Former Niagara Falls teacher recalls 'Operation Peter Pan'

Contributed PhotoAlicia Granto, who at 15 came to America from Cuba during "Operation Peter Pan," holds a photo of herself surrounded by flowers after a piano recital in her homeland. Granto, a former Niagara Falls teacher, will speak to students at Niagara Falls High School about the exodus of children from Cuba on Thursday.

As citizens debate a national stance on immigration, Alicia Grant will be speaking to city high schoolers Thursday about when she came to America.

Alicia Granto was 14 when her parents sent her and her 17-year-old brother on "Operation Peter Pan," an airplane mission started by a Catholic priest which eventually flew 14,000 children out of Cuba as its government began to spread communist propaganda throughout the Caribbean island. 

From late 1960 to 1962 the young ones were sent alone on flights to the U.S., by parents who feared the government would take away their rights to raise their own children. Granto estimates that about half had relatives or friends to stay with when they arrived in the U.S., but about half were placed in foster care.

Alicia and her brother were sent to live with their uncle in Florida. "Suffice to say I woke up every single night at two or three in the morning, wondering if I would ever see my parents again."

Granto's mom was a teacher and her dad was a top city court clerk and secretary to the dean of the law school at the university in Santiago. When her parents heard that some teachers were preaching the communist agenda, they opted to home school their children. Alicia was 14, studying piano at the music conservatory, her parents learned the government had selected her to perform in Moscow. They had not been consulted about the trip.

"There was speculation the government was planning to send minors to the Soviet Union to work in war camps so they would become familiar with the communist mindset," Granto recalled. 

About the same time, she was caught promoting freedom in her community.  "In my naive youth and my bold unbridled spirit, I started to write graffiti against oppression and it got back to my father." Her parents knew it was time to send her and their son out of the country. They planned to meet in Miami once they received permission to leave Cuba.  

It was two long years before the family was reunited. Because there were no jobs in Miami for professionals, they moved to Niagara Falls, where Alicia's mom had found a job teaching at Gaskill Junior High School. Her dad, who did not know English, didn't work for more than a year, when he was hired by a stock brokerage firm in New York City. 

Alicia Granto graduated from Niagara Falls High School, married and had five children. She become a teacher, just like her mom, and worked at Buffalo State College as well as at Gaskill, just like her mom. She has since retired from teaching but still works several days a week as a substitute, often at Lafayette High School where the immigrant population is high. 

She is impressed by the dedication of the students she has seen there from other countries, particularly Western Africa and Southeast Asia. "They are so driven to do well academically."  

Granto, who now lives in Buffalo, is committed to sharing her story, particularly how very grateful she is for her life in America. "Every single day, I am reminded of the fact I was very fortunate and I try to maximize every single minute of the day."

She will be speaking with city students in a presentation at 1:20 p.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater at Niagara Falls High School. The event is sponsored by the Languages Other Than English Department. Those who are interested in more information, can call Tom Vitello at 278-5800 or email him at tvitello@nfschools.net.  

IF YOU GO

WHAT: A Languages Other Than English Department presentation of "Operation Peter Pan" by Alicia Granto.

WHEN: 1:20 p.m., Thursday 

WHERE:  The amphitheater, Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Road

MORE INFO: Contact Tom Vitello at 278-5800 or email him at tvitello@nfschools.net

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