Maryland woman recalls being sent from Cuba to America in the sixties

EDGEWATER, Md. (WJLA) – Though Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and the Obama administration are currently sparring over immigration policies, this isn’t the first time the country has dealt with an influx of immigrant children. In the midst of a cold war, a revolution in Cuba, thousands of children sought refuge in America.

ABC 7 News spoke with Seida Tamargo, a Maryland woman in her sixties who clearly remembers what it was like to leave Cuba and come to the United States without her parents.

For Tamargo, it is hard to believe it has been more than five decades since she came to America.

“I’ve been here since 1961,” she said. “Dec. 15, 1961.”

Tamargo remembers the exact date, because it was her 15th birthday, when young Latin American women are supposed to be celebrating their coming of age.

“I didn’t get to have that,” she said. “I was in a plane coming to a strange country with a different language.”

Tamargo, now 67, was one of more than 14,000 Cuban young people who arrived alone in the U.S.—part of what is now known as Operation Pedro Pan, a joint effort between the American government and the Catholic Church.

“I remember that very clearly,” Tamargo said. “And that was very tough.”

Parents, Tamargo says, were sending their children ages 12 to 18 abroad, because they were concerned their parental rights would be taken away by the Castro government.

“Some parents bought their kids two-way, round-trip tickets, because they were going to come back in six, seven months,” Tamargo said. “But it’s been more than that.”

After a brief stay at a military camp in Miami, Tamargo went to live with the Altstadt family in Evansville, Ind.

“I said to myself, ‘I have come to a country with trees with no leaves. Please, dear God, help me,’” she said. “And it was cold, dreary and gray skies.”

Looking back, Tamargo is grateful for the sacrifice her parents and the Altstadt family made.

“They just thought that it was the right thing to do,” she said.

Tamargo thinks about the thousands of children—many of them alone—who are crossing the border into the United States.

“Leaving their families and being away from their families, not knowing the language. All that, I can relate to,” Tamargo said.

The longtime Maryland resident, who now lives in Edgewater, hopes there is some solution for these children.

Tamargo’s parents finally joined her—six years after she left Cuba. In the late 1960s, she settled in the Washington, D.C. area. Tamargo lived in Takoma Park for a time, worked for Montgomery County and has now retired.