By Rebecca Maglischo

Loly Trelles stood at the Police Station with her Mother and younger siblings presenting the visa documents obtained through Operation Peter Pan. Alex Garriga strode through the doors, purposeful. He grabbed her hands and gazed into her eyes “Would you stay and marry me and spend the rest of your life with me?” With the words “I will stay,” Loly changed the course of her life at 18 years old.

Operation Peter Pan, a covert program that helped school-aged kids escape repression in Cuba, was designed to protect Cuban children whose parents were being targeted by Fidel Castro’s new regime and to shield them from the Communist ideologies feared by the U.S. at the height of the Cold War. From 1960 to 1962, fourteen thousand unaccompanied minors were welcomed to the United States. Cuban parents who heard of the program took advantage of U.S. sanctioned visa waivers under the Eisenhower administration. Many felt it was worth the price to rescue Cuban children, even if the risk was high. Some never saw their children again.

Loly chose to stay. She chose to stay with Alex, to stay in Cuba, to stay under the watchful eye of Fidel Castro’s government. She was young and in love. Alex was a 5th year medical student in Havana and they planned to leave as soon as he finished school. Loly’s younger sister landed in Miami where she stayed with friends until she could connect with an Aunt. She began working in a factory at 15 years old in order to provide for herself. Her younger brother found himself in an orphanage in Nebraska. Her parents squeezed off the island a year later as the great exodus of Cubans trickled to an end.

On September 25, 1965, President Fidel Castro of Cuba made a surprise announcement that Cubans with relatives in the United States would be permitted to leave the island if their relatives asked for them. Following the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this news was shocking and Cubans scrambled to be included in the emigration. Men of military age—fourteen to twenty-seven—were not permitted to leave. Alex and Loly filed for permission to leave and join the rest of her family. Now with a young daughter, they felt hopeful that they would reunite on American soil and escape the increasing oppression of Fidel Castro’s regime.

In October, hundreds of vessels of all sizes arrived at the Port of Camarioca in Cuba and were allowed to pick up relatives and friends. Bad weather ended the boat lift prematurely and only 5,000 of the permitted 200,000 Cubans arrived safely in Florida. Additionally, Castro quickly realized that medical professionals were amongst those fleeing and blocked the requests of essential workers, like doctors. Alex and Loly had been denied. They were punished with a reassignment to a rural medical appointment on the north coast where they waited to be allowed housing. The conditions were dismal.

On November 6, 1965, after the Camarioca Boat Lift, the United States and Cuba had signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” that Cuba would permit immigration and the United States would accept emigrants, with relatives of those already living in the United States given first priority in processing and movement. This permission was not granted to essential workers, such as doctors. All avenues for legal emigration had disappeared and plans for escape became the hopeful whispers shared in clandestine spaces. Arrangements were made with another doctor who had connections.

Loly was 23 years old with a toddler and her mind raged between the seemingly known dangers of remaining in Cuba versus the unknown dangers of escape. But days before the planned departure, the young family was quickly transferred away from the coast.

A second opportunity came in 1967. Alex and Loly made preparations for their escape by shredding letters from family, scouring their home and destroying all evidence of dissidence. Then they headed back to the north coast “for a visit.” Dressed in dark clothes, 10 people loaded in cars and drove toward the city, terrified. As they approached, the city experienced a complete blackout. It became too dangerous to proceed and the group decided to abort. A final chance at escape with the group came just months later. Loly was newly pregnant and the decision was made, once again, to stay in Cuba. The remaining members of the group successfully left Cuba that day. They were picked up by an American ferry and the small boat that carried them to sea floated back to the Cuban shore empty.

The United States furthered their agreement with Cuba by providing air transportation to Miami for 3,000 to 4,000 Cuban emigrants per month. In 1969, that permission was granted to Loly and Alex. The militia men came to their house and allowed them each to select three outfits before boarding up their home- no food, no memorabilia, no permission to sleep in a hotel, nothing. Every aspect of life in Cuba belonged solely to the government. When they arrived at the airport, Alex was seized. “Go!” Alex insisted to his wife and 2 daughters. “I will be on the very next plane.”This time, Loly did not stay. She slept in the airport with her two young daughters, worried and hungry. Yet, she was determined to hold her family together. As the airplane took off at 9 am, Alex waved from outside the runway gates. He would do whatever it took to see his family again.

Loly and her daughters landed in New York City where they initially shared a one-bedroom apartment with her parents. She got right to work building a new life and learning the skills she would need to provide for her girls. Like many Cubans, Loly scraped by with the help of a strong community and periodic, though unpredictable, correspondence with Alex. But after 5 years, the strain felt like too much. She needed her husband and as she lay in bed one night, made the decision to find out how to go back. The very next morning, Loly received a phone call from her sister in law. Alex was on a plane to Spain!

After flying to Spain to retrieve her husband and prove her American Citizenship, Alex still had much to do. Back in the States, he studied to pass the Medical Board and get a new license to practice. He had to start over again. But together, after all they had experienced, the couple felt they could conquer any challenge.

The story of the Garriga Family is a story filled with the lessons most needed in a world that can feel challenging and overwhelming. Loly documented their story in her book, Strides of Destiny (published 2011). The words tell a story of discipline, of putting one foot in front of the other, of always just focusing on the next right step. The sentences convey the never-ending hope of freedom and the stories demonstrate the importance of community and family. But the greatest of these is love. Loly and Alex share a love story that, literally, took them across oceans. Today, the Garrigas live in Lakeland, Florida where Alex practiced General Medicine for over 40 years. The few pictures and memorabilia they were able to rescue from Cuba decorate their beautiful home but the memory of their reunion is forever burned into their hearts.