When the ferry pulled out of the Havana harbor for the Port of Palm Beach, Elena Muller Garcia waved to her parents until they, and the old fortress there, receded from view.
She was one of more than 14,000 Cuban youngsters sent out of Cuba by their parents for a new life in the United States. That youth exodus from 1960 to 1962 was called Operation Pedro Pan, named after the fictional Peter Pan who would never grow up. It has been described as the largest exodus of children in the Western hemisphere.
A new exhibit, "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus," aims to tell some of their stories. It runs through January 2016 at HistoryMiami museum, 101 W. Flagler St.
"I thought that was my last view of Cuba, and I wanted to keep it in my heart," recalled Muller Garcia, of Boynton Beach, who was 13 when she left Cuba on July 4, 1961. "I wanted to treasure it forever. I really didn't know when I was going to come back."
At the time, the families thought the separations might be short-lived, until the parents were able to get visas to leave Cuba and rejoin their children, or after leader Fidel Castro was removed from power. The Cuban missile crisis halted the operation, however, and the children were separated from their families on the other side of the Florida straits indefinitely.
"This is an American story," said Stuart Chase, president and CEO of HistoryMiami. "We love to tell the stories of Miami and South Florida, and this is one very important part of the entire exile … community."
Some kids stayed with relatives in South Florida. Others lived in orphanages or foster homes. Some were eventually reunited with their parents.
"People don't know about it," said Muller Garcia, now 67. "When they hear about it, they say, 'How come we didn't know about this during our history class? During our school years?' I think it's something that people should know about."
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit features display cases filled with prayer booklets, school notebooks and report cards. Other cases contain the children's passports, Pan American plane tickets, suitcases and clothes.
Black-and-white news reels show Castro celebrating his revolution. Another shows Father Bryan O. Walsh asking American families for help in providing foster care for the Cuban kids.
As visitors walk through the exhibit, life-sized video testimonials from 17 South Florida Pedro Pan alums are projected onto the walls. They tell their stories in English with Spanish subtitles.
Jose Azel grew nostalgic as his video testimonial played during opening night.
"It is a little bit painful in bringing back all the memories of those days," said the 67-year-old Miami resident whose blue-and-white childhood Cuban passport is on display. "I came here when I was 13 years old by myself. I never saw my parents again, so part of that memory is there, but then again it fills us with pride that we are able to succeed and to retain our values and to retain our patriotism and love for our homeland."
In her suitcase, Muller Garcia had a yellow coat and pink sweater that her mother had packed. She also recalls bringing hair clips.
When she arrived at the Port of Palm Beach, a friend of the family picked her up and treated her to a Coke.
"We figured it would last probably for a year, or a little more, but no one imagined that the Castro government was going to last as long as it lasted," said Muller Garcia, who stayed in Miami briefly with relatives and friends before heading to Dallas to attend Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic school associated with her former school in Cuba.
She wrote letters to her parents and asked them to save them. "If they could save my letters, that would be my diary," she said. "And they did that."
Her three brothers arrived in Miami separately, followed later by their parents. She visited them during the summers until she graduated from high school.
Muller Garcia moved back to Miami to study English literature at Barry University. She has worked as a teacher and secretary, married and raised two children, and has lived in Boynton Beach since 1986.
She also has had part-time and full-time roles with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Palm Beach, and is now the director of parish social ministry.
Still, the questions about her Pedro Pan experience lingered. It wasn't until 2005, after reading a memoir by another Pedro Pan alum, "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy," that she wanted to know more specifics about her experiences and the events that led to the historic exodus so she could begin to write a memoir.
She joined the Operation Pedro Pan Group in Miami. That's how she became associated with the exhibit, which features her video testimonial as well as some of the letters she wrote to her best friend and to her parents.
“I didn’t know anybody [before joining the group], but I started hearing stories that were so similar to mine,” said Muller Garcia. “It’s really like looking through a window of my past.”
If you go
What: "Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children's Exodus"
When: Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Open through Jan. 17, 2016.
Where: HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St.
Museum admission: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students with ID, $5 for ages 6-12, and free for members and children younger than 6. On July 11, admission is free as part of Family Fun Day.
Information: 305-375-1492, historymiami.org