alvarez (Hialeah, Fl), Mario Naranjo (North Carolina), Roberto Balbis (West Palm Beach, Fl), Ernesto Perdomo (New Jersey), Angel Carballo (Puerto Rico), Jesus Esteban Ramil (Miami,Fl), Luis Lopez (Miami, Fl), Porfirio Gramatges (Marco Island, Fl) , Daniel Arco (Texas) and Wilfredo Braceras (Miami, Fl). Front row left to right: Rolando Crespo (Miami, Fl) and Arturo Lara (Pennsylvania).

In the evening hours the group of graduates got together at the home of one of their classmate to continue visiting with each other in a more intimate environment, to recount events, to tell anecdotes, to remember their teachers and their classmates absent from this reunion, to relive their days in camp and to catch up with the happenings of each other. While the room was filled with laughter, joy and good times the group of wives (which connected equally as well as the guys) marveled at the strong bond these men have been able to create and maintain despite the passing of five decades.  Though they are scattered throughout the country they have the ability to reconnect instantaneously with each other and carry on as if they have never been separated from each other for any period of time.  As so aptly was said several times during the reunion "fifty years have gone by and nothing has changed"

A Story of Love and Generosity: 50 years later


by Carmencita Romanach

A very special reunion took place last March 30, 2013 in Miami, Florida. I had the privilege to be invited to this Family Reunion and will try to convey some of the joy, the love and the emotions shared by representatives of three different families (Ramirez/ Johnson /Fernandez)  that share a common bond, a bond of love and generosity that goes back over 50 years in time.

Tete Ramírez, José Fernández, Jean Johnson, Nenetta Ramírez, Jackie Johnson, Nina Ramírez, María Fernández (Picture Courtesy Nina Ramirez).

Ms. Jean Johnson (Pedro Pan foster mother), from Rome, NY and Ms. Amalia (Nenetta) Ramirez (Pedro Pan mother) from Camaguey, Cuba, met surrounded by their children and former foster children at Nenetta’s home in Miami last March 2013. The families had remained in contact but Jean and Nenetta had not seen each other again in over 40 years. It was a most joyful reunion where you could sense the joy and the love that surrounds these families.  Jose Fernandez, who generously planned this reunion and made it actually happen, came with his wife from Puerto Rico especially for the occasion. Nenetta had suffered a stroke some time ago and I wasn’t able to interview her directly but she obviously was sharing in the joy and the laughter and was deeply touched by Jean’s and Jackie’s presence as they were so much a part of her life and her children’s.  Upon their arrival from Cuba in 1962, Nenetta and her husband Rolando (Pucho) settled in Rome, NY and continued their relationship with the Johnsons for many years until they moved to Miami.

The story starts as the 4 Ramirez children, Angie (13), Nina (12), Tete (11) and Rolando (9) leave Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan on January 17, 1962. Upon arrival they were taken to the Florida City Camp. Shortly after their arrival they were selected among a group of Pedro Pan children by Msgr. Francis J. Willenburg (Catholic Charities of the Rome/Utica area) to be placed with foster families in his area. Nina recalls their arrival at Utica airport and how Msgr. Willenburg managed to find the only Spanish- speaking family in town, the Rodriguez family to accompany him to the airport, so they could translate for the Pedro Pan children. The Rodriguez family brought their young son, Sergio, with them, something the Ramirez remembers fondly to this day. (A short time ago, Sergio Rodriguez reconnected with them as well).

In the meantime, the Johnson’s family composed of Carleton (Brud), Jean and their two children, Jackie and Jerry, living in Rome, NY heard the news of a group of Cuban children arriving in their area and needing a home. Ms. Jean Johnson remembers that her daughter Jackie (10) came home with the news and she immediately volunteered to take one Cuban child to her home. Next thing she knew, she got a call from Catholic Charities asking her if she would be willing to take the 4 Ramirez siblings instead of one so they wouldn’t be separated. At her 88 years, she is sharp and witty, and she told me laughing, “I am happy that I volunteered only for one, I don’t know what would have happened if I had volunteered for 2!”

1962 – Angie, Jerry, Jean, Nina, Brud, Tete, Rolando, Jackie
(Picture Courtesy Nina Ramirez).

Later on, the Johnson family would foster two more Pedro Pan children, Maria and Jose Fernandez. The Johnsons fostered six Pedro Pan children in total through a period of several years. Jean said, “We had inherited a big home and I thought, this children need a home and we’ve got it, so, why not?” After the Ramirez children reunited with their parents, when she got a call from Catholic Charities to take another Pedro Pan Cuban girl, Maria (17), as a foster child, she said yes right away. Maria’s brother, Jose (15), was already living with a local foster family and Maria wanted to be close to her brother (she ended up staying with the Johnsons for four years).  Ms. Johnson remembers that they asked her, “Don’t you want to consult with your husband first?” and her reply was, “No! He’ll be happy!” and she added, “I remember when the Ramirez children arrived he couldn’t wait to take them around!”

Eventually, Jose’s foster family would leave the area and the Johnson’s stepped in again and took Jose into their home.  Jose’s roommate, Renato, was taken in by the Ramirez family until his parents came. Jose remembers how Jean was such a great cook and always made him feel like family. He also remembers with gratitude how the Johnson family not only helped them but also helped and supported both the Ramirez (Pucho and Nenetta) and the Fernandez (Cheo and Mary) parents to settle in when they reunited with their children in Rome, NY. The families formed a strong bond of love, generosity and gratitude that still unites them to this day.

1964 -Maria’s graduation.  Brud, Maria, Jose, Jean and Jerry.
(Picture Courtesy Maria Fernandez).

When I asked Jean about her impression of the Ramirez children when they arrived she said, “They blended right in, they were family, they felt like my own!”  She added,
“The only problem was the language, but pretty soon, Angie, the eldest could communicate very well in English and that was it” and she added, “By the time the Fernandez children arrived, it was a piece of cake!”

Obviously, she makes it seemed as it was no problem at all, which only adds to her generous spirit, but taking care of 6 children, when you already have two of your own is definitively not a piece of cake at all. Just think about the amount of laundry and cooking and caring and love that you have to share!

Amidst laughter and joy, and some tears too, many stories were remembered during their reunion, like the long lines to go to the bathroom…..the house was big but only had one bath! At times there were 8 in the house and when the Cuban parents arrived and stayed in their home for a while, they were 10 of them to share one bath!

When the Ramirez parents arrived, one day the children went to school and the husbands to work, Jean didn’t know Spanish and Nenetta didn’t speak English but she wanted to help, so she went ahead and cleaned the bathroom, and when Jean came in   Nenetta said, “I do, I do”….Jean didn’t want to make her feel bad so she said OK and sprayed the tub and gave Nenetta the cleaning tools to do it…..so she had to do it all over again! Nenetta made a point of learning English after that incident as Nina recalls laughing.

Jean also recalls the time when they found a priest to hear the Cuban children’s confession in Spanish and she took them in to Church.  She explained to them to go to Confession, then go to the altar to pray their penance and come back towards her, she would be waiting in the pews. After the Rolando (9) finished his confession, he came back to sit with her and she told him, “No, you have to go and do your penance now.” Rolando said, “No sins, no penance!” and she immediately said to him: “I can remember a sin or two, so go right back!!” and he did. “Rolando used to hugged me so hard.” she remembers fondly (Rolando passed away on 2005).

1962-Camping Memories: Jackie, Tete, Jerry, Angie, Rolando, Nina
(Picture Courtesy Nina Ramirez).

They also remembered the camping trips, to Niagara Falls, to Washington, etc. They all travelled together as a family and Jean added, “We had a lot of fun together!” All of the “former Pedro Pan children” agreed with her and have great memories of all their families spending time together as one after the Cuban parent’s arrival.

Nina also recalls how one of the most difficult moments for the Johnson’s was when they told the Ramirez children that their parents were coming from Cuba and at the last minute were notified that their departure had been cancelled. So, the next time they told them, they said nothing to the children and just told them they were going out and headed to the airport, their hearts braking because they didn’t want to disappoint them again… it was October 1962 and luckily the Ramirez’ parents made it just in time before the  October Missile Crisis.   

I asked Jackie Johnson if it was hard for her as a child to share her parents with so many other children. She said, “No, I had a lot of fun, and when their parents arrived, I was the one going to their homes to stay overnight!” She recalls quite a few Spanish words and enjoyed the reunion with her foster sisters and brother: Nina and Tete (Ramirez), Maria and Jose (Fernandez) that were present on this special day. Obviously, she shares the same generous spirit showed by her parents!

Before I left the Reunion, I just wanted to ask Jean Johnson a last question, “Is there a message you want me to tell other Pedro Pan children?” Her reply was, “Just tell them that if they were like the ones I had I would have been happy to take them!”