From 1960 to 1962, more than 14,000 Cuban children left their homes and families for life in the United States. They were sent by their parents who were unable to leave Cuba, yet wanted to protect their children from communism under Fidel Castro, who took power in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution.
It is a little-known chapter of history, known as Operation Pedro Pan, Spanish for Peter Pan, to represent this flight of children. It’s a story about young children being put on planes by their parents and sent to a foreign country to live with relatives they barely knew, or in foster homes in parts of America with virtually no Latino communities.
It is regarded as the largest exodus of children in history. And it’s a story that Princeton residents Joe Seldner, a film producer and consultant, and Mario Gonzalez, a Cuban native, pathologist, and owner of PathLink, which runs hospital pathology practices, want to tell on movie screens around the world. Seldner and Gonzalez are the producers of “Operation Pedro Pan,” a feature film that is in its earliest stages and is intended to be a fictionalized account of the exodus.
Seldner and Gonzalez are collaborating with Carlos Eire, a Yale history professor who won the National Book Award for “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” his memoir about the Cuban Revolution. Eire was a Pedro Pan child himself and wrote a second book, “Learning to Die in Miami,” about coming to the United States, and for which Seldner and Gonzalez purchased the film rights.
Eire will speak at Princeton University on Thursday, February 16, and at the Arts Council of Princeton on Friday, February 17. He will talk about his life as a Pedro Pan child and about the movie. Seldner and Gonzalez will also speak at the February 17 event to talk about their efforts in making the film, including investment opportunities.
As a producer, Seldner’s credits include “61*” the 2001 HBO movie about Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and the 1961 chase of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. He is also working on a movie titled “Believe It or Not” for Paramount Pictures, starring Jim Carrey and directed by Chris Columbus, who directed the first two “Harry Potter” movies.
When he was eight years old, GonzaleZ was set to leave his parents and younger brother for the U.S., but didn’t leave Cuba then because the “pipeline” was closed following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, and airlines stopped flying between Cuba and the U.S.
Gonzalez did come to the U.S. a few years later when he was a teenager. He first traveled to Spain where he lived alone in a small room in a church before making his way to the U.S.
“I have this vivid image embossed in my brain of my mother across the glass window on the other side of immigration, and I’m getting ready to go on a plane, and she’s hysterically crying,” Gonzalez says. “Fortunately, I saw my parents again.” His parents arrived in the U.S. about a year after he did.
According to pedropan.org, the website of the Operation Pedro Pan Group, the Pedro Pan project began in December of 1960 after Bryan O. Walsh, a Catholic priest and the director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, was asked to care for a boy named Pedro who had come to Miami to live with relatives.
Those relatives couldn’t afford to care for Pedro, and Walsh learned that many Cuban refugees were children. At the same time, a man named James Baker, who ran an American school in Havana, was establishing a network that would help send Cuban children to Miami. Walsh and Baker met and set up the pipeline, and the United States government provided funds to care for children who could get to Miami.
“It really is a compelling story, not just about the kids but the parents as well,” Seldner says. “What we don’t want the film to be is a political story because there’s a lot of politics involved. There will be some political undertones, we can’t avoid that, but we really want to make it a ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ story, where these kids are fighting these battles.”
Gonzalez says parents took the painful step of sending their children to the U.S. because they feared indoctrination under Castro’s government. Castro allowed the children to leave but not their parents. The reason for that is not exactly known but one theory is that Castro believed it demoralized the parents, making them less likely to fight his regime.
“Castro was always very smart about having these escapes routes,” Gonzalez says. “People who could potentially oppose him, he allowed to leave.”
Gonzalez says the movie will focus on the sacrifice parents made to offer their children a chance at freedom. “Imagine the pain, from a parent’s point of view, of putting your children on a plane without knowing where they’re going to be,” Gonzalez says. “Sure, they’re going to be in the care of the Catholic Church, but what does that mean?”
The movie, Seldner says, won’t be a pure adaptation of Eire’s book but will be a fictionalized account of three or four different Pedro Pan kids. It will feature some real-life characters such as Walsh, whom Seldner envisions being played by Ed Harris.
He compares this approach to the film “Titanic,” which told a fictional love story between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters, but also featured characters based on real people as well as, of course, true history. That doesn’t mean the Pedro Pan movie will be a huge epic. Seldner says it will be an independent movie with a budget far smaller than a James Cameron movie.
“It can be an epic on an emotional scale, it doesn’t have to be sweeping like ‘Titanic’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” he says. “We also aren’t sure where we’re going to shoot this, so that’s going to play a role. The fact that we’re an independent means we have to be careful with what we spend on location.” He adds that some people have suggested filming in Cuba because relations between Cuba and the U.S. are improving, but a lot of Pedro Pan children are opposed to that because they don’t approve of anything that could be perceived as supporting Castro.
Seldner was born in Jersey City and grew up in Princeton. His father, Abraham, was an executive for a cosmetics company, and his mother, Esther, was an assistant dean at Rutgers. He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in psychology in 1974, then attended Columbia Journalism School, graduating in 1976.
He was a journalist in Colorado for six years. After earning an MBA from Yale in 1984, he worked for Columbia Pictures as the assistant to the president and started to learn the film business. He then worked for Tom Hanks as his creative executive, describing that job as the “top of the funnel” for Hanks in regards to reading scripts and taking pitches.
“Everyone wanted to get to Tom, and I was the guy they had to go through, at least creatively,” he says. “The agent and manager had a more significant role than I did, but if you wanted your script read and wanted to pitch a meeting, I was the guy you had to talk to.”
Following his divorce, Seldner was granted custody of his two children and moved back to Princeton in the 1990s because of the schools and because his parents still lived there. Today, his son, Dan, 28, is a drummer living in Los Angeles, and his daughter, Laura, 25, is studying at Rutgers and has a four-year-old daughter, Liliana.
Seldner also worked as a speechwriter for Governor Jon Corzine for seven months and owns a consulting firm, Seldner Media & Entertainment. He decided to pursue a movie about Pedro Pan after meeting Gonzalez.
After listening to Seldner talk about what it takes to make a movie, one starts to realize that it’s a miracle any movies get made. For the Pedro Pan project, the producers have prepared a summary and prospectus and are raising money. The next step is to hire a screenwriter.
Seldner is working on two other films based on real events. In order to raise money, he looks for people who might have a connection to the film’s topic, as opposed to people interested in the movie business, because they usually already have a specific project they want to work on.
“It’s not like we get a list of the Forbes 400 and call rich people, because they would say, ‘Who the hell are you,’” Seldner says. “But we talk to people who have the means and also have some connection to the movie.”
In the case of the Pedro Pan project, he is confident he can get the funding because it appeals to Cuban Americans and people who are interested in stories about children who overcome adversity, such as “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Another advantage is that aside from some short documentaries, no movies have been made about Pedro Pan.
“I didn’t know anything about this story, I never heard this story,” Seldner says. “When Mario and I first got together, it was news to me, it was fascinating.”
Plans call for the movie to also follow parents in Cuba whose children went to America and families whose kids, like Gonzalez, were in the pipeline but didn’t get out.
“For those who stayed behind, had made a commitment, and the parents had let the government know that their children were about to leave, it was a big hardship,” Gonzalez says. “In many ways, it was harder for those who stayed behind and were identified as potentially anti-government elements because those families could not work.”
Gonzalez says his family paid the price of arranging to send him to the U.S. His father owned a grocery store, and following the Revolution, the government took it away.
“By virtue of Castro’s regime being a communist regime, they nationalized all the businesses,” he says. “If you had a business and you were the owner, your business was taken away from you. They might allow you to continue to work and get a salary but it was no longer yours. In the case of my family, they took our business away and didn’t let my father work there.”
To make ends meet, his father would buy sugar on the black market so that the family could make candy to sell.
“As a little boy, I remember making candy, and my mom would go around the neighborhood selling it,” he says. “And this was a middle class family. It was a lot of struggle not only for the children who left but for those who were left behind.”
Lecture, Thursday, February 16, 5:30 p.m., Burr Hall on the Princeton campus. Carlos Eire, professor of history and religious studies at Yale University and author of “Learning to Die in Miami,” “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” and “A Very Brief History of Eternity,” will discuss his life as an “Operation Pedro Pan” child during the exodus of children from Cuba. Free and open to the public.
Also, Author Event, Friday, February 17, 5:30 p.m., Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Reception for Eire. Joe Seldner and Mario Gonzalez will discuss a feature film they are producing about Operation Pedro Pan. Free. 609-924-8777. www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.