By Jacob Jones
A secretive telegram—wired to Santiago, Cuba, in April of 1962—forever reset the course of Lorenzo Pablo Martínez’s life, stripping away his teenage hopes for a prestigious musical scholarship in Europe and exiling him to an unfamiliar culture as a political refugee in eastern Washington.
Martínez ’67 recalls a surge of outrage and confusion as he watched his mother pack bags for him and his 14-year-old brother. Both would depart for America in less than three days, leaving behind their parents and sisters, their home and dreams, everything they had ever known.
“I’m not going anywhere!” he remembers defiantly telling his mother.
Neatly folding another outfit, she ignored his outburst and continued packing their suitcases for the trip to Havana and then Miami. The family had traded many favors and risked imprisonment for his freedom. He should be thankful.
“You’ll have a rainbow of opportunities,” she said.
Despite his protests, Martínez and his brother would join more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children expatriated from Castro’s communist regime under the “Operation Pedro Pan” relocation effort between 1960 and 1962. Children went to temporary shelters or foster families in 30 states around the country—settling into asylum and paving a way for other family members.
As Martínez made his way in a new society, the universal language of music would continue to define his future. In a recent memoir, Cuba, Adiós: A Young Man’s Journey to Freedom, Martínez recounts his first days in a Florida boy’s camp, his musical studies at WSU, finding his artistic self in New York, and eventually returning to Cuba 40 years later.
“I gained a lot by coming here,” he says now, “but it was not an easy journey.”
Martínez, 69, grew up studying and emulating many classic composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart. He spent hours practicing complicated piano arrangements, studying full-time at a music conservatory in Santiago. When the Catholic-run Operation Pedro Pan program placed him with a family in Pasco, his adept playing earned him a scholarship to WSU.
Adjusting to American culture took patience, but Martínez says he found an artistic and welcoming community in Pullman. While he struggled with the distance from family, he says he grew into a stronger and more independent musician. He played piano accompaniment for many singers and musicals, collaborating with faculty and mentoring younger students.
“I was very fortunate that I had a lot of people helping me along the way,” he notes. “I think my artistic sensibility helped me through that time.”
Pullman residents Bonnie and Remo Fausti embraced Martínez as their own, inviting him and other students over to play music and sing at their home in the mid-1960s. The Faustis’ daughter, Jannis Peterson ’70, says she first met Martínez as a young teen.
“He was wonderfully exotic,” Peterson says. “That impressed me. He helped me develop as a pianist.”
Peterson says she would sit in on Martínez’s rehearsals or watch him perform in summer musicals. His guidance helped strengthen her passion for music, which she would go on to teach for 32 years at the State University of New York at Fredonia School of Music.
During his college years, Martínez continued efforts to bring his family to Washington, repeatedly watching visas fall through as United States and Cuba relations deteriorated after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It would take years of careful negotiation and eventually fake documents to bring the family back together.
Nearby, other young exiles hoped for similar reunions, including 63 Pedro Pan children placed with families in Colfax. Martínez notes many of those children were much younger than him.
After graduation, Martínez set his sights on New York and the Manhattan School of Music. As he pursued his master’s degree in piano performance, Martínez also found a place in the city’s thriving gay scene. Moving to New York, he says, felt like immigrating to a foreign country all over again.
“I am so glad that I went to New York,” he says, “but that was very traumatic.”
Ultimately, the city would prove an inspiring fit. Martínez spent several years teaching piano, composing arrangements, writing music for the TV show Captain Kangaroo, and publishing children’s songs. He says he later devoted his career to working with international nonprofits.
Cuba has haunted Martínez ever since he left. Throughout the embargo, he had watched the people and places he once loved wither under Fidel Castro’s rule. He says he still longed to return though, despite what he might find.
“I had always been afraid of going back,” he says, “but at some point the urge to go back was stronger than my fear.”
In 2002, Martínez again walked the streets of Santiago. He saw his childhood home stripped and broken. Oppression continued.
But Martínez says he also found inspiration and an intense musical rhythm he had forgotten existed in the streets and shops of Cuba. He channeled that energy into his writing, collecting scenes and moments for his memoir. Slowly, he put words to his memories of the fateful telegram, leaving his mother at the Havana airport, and later revisiting his lost homeland.
“Some of it was really tough to relive,” he says. “It was painful.”
Thom W. Cunningham, Martínez’s partner of more than 40 years, says the traumatic upheaval of Operation Pedro Pan could have easily turned Martínez hard and bitter. But he believes it only reinforced a sense of generosity. He says Martínez came to recognize the great power of small kindnesses.
“He’s always giving,” Cunningham says. “To my amazement, my delight, and my admiration, Lorenzo has only opened up more.”
The pair recently moved to a new home near Houston, Texas. Martínez says he plans to release a second memoir and a young adult mystery novel next year. In addition to writing, Martinez recently refocused his career on his first love, taking over as executive director of the Houston Chamber Choir in June.
“We are hoping to tour to Cuba next year,” he says, adding, “I see a very bright new future.”