The 1950s and 1960s: Cuban Migration to the U.S.

Cuban immigration to the U.S. began in the Spanish Colonial Period. When Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, hundreds of Spanish-Cuban soldiers moved to the city. During the Ten Years War (1868-1878) between Cuban nationals and the Spanish military, Cuban cigar manufacturers moved their operations - along with hundreds of workers - to Florida to escape unrest. From 1900-1959 an estimated 100,000 Cubans immigrated to the U.S., including those looking for work during the Great Depression, anti-Batista refugees, as well as supporters of the ousted Batista government in 1959.

After Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Cubans immigrated to the U.S. from 1960-1979. Sparked by rumors that the Cuban government planned to place children in military schools and Soviet labor camps, the CIA project Operación Pedro Pan brought more than 14,000 children to Miami between 1960 and 1962. With the assistance of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, children were placed with foster homes and group homes throughout the United State, and it was expected that their parents would leave Cuba to reunite with their families.

From October to November 1965, Castro opened the Port of Camarioca for emigration. Nearly 3000 Cubans forfeited their land and property to the Cuban government and fled to the U.S. through the Camarioca Boatlift. Cuban exiles in the U.S. transported friends and relatives in small boats; the U.S. Coast Guard transported the remaining refugees.

Within weeks of the Camarioca Boatlift, President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the Freedom Flights. Twice a day, five times a week, planes transported refugees from Varadero Beach to Miami. The Freedom Flights became the longest airlift of political refugees in history, ultimately transporting 265,297 Cubans to the United States from 1965-1973. In 1966, President Johnson enacted the Cuban Adjustment Act, which provided more than $1.3 billion of direct financial assistance to recent Cuban immigrants.

In 1980, housing and job shortages led approximately 10,000 Cubans to apply for asylum at the Peruvian embassy on the island. Due to the sheer number of Cubans seeking asylum, Castro permitted anyone wishing to leave to do so through the Port of Mariel. An estimated 125,000 refugees fled to the U.S. during the Mariel Boatlift.

The Cuban economy has suffered greatly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, prompting thousands of Cubans to flee in makeshift boats. Many aspiring immigrants have perished at sea. In response, the U.S. government implemented the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to apply for permanent residency. Unless they are vulnerable to persecution, those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba. Each year, 20,000 Cubans are given legal U.S. visas.

Nearly 70 percent of all Cuban Americans live in Florida. Another prominent Cuban American community is Hudson County, New Jersey, nicknamed “Havana on the Hudson.” Cuban Americans are the third largest Hispanic group in the U.S. At the time of the 2010 census, there were 1,785,547 Cuban Americans, comprising 3.5% of the total U.S. population.
Rhode Island and the Cuban Migration

In 1960, rumors spread through Cuba that Fidel Castro was planning to take children from their parents and put them in military schools or send them to the Soviet Union for communist indoctrination. In response to the perceived threat, the United States began Operation Peter Pan, or Operación Pedro Pan. The CIA ran the program between 1960 and 1962. The idea was to fly children of parents who were opposed to Castro’s government to the United States and place them in homes here.

When the children arrived in Miami, they were met by Father Bryan O. Walsh, the Director of Catholic Welfare Bureau, who was instrumental in helping to place the children in homes. By the time the program had ended, about 14,000 children had been transported to Miami and then placed with friends, relatives and group homes in about 35 states.

The biggest problem for the Catholic Welfare Bureau as the number coming grew week by week, was the lack of facilities to care for the minors in Miami. This was solved by asking Catholic Charities agencies around the country to provide foster homes and group care homes for the young exiles.

The Rev. Edward J. McGovern, Chairman of the Diocesan Bureau of Social Services was asked by Father Walsh and the Miami Catholic Welfare Bureau to help place families in Rhode Island during that time in 1962.

During that time, 30 Cuban children, all considered “Peter Pan children,” were brought to Rhode Island through the Catholic Charities Bureau and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.


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Profiles of Rhode Island’s Spanish-Speaking Population

The 1960s became a time of much movement and growth across the country brought on by civil rights groups, young people (flower power) and the Women’s Movement. In Rhode Island it was also a time of growth and prosperity among countless of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Visit the pages listed on the sidebar to get a brief historical description of this growth beginning in the late 1950s right through the 1970s and 80s, when the largest Latino immigration and migration patterns were recorded in the state.

The oral histories found in later pages of this website play an important role in bringing each of the profiled Latino groups to life. They provide us with insight into the minds of the individuals who we consider to be the pioneros (pioneers) who made history through their dedication and hard work as members of the ever-growing Latino population of Rhode Island.
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