Reading into History: Author Enrique Flores-Galbis on 90 Miles to Havana

The author and his publicistThe author and his publicist

This month, our family book club is exploring the complicated historical relationship between Cuba and the United States in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. We are reading Enrique Flores-Galbis’ 90 Miles to Havana, a fascinating work of historical fiction that follows a boy named Julian and his two brothers in their historic migration from Cuba to Miami. The fictional Julian, Gordo, and Alquilino represent some of the very real 14,048 children who were part of Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s. To this day, Pedro Pan was the largest exodus of children in the history of the Western hemisphere. All “Pedro Pan” children who left Cuba for the United States did so without their parents.

In 1959, Fidel Castro came to power and turned Cuba into the first communist state in the West. By 1960, there were rumors that Castro and his agents planned to remove Cuban children from their homes and “re-educate” them in faraway places. Many parents decided to send their children to safety in Miami believing that they, the parents, would soon follow. The US government worked with Father Bryan O. Walsh, Monsignor of the Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Miami, to grant the children visas once they arrived in the U.S.Upon arrival in Miami, many children were claimed by family members who were already living in the US. Many, however, had no family here and were sent to orphanage-like camps set up just for them. It sometimes took years for kids to be reunited with their parents, though most eventually were. The years that kids spent waiting for their parents were sometimes pleasant and sometimes harsh; some kids were placed in loving foster homes, some in dangerous homes, and some in more orphanages. Enrique Flores-Galbis was one of many “Pedro Pans” and wrote 90 Miles to Havana to introduce young readers to this part of history.

What does this book have to do with the New-York Historical Society, you might wonder? Well, at our book wrap on Sunday, September 29th, we will discuss artifacts that relate to Cuban-American history, some of which were part of the landmark Nueva York: 1613-1945 exhibition  co-organized by us and El Museo del Barrio. We will meet from 3-5 pm in the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library and Mr. Flores-Galbis will join us to answer your questions and hear your thoughts about his book. As always, the event is free with Museum admission and completely free for Family Members.

Read about the author in his own words below and pick up a copy of the book in our Museum Store or at your local public library. See you on the 29th!

DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What were you like between the ages of 9 and 12?
Enrique Flores-Galbis: We arrived in this country without our parents so we felt a bit lonely and overwhelmed at times, but as I came with my two older brothers I always felt safe. Overall, from the ages of 9 to 12 I had the greatest adventure a kid could have. We lived in a completely different country, and before our parents arrived, we were very independent. When I read Tom Sawyer it reminded me of that period in my life. I have to admit at times when we were living in very poor gray neighborhoods and going to a gray school with equally gray teachers (my first teacher, Mrs. Johnson, had gray hair and gray eyes and wore gray faded calico dresses). I wanted in the worst way to be home in the full color and light of a beach or the green hills. It was at this time that I began to develop my powers of imagination, my ability to appear as if I was sitting in the back of the room but I was actually riding a horse on the beach.  Mrs. Johnson never really caught on. Of course, I accidentally overdeveloped this part of my brain and I ended up an artist and a writer.

DCHM: What is your favorite time period in American history?  Why?
EF-G: I like to read about all the history between the U.S. and Cuba, especially the Spanish American war. I saw the echoes of that period in the lead up to the Iraq war, and our notions of “nation building.”

DCHM: What is your favorite place in New York City?  Why?
EF-G: Hands down, my favorite place in New York City is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I used to take my kids there and tell them that if they were very quiet and listened really hard, they would hear the roar of stories coming from the halls where thousand of object are displayed. I go there to learn about art, artists and history.

DCHM: What made you want to write 90 Miles to Havana?
EF-G: When my kids were the same age that I was when I left Cuba, it dawned on me that it must have been very difficult for my parents to let us go alone to a strange place. I started remembering — writing, researching — talking, laughing with my brothers, and then decided to put it all down so that my kids and others could see into this little piece of history.

DCHM: What three words best describe 90 Miles to Havana?
EF-G:Historical Avatar Ride. Come to the talk, and I’ll explain.

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