I knew and I didn’t know Msgr. Walsh. I wasn’t but I was a Pedro Pan (a different version of it). I left Cuba in 1966 , with my sister when the “freedom flights” resumed. I was 15; she 17. By then the Cuban government did not allow males between the ages of 15-27 to leave the country, because they had a law in place – compulsory military service. What this range of ages did, was in effect skew the emigration during that period of time. Not too many small children came because their parents were in their 20’s; many middle age people didn’t come because their children were that age- like our parents and brothers. Although I do not have the statistical information for a profile of those who came in the freedom flights, the impression I have in my mind, is that it was largely made up of either parents (one or both) of children who were already here through Pedro Pan, or families with “only girls”, or many young women. In any case the dismemberment of the families continued in a different way. In some cases, like in ours, never to be reunited again under one roof.
My late husband Jose Salvador Prince had already come to the United States in 1963, when the Pedro Pan operation was in full swing. At 22 years of age he had left Cuba by been smuggled into the Brazilian Embassy and had been able to get political asylum in Puerto Rico during a technical stop of the plane on its way to Brazil.
He made his way to Miami where his passion for Cuba got him involved in the Pedro Pan airlift. He got in touch with Msgr. Bryan Walsh who, like he used to say, was his first employer. Msgr. made him, and other Cuban young men, like Raul de la Cruz, counselors at the Matecumbe camp. They had a place to live, food on the table, a very small stipend and a feeling that they were doing something for Cuba.
Closer in age to the young boys, these young men became the older brothers of the children who poured into the camp. They lived there, sharing their fate and trying to console them. They were all new at these roles: “orphans” and “big brothers”. He used to recount how sometimes after lights out they will hear young boys crying inconsolably in their beds, and how they will try to take them outside, and cheer them up. They will play sports, and Sundays they will drive them to the beach in a van provided by the camp.
Many years later, as we were having dinner in a Miami restaurant with our children and some friends, a man, who was there with his wife and his own children, stood by our table, next to Pepe, and asked him: aren’t you Pepe Prince? And when Pepe answered yes, without giving him a chance to stand up, as if moved by an uncontrollable impulse, stretched his arms and hugged him in such a way, that Pepe’s face was by his stomach. His eyes filled up with tears. He went on to give his name, the year he was in Matacumbe, and say how many times he had cheered him up in the camp, and how grateful he was to the “escapades” with the counselors.
As the camps closed they all went on to try to “make it” in their new country. Soon they realized that the stay in the United States was not going to be a short one. Unable to continue fighting the government as he had done in Cuba, Pepe and many of those counselors changed gear to be able to have an impact in the direction of their native country. In time, after finishing his Bachelor’s Degree Pepe moved to New York to attend the New School for Social Research and marry me. But all that belongs to another story. Three things remained constant in his life, Cuba, his faith and his family.
As far as Msgr. Bryan Walsh, he and Pepe always stayed very close. We always saw Msgr. Walsh when we went to Miami. He used to say that he was “the most Irish of all Cubans and the most Cuban of all Irish”. On January 9, 1998, while on vacation in Miami, at age 56 Pepe suffered a massive heart attack that took his life. It was Msgr. Bryan Walsh who rushed to the Coral Gables Hospital to administer the last rites at 5:00 am. A mutual friend whom I had called in desperation phoned him immediately. Always the friend, always the priest, his presence made all the difference at that time.
Now Msgr. Walsh and Pepe are once again together. Not as employer and employee, not as Irish and Cuban, not as American and exiled but as children of the one Father they both so much believed in. I am sure that they still continue to intercede incessantly for Cuba and all its children.