Between 1960 and ’62, more than 14,000 children were flown from Cuba to the United States. Packed like sardines on commercial flights, the passengers—some as young as 4, some as old as 16—all had one thing in common: They were unaccompanied. Their airborne exodus became known as Operation Pedro Pan, because much as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan flew away to a magical land without supervision, the Pedro Pan kids left Cuba without their parents.
You may wonder: How did so many Cuban children end up on flights to a foreign country? Why did their parents volunteer their departure? And where did those kids end up?
In the first episode of “AeroEspacial,” a four-part series from the National Air and Space Museum’s “AirSpace” podcast, hosts Sofia A. Soto Sugar and Héctor Alejandro Arzate begin with these questions, before diving into a story that—like each “AeroEspacial” episode—is grounded simultaneously in both aviation or space and Latino history and culture. Published in Spanish and English, the series explores politics, science, art and popular culture, all in relation to Latin American people and places.
Soto Sugar, public programs specialist at the National Air and Space Museum and co-host of the flagship “AirSpace” podcast’s “QueerSpace” limited series, and Arzate, immigrant communities reporter for DCist and WAMU, devote their opening installment, “The Second Star to the Right,” to Operation Pedro Pan. Tracing a timeline from the rise of Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba through Cold War politics, unrest, and food and resource scarcity in the country, the episode explains how 11-year-old Carlos Eire ended up at the Havana airport, boarding a plane bound for the United States.
“It was a very short flight, but I remember this,” Eire recalls in the episode, “that as soon as the pilot announced, ‘I can see the lights of Key West,’ the whole plane erupted in cheering and clapping.”
Though each “freedom flight” took a similar route, the paths of the Pedro Pan children—and those of the parents aiming to reunite with them—would diverge in countless ways.
In its second installment, “From Puerto Rico With Love,” “AeroEspacial” tells the story of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which housed the world’s largest radio telescope for over 50 years. Nestled in the Puerto Rican jungle, the telescope’s enormous dish detected radio signals from space that led to discoveries about stars, planets and asteroids.
But in late 2020, the telescope was damaged beyond repair: “a blow that punched a hole in astronomy,” Arzate says. After suspension cables holding a platform above the dish had begun showing strain, the National Science Foundation ordered the telescope decommissioned in November 2020. But before it could be taken down, the platform fell. Recorded on video, its demise made international news.
“I have never been able to watch the movie of the collapse itself,” Chris Salter, a retired radio astronomer who worked at the observatory, tells the hosts. “If a member of your family had been run over in a car accident, would you go back and watch the movie of it happening?”
Transporting listeners to the Arecibo Observatory, “From Puerto Rico With Love” focuses not only on the telescope’s astronomical legacy, but also on the community of people who called it home.
The series’s third episode, “El Dorado of Possibilities,” explores the artistic concept of Latino futurism. Arzate begins it with a memory of a figurine once owned by his mother, depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose starry cloak reminded him of outer space. As Catherine Ramírez, professor and chair of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says, Arzate’s connection between the figurine and the episode’s theme is sound, “precisely because the Virgin of Guadalupe is this … physical manifestation of the cosmos.”
Latino futurism, Ramirez explains, calls for the examination of race, gender, science, technology, the environment, history and the future from a Latin American point of view. As Soto Sugar puts it in the episode, “Latino experiences are as varied and broad as the cosmos itself,” and Latino futurist art draws from them, exploring concepts like race, colonialism and environmentally extractive industry.
Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin, for one, examines environmental extraction by imagining its consequences if taken outside Earth’s orbit. Her tapestry The Eighth Continent depicts the mining of ice deposits in craters on the moon. She uses Amazonian weaving techniques, but her materials are Amazon delivery boxes—“a reference of cultural production from the Amazon basin” combined with “this iconic big corporation that defines so much of our relationship to consumerism today,” she tells the “AeroEspacial” hosts.
The hosts explore Latino futurist art by speaking to creators about what the work means to them. How does it reflect on colonialism or naturalism, and who is it for? After all, as our own planet degrades, the next targets of exploitative resource extraction may be distant planets, Arzate points out.
The fourth episode of “AeroEspacial” will leave our solar system entirely, opting instead for a galaxy far, far away. In conversation with professors of film and media and Chicano/a studies, as well as an author and story architect, Soto Sugar and Arzate break down Latino presence in the fictional universe of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Though more recent Star Wars films feature a number of Latino cast members—as the franchise has become more diverse—Latin American presence in the original trilogy and following prequels is more complex, often layered with colonialism. References include Princess Leia’s two-bun hairstyle, which Lucas once said was inspired by Mexican Revolutionary women known as Soldaderas, and Han Solo’s character as a version of a coyote, someone who smuggles people across the Mexico-U.S. border for payment. But how else were people of color represented in Star Wars? And to what extent do earthly realities like empire and resource extraction show up in these iconic science fiction films? Listen to the final “AeroEspacial” installment, dropping August 24, to find out.
Elsewhere in the Smithsonian Pod-a-Verse: “The Toxic Book of Faces”
On the July 5 episode of the Smithsonian’s podcast “Sidedoor,” host Lizzie Peabody dives into a 200-year-old book of faces—hundreds of black, silhouetted portraits of people from the 19th century—with its pages mysteriously covered in poison.
It’s difficult to imagine today, in an era of constant, accessible photography, but back in the early 1800s, University of Delaware art historian Wendy Bellion notes in the episode, most people never saw their own likeness outside of an everyday mirror. Only the wealthy could afford painted portraits, which were expensive and time-consuming. Enter William Bache, a portraitist who traveled from town to town with a wooden machine, which could render an accurate, two-dimensional depiction of one’s face for only a few cents.
Silhouetting technology debuted in the United States at Philadelphia’s Peale Museum, where visitors could sit down at a machine, lay their head in a support, then trace their own profile using a piece of brass connected to a mechanical arm, which drew the movement on a folded piece of paper. After tracing, the user would simply cut along the line and unfold the paper, revealing “four identical silhouettes of [their] own head,” Bellion tells Peabody.
Bache created and patented a portable version of the machine—one he said didn’t touch the person’s face and was therefore more sanitary—and took it on the road. He traveled down the East Coast making silhouette portraits, and for each one he made, he kept a copy for himself, storing them in a ledger: the book of faces.
The poison in the book’s pages was found during an examination by the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. It was arsenic, probably sprinkled inside to keep away insects. Peabody, National Portrait Gallery curator Robyn Asleson and Carolyn Hauk, a doctoral student in the art history department at the University of Delaware and former intern at the National Portrait Gallery, spend much of the episode exploring the book’s elusive subjects.
While most of the silhouettes’ identities are still unknown, some have been identified through research: an artist, a captain, a baroness and an enslaved woman, to name a few. They have interesting, and sometimes shocking, tales to tell, but without Bache’s machine, their faces and stories likely would’ve never left a mark.