Leilani Bruce, the co-founder of CANDELA Book Club, offers a beautiful review of Ricardo Gonzalez Zayas story as a Black Cuban boy entering the US during the Civil Rights Era.
black pedro ban by Ricardo Gonzalez Zayas with CANDELA book club
Photo: Operation Pedro Pan Group

In the early 1960’s, Operación Pedro Pan brought over 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States. Like many of the early waves of Cuban migration to the United States, the migrants from Pedro Pan were disproportionately White Cubans. I had learned about Pedro Pan at a History Miami exhibition years ago, and the exhibit was incredibly moving. Just the idea of being removed from your family at such a young age to be sent to a foreign land, with no knowledge of when you would return home or see your family again, is a terrifying thought. 

When I first spoke to Ricardo Gonzalez Zayas, author of Black Pedro Pan, I invited him to join the CANDELA (Cuban-American Narratives and Dialogue for Equity, Liberation, and Allyship) Book Club. Following the foundation of the club and its first successful meeting, I was determined to keep elevating stories about the Afro/Black Cuban experience both here and in Cuba. In this pursuit, I discovered (with the help of Devyn Spence Benson and Danielle Cleland), Zayas’ very personal and touching first-hand account of his experience as a Black Cuban Pedro Pan, a young Black boy entering the US during the Civil Rights Era, where he would face the structural and institutional racism prevalent at the time. Before our book conversation, though, he needed to make sure we were aligned – considering how many many members of the Cuban-American community were speaking out against the Black Lives Matter movement that was occurring. 

What was it like to be one of a handful of Black children to arrive in a foreign country amid so much racial turmoil? 

For me, Zayas’ story was an important one to share, one that shed light on a perspective many Cubans and Cuban-American’s may have never considered. What was it like to be one of a handful of Black children to arrive in a foreign country amid so much racial turmoil? 

Black Pedro Pan by Ricardo Gonzalez Zayas at CANDELA book club
Black Pedro Pan by Ricardo Gonzalez Zayas

Black Pedro Pan walks us through Zaya’s life; the opening chapter begins with his heartbreaking experience – the separation between him and his parents at Jose Martí airport when he was 13 years old. 

…the opening chapter begins with his heartbreaking experience – the separation between him and his parents at Jose Martí airport when he was 13 years old. 

He also explores the complexities of race that existed in Cuba at the time (many of which are still relevant today) especially being from a racially diverse, mixed-race Cuban family and trying to ‘‘navigate the world of ‘white-only’ and ‘black-only’ venues and enduring racial slurs for being counter-revolutionary”.

I was most curious to learn about Zaya’s experience being both Black and Cuban in a time and place that wasn’t always friendly to people belonging to either of those groups…

I was most curious to learn about Zaya’s experience being both Black and Cuban in a time and place that wasn’t always friendly to people belonging to either of those groups, let alone belonging to both and navigating a world that was very “black and white”. He shares several incidents where he experienced what he describes as the “naked, ugly mug of racism that was practiced in Miami and the United States in 1963.” 

black pedro ban by Ricardo Gonzalez Zayas with CANDELA book club

On his first bus ride, Zayas unknowingly sits in the first available seat next to the driver who then berates him in English (which he did not yet speak), leaving him confused, until another gentleman, in Spanish, tells him he has to move.

Related Post: Book Review: Letters from Cuba, by Ruth Behar

Despite these experiences, Zayas’ story does not beg the reader for pity. He beautifully acknowledges the challenges and tribulations he experienced, but never without expressing optimism and gratitude for the people, moments, and opportunities that ultimately allowed him to thrive. 

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In many ways, despite not being entirely Cuban, or Cuban-born, as a Black and Spanish speaking woman of Cuban descent, I often found myself resonating with some of Zaya’s experiences, especially those in which other, fairer-skinned Cubans’ refused to believe he was Cuban because of the color of his skin, claiming that “there were no black people in Cuba.”

In many ways, despite not being entirely Cuban, or Cuban-born, as a Black and Spanish speaking woman of Cuban descent, I often found myself resonating with some of Zaya’s experiences…

Black Pedro Pan is a beautiful journey. Zayas opens himself up to let us into his life, walking us through his crucial moments: from the time he leaves Cuba at 13; to the bittersweet reunion he has with his parents at 17; his journey through college; starting his family; his first visit back to Cuba; through to his retirement. This is an excellent read for anyone looking for a glimpse of what it was like to be a Black Pedro Pan, and especially for Cuban-Americans who might not have known about this chapter in Cuba’s history or who may not have considered this perspective. In many ways, Black Cubans today are still facing some of the racial prejudice and discrimination that Zayas faced back in the 1960’s today.

Related Post: Helen Yaffe Is Walking the Cuban Tightrope With “We Are Cuba!”

(If you’re interested in learning more about CANDELA book club meetings you can follow them on instagram for the latest updates.)

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Leilani Bruce is a Miami native, first-generation Afro-Caribeña with Cuban and Jamaican roots. In 2020, Leilani co-founded CANDELA: Cuban American Narratives & Dialogue for Equity, Liberation, and Allyship, a virtual book club dedicated to diving into the issues of racism and discrimination within the Cuban and Cuban American communities while amplifying the voices and sharing the stories of Black and Afro-Cuban voices both here in the states and on the island. By day, Leilani works as a Director of Client Strategy at a content marketing agency, and in her free time she enjoys lounging in the sunshine, hunting for vinyls, and hunting for food spots.

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