We’ve Separated Thousands of Latino Children Before From Their Families, and the Emotional Scars Still Remain

Jun 21, 2018
7:56 AM

For now, at least, it appears that the collective outcry around the world from humans with, you know, functioning souls, against the Trump administration’s abusive and insane policy of separating migrant children, some as young as three months old, from their parents and caretakers at the border, might have worked to halt the insane practice that led the United Nations Human Rights Commission to declare us in violation.

Well, good.

Sort of.

The alternative —incarcerating children indefinitely with their families— is also pretty fucking horrific, but at least these human beings fleeing horrific violence and almost certain death in their homelands will now be abused all together, in family-sized cages where they can languish for all eternity, so as not to “infest” Fox News’ white America with their, I don’t know, with their delicious pupusas, their excellent soccer teams, their unparalleled ability to deal with adversity through hilarious jokes, their defiantly cheery banda music, and their irreplaceable pyramid-top discovery of the zero. Yes! Thank you, baby Jesus, for keeping them there Latin American refugees out of sight and locked away—but only you, the mythical white Eurotrash Cherub Baby Jesus, not you, the slightly more factual brown Jewish Middle Eastern Baby Jesus terrorist punk; we would put that little monster in a Wal-Mart Mainstreets Brand FamilyCage, lined with all the super soft paper towels left over from sopping up Puerto Rico, because, gross? Refugee? Hello? Comprende? Cool. Thanks, and pass the tacos. It’s totally almost Tuesday! Ole and stuff.


It is important that we remain vigilant, even with the news that Dear Leader has about-faced on this latest Stephen Miller wet dream because, Trumpsterfire told fellow simpering Repugnicans this week, “It looks bad.” Not is bad. Looks bad. (It also bears noting that I think Miller is probably what happens when the farmer stops screaming in the Munch painting.

Dude. It is requete, pero requete importante that we keep raising our voices and taking action against a regime (no, I will not call this confederacy of dunces an administration, any more than I will call Kanye a poet-bard) that keeps dipping the nation’s bare naked toe in the waters of Hitler Bay, just for shitz and giggles.

Part of remaining vigilant is understanding context; and part of understanding context means we all must stop saying foolish things like “This isn’t who we are, as Americans.” Oh. My. God. Stop. Just, please, stop. Okay? Of course this is who we are. Were you sleeping when we snapped on our lederhosen and did the fascism polka, like, a million times before this? Did you guys miss the episode where we just let 5,000 fellow Americans die in Puerto Rico, through calculated neglect on the part of our Brawny-bomber, Nazi-praising, Foreign-general-saluting “president?”

Did you also miss the last 200-plus years, where we established our entire nation on a Biblically-driven genocide, which made it easier to steal all the land from the millions and millions of people who were already fucking here, and when we accidentally killed too many of them to have slaves anymore, we replaced them with new and darker people we enslaved in West Africa and tortured relentlessly and whom our police forces still murder almost daily, without consequences?

Did you miss the part where we, like, put Japanese families in internment camps during World War II (but did not do the same for, you know, the Germans in Minnesota or whatever the fuck, because white white white).

Did you miss the chapter where we denied women the vote for almost forever (and still refuse to make it illegal to pay them less for the same work), or the little section of history where we just ruled, in our courts, that it is perfectly (h)a(te)-okay for a spitefully repressed baker to not Cake-for-Hire for none-a dem dere homie-sect-shules? (Also, how can any baker be hateful? You are a baker, for Crissakes. A baker, not a prison warden. You traffic in sugar and spice and everything nice, you goddamned frosting jockey. Stop it!)

But wait. There is an even more direct corollary than all that. Did you know—now sit down, cuz I’m about to lay some heavy heavy knowledge on you, okay? Did you know that this Baby-Cage fight, brought to you by Putin’s GOP and Exxon-Mobile, is not the first time the United States government has used Latin American children as political pawns by separating tens of thousands of them from their parents, and warehousing them in prisons on U.S. soil?

Wait, what? You didn’t know that?

Okay. Fine. I would say, “Shame on you and your painful ignorance,” but I am sensitive to the way your public education system has been systematically destroyed over the past few decades, especially if you live in Kansas. I am kind, so I won’t judge you for not having any sort of context at all, because I know that’s how they want you. Ignorant and contained and white inside as a packet of warm mayonnaise. That makes Fascism fun and easy, like Tinder. Just. Swipe. Right.

Back in 1961, the United States government did this shit too. Only then they did it to almost 15,000 Cuban kids. I know this, because my dad was one of them. Interestingly, so was Pitbull’s mom, and Jeff Bezos’ dad. I think we should use this as a lesson in how awesome immigrants are, and not as a lesson in how the children of damaged parents end up overcompensating in their insatiable and depressing quest for approval on a world stage and, sometimes, get famous for it.

Quick history lesson. Cuba had a revolution in 1959. Guy with a beard full of plantain crumbs, name of Fidel Castro, mamboed down off the Sierra Maestra mountain with his band of bearded brothers —and one very kickass chick named Aleida March— and overthrew a dude named Fulgencio Batista. The United States, at first, supported this, because Batista was black, and the U.S. was in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, and the last thing “our negroes” needed was, you know, a role model from “their negroes.” So, buh-bye, Batista! Hello Castro, who was white, and from a rich family, and played baseball well enough to almost have taken a different course in his life as a player for the Washington Senators. Oh, universe, you ironic minx. Stahp it.

So we liked this Castro guy at first. But then he started defying us, and waving his cigar around like a socialist saber. This made American companies and mobsters really uncomfortable, because Cuba had been their Wetter Better Vegas. We did a middle-school-girl 180 and totes decided to hate that Castro bitch now. Ew. And, like middle school girls, we started thinking up all the cool stuff we were gonna do to him to get him to, like, die already.

One of those things was the absolutely asinine idea that we would use U.S. tax money to pay to evacuate the children of the Cuban upper class, in hopes that their parents would stop flying off to Miami to open horrible sandwich shops and stay back in Cuba with machetes raised. So the CIA and Catholic Charities hung out for a minute, and they were all, like, “I like your tie,” and then, like, “Thanks, I like your weird robe,” and then they started a propaganda campaign on the island, letting rich white people (the only kind of Cubans they liked, remember?) know that the U.S. was coming to the rescue, and that to keep their kids safe in the event of an invasion, they could send them here, to the states.

The U.S. called this fiasco Operation Pedro Pan, and promised to put these kids in loving foster homes, with good Cuban or Catholic families. And Cuban parents, long trained in colonial admiration, believe it.

Internal CIA documents indicate the U.S. expected only a few hundred kids to be sent over, but that was a guess based on them knowing nothing about how much Cubans like to fucking talk. Word got out. And then, boom, nearly 15,000 kids were voluntarily put on planes in spotless knee socks and shorts, their heads drenched in violet water, by their own parents, and sent to the United States, with nothing more than the promise that this country would take care of them. Qué cosa más grande, Dios mío.

Quick aside: My dad was not part of the upper class. He just had a wicked stepdad who didn’t like him that much, and his mom was dead. So. My step-abuelo, a brutal loan shark who looked like Kramer from Seinfeld and beat up gay men for fun, put my dad on one of those planes. My dad was 15 years old, and it would be 20 years before he ever returned to Cuba or saw any member of his family again.

Now, I know, I know, there is a huge difference in how the U.S. government treats most Cubans and all other Latin Americans. I know that the Operation Pedro Pan courting of white, rich Cuban minors, and the promises to care for them in hopes that their parents would stay and overthrow a socialist ruler for them and keep corporate interests on the island happy, the putting of them on planes paid for by the United States, is a far cry from the terrible migrations and torture of mostly darker-skinned Central Americans seeking asylum on their own, to escape brutal drug lords who will murder their kids if they don’t get paid not to, like, not murder their kids. But there are two important commonalities, and one important lesson.

First commonality? The Cuban parents of Operation Pedro Pan believed that their children would be safe in the United States, and so do the Central American asylum seekers; and in both cases, they were or are dead wrong, and were/are sending their children to a nation that views them as inferiors, where they will be seen as “minorities,” many of them for the first time, throwing them into a society that will often treat them with disdain. My father was not placed in a loving Catholic foster home, as had been promised. He and hundreds of others were rounded up and locked up in a juvenile prison in South Florida, where they were abandoned when the married couple entrusted with their care simply up and left after the United States lost the battle at the Bay of Pigs. There was a riot. Kids burned mattresses. They cried, a lot. No one knew what would happen to them. Many of those children were younger than my father, some as young as eight, and it would be years before they were reunited with their parents.

Second commonality? The United States government did/does not view these children as fully human in either case, and are/w/dere fully willing to traumatize tens of thousands of innocent Latino kids on our own soil, for political policy purposes linked back to money. The Cubans were taken away at a time when the CIA’s own documents about Che Guevara referred to the revolutionary as being “fairly intellectual for a Latino.” My dad and his best friend Tino were shown how to use a toothbrush when they arrived —in spite of the fact, never known to the government worker who condescendingly offered this lesson— that Tino’s dad was a successful toothpaste sales rep for the island of Cuba. Once my dad was finally free of the prison, he was placed in a foster home in New Mexico. A literal genius by most measures, my father was nonetheless placed in the 4th grade at age 15, because he spoke no English. Sitting there with much younger children, in a tiny chair, being assumed stupid because of his language barrier, was traumatic. Having been in a prison with criminal American kids who wanted to fight him was traumatic. Being abandoned by the camp counselors was traumatic. Losing his nation, being thrown into a society that didn’t understand or want him, with no help, was traumatic

No, my father wasn’t put in a cage. But he was taken from his family, put in a literal prison, flown to New Mexico, given to strangers, and assumed to be a dumb “savage” from the third world. So, yes, the United States has long treated Cubans better than other Latin American migrants, because of the Cold War and the nation’s supposed hatred of communism we have granted Cubans automatic citizenship if they set foot here, but that superior treatment had nothing to do with any real respect or understanding of us as equals or humans. It was better treatment as Cold War policy. And many of the kids who came here were abused. My dad was lucky in that he ended up in a foster home at all; there weren’t enough families, and many of the Pedro Pan kids languished in orphanages, including one right here in Albuquerque’s South Valley. One of my dad’s friends was so badly abused by his foster family that he committed suicide.

The lesson? There will be lasting trauma, thanks to the United States government, in tens of thousands of Latino families, because of what is done to the children. Lasting trauma, that impacts not just the child, but also their children and grandchildren. My father still has deep wounds because of what happened to him in 1961, and even though he’s in his 70s now, it is not unusual for him to tear up a bit when he talks about the Pedro Pan experience. I have met several others who went through this ordeal like he did, and all of them, all of them, cry, to this day, when they talk about it. For the record, my dad is amazing. He learned English, really well, and got a PhD in it. He went on to become a highly respected sociologist, and taught me through his words and example that as long as you have your mind, and forgiveness, and the ability to learn, they can never destroy you. These are lessons I have needed, and used, many times.

Science now shows us that trauma is not fleeting. It is permanent, and requires lots of difficult work to be managed. Trauma effects genetics, by turning on or off a person’s genes through epigenetics, and in this way it is passed down to children. Childhood trauma literally changes a person’s genes, and you pass that pain down to your children, and their children; though they did not live through your trauma, they live with its lingering wiring in their brains, and will be more prone to mental illness and diseases and other issues because of it.

Right now, in Facebook forums for the survivors of Operation Pedro Pan, there is a consensus. The remaining Pedro Pans are horrified to see what is happening to the migrant families under Trump. This is, they say, all too familiar, and worse. Much worse. Regardless of political affiliation (and I should add here that it is not true that all of us Cuban Americans are right-wingers; my dad and I are extremely progressive), those who endured the United States ripping them from their families in Cuba are now mourning for those undergoing the same horrors now. If there is any silver lining in this, for all of us Latinos in the United States, it might be that, oddly, the shared experiences of the Pedro Pans and the current migrant families will start to unify us as nothing else has ever been able to. I, for instance, never thought I would feel anything but revulsion for Ted Cruz, but when he jumped to defend the migrant families, as a Cuban American, I cheered for him. Maybe this is the rallying cry we all needed, to wake us up, to make us realize that our national, regional, cultural or other intra-Latino differences do not matter here in the United States, where all of us are painted with the same broad and hateful brush by racists like Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions. It is time for us to finally awaken to the prophecy of José Vasconcelos, who saw us coming together as a cosmic “race” of people. We must unite, and now, and we must fight this common enemy that does not see us as human at all.

We must stay vigilant, and we must stop being surprised. This is exactly who the United States is, and has always been as a nation. But it doesn’t have to stay this way. This is our moment to demand change. We have caught a glimpse, now, of where this thing could go without action.

So let’s act. Like Cantinflas and Chaplin. Who’s in?


Alisa Valdes is a screenwriter, bestselling novelist and former staff writer for the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times. She tweets from @RealAlisaValdes.