My mother, my community

How a park became a daughter's tribute to the woman who inspired her to give back.

It was President’s Day weekend, a decade ago, and my best friend was coming to visit. I was living in New York City with my husband, in a one-bedroom, fourth floor walk-up on the Upper West Side. Ayoka and I were lifelong BFFs, both fashion editors with shared passions for exploring hip downtown neighborhoods, shopping closet-sized boutiques and dancing the night away. I was looking forward to a fun weekend, especially since I’d spent the last year dealing with the uncertainty of my mother’s health.

Yet, just as Ayoka put down her luggage, I blurted out: “I have to go to Atlanta to be with my mom this weekend. I don’t know why, but I have to go.”

The truth was, I had felt a slight pang of longing earlier in the day after an uneventful call to check in with my mother, but I had dismissed it until that moment. Within an hour I was hailing a cab and apologetically saying goodbye to Ayoka, who gave me an extra tight hug intended, I think, to transfer some strength.

My mother was pleasantly surprised by my impromptu visit. I still cherish my memories of those three days we spent together. We did so many routine things we loved to do: We shopped for home décor. She cooked my favorite meal of steamed mussels in white wine. We watched thrillers on TV in her big bed enveloped by thick pillows and the fluffy comforter that always smelled of fresh lavender.

They would be the last three days of her life.


Out of Cuba

My mother, Sara Del Carmen Jofre González, was a warm and friendly woman who loved to smile and make others smile. With soft features accented by dark brows and thick curly hair that she always kept short, she was innately elegant. I would tease her that she didn’t do casual dressing well; jeans never suited her. Weekend errands were tackled in statement jewelry, makeup and a spritz of perfume. I got my love of fashion and beauty from her.

She was born in central Havana in 1935 to a teenage mother, Cecilia, and her decade older boyfriend, Ricardo, who ran the parts warehouse of a sugar mill far from Havana. Cecilia wore a simple wedding band her whole life, but we have no date or record of a wedding or civil ceremony. They stayed together nearly 60 years until my grandfather passed.

Ricardo’s older sister, Carmen, was my mother’s godmother or madrina in Spanish, which is what everyone called her. Madrina became my mother’s primary caretaker, seeing to it that mom was raised with impeccable manners, a bespoke wardrobe and enrolled into the best schools, all with the goal typical of the times: to marry a Cuban Prince Charming. It helped Carmen’s efforts that my mother was beautiful. She was photographed for a story in Holiday magazine lounging in a white dress at a country club and selected by Christian Dior himself to model in his Havana runway shows.

Prince Charming swooped into my mom’s life when she was 17. He was older, handsome and worldly, thanks to his equestrian pursuits, his French ancestry and links to the Mayflower. Driving around in his convertible MG, the young couple reveled in the heyday of Cuban glamour, socializing at the Yacht Club during the day and at the Tropicana at night alongside Montgomery Clift and Kirk Douglas. They married when she was 19 and soon welcomed two beautiful babies, a son, Luis, and daughter, Ofelia.

“I was never happier than when I was pregnant,” my mother used to tell me.

Then the Cuban revolution came and everyone’s lives changed forever.

“Fidel Castro has done a lot of bad things, but in a way he changed me — who I am and whom I was supposed to be,” my mother would tell a media outlet many years later.

That journey started in early 1960 when her husband, who had studied alongside Fidel, was denounced by the new government as counter-revolutionary. It was a threat that could mean execution by firing squad, so he left immediately for New York. My mom, 5-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister followed later via ferry to Key West, Fla. Thinking they’d return in a few months once Castro’s reign fizzled, they left everything but their essentials behind. The contents of their suitcases became the only remnants from their lives on the island they loved.

The family settled on New York City’s Upper West Side, where my mother and siblings saw snow for the first time. With her tall, thin frame, mom got a job as a model in the Revillon fur department of Saks Fifth Avenue, while her husband gave riding lessons and trained horses in Long Island.

Their union, which had begun to fracture in Cuba, became more fraught in the U.S. with my mother feeling increasingly isolated and far from family to lean on. The marriage ended a few years later.


Calling revealed

Eager for familial support and a chance to start anew, my mother and siblings moved to the Cuban haven of Miami, into the home of old family friends. My mom had been close to the Gonzálezes in Cuba, where they had been part of the equestrian scene. Like my mother, they had fled Cuba in 1960, ending up in Miami. Their youngest son, Fernando, was a student at Georgia Tech.

Fernando spoke English well and excelled academically. When he was 21, he and my mother started dating and soon married. They moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he continued his studies in psychology, and I was born.

Eventually we moved to Atlanta and in 1978 my parents opened Sarita Restaurante Cubano on an industrial stretch of Bolton Road in northwest Atlanta. We all worked there — my father oversaw the kitchen, my mother worked the front of house, my brother and sister waited tables, and I washed dishes when I wasn’t doing my homework. It survived for eight years, and despite positive reviews and a loyal following, it eventually closed, having drained my parent’s bank accounts and spirits. Years later my mother would say that failure, which she attributed in large part to business naivete, fueled her desire to help other immigrants overcome similar fates as they chased their own American dreams.

About a year later, my mother answered an ad in the paper and got her first office job as a receptionist for the Latin American Association (LAA), a social services nonprofit. Despite her insecurities about not having a college degree or professional bona fides, she found her calling at the LAA, rising to the executive ranks as an advocate, a liaison to the corporate community and a natural fundraiser.

“Sara had a vision for how the LAA could build relationships with the larger community and raise funds,” recalls her former boss, Maritza Soto Keen. “She was driven to make the LAA an organization everyone wanted to support. I think she woke up every day thinking: What else can I do to help a community that is helping itself, and how do I help others see what I see in the LAA?”

When I was in high school, I interned at the LAA and got to see my mother in her sharp suits and layered necklaces, taking meetings and commanding respect. The job also exposed me to other immigrant families who faced the same struggles — psychologically, financially and culturally — that my family faced before I was born. It was alternately heart wrenching to witness their hardships and heartwarming when we could provide help. The experience proved formative and inspirational as my own career dreams began to take shape.

After a stint as a Hispanic community liaison for the 1996 Olympics, my mother was approached for what she called a ground floor opportunity helming the then nascent Atlanta Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Latino entrepreneurs and businesses. Thanks to a 9,000 percent increase in membership under her leadership, the AHCC became the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She brought millions of dollars to the organization while also infusing millions into the Georgia economy through her creation of a pioneering Hispanic business incubator.

The shelves in my mother’s plant-filled office displayed awards, framed photos with leaders and press clippings. She served on boards and commissions, including appointments from then-Governors Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue. All the while she remained steadfastly true to her desire for social and economic equity. When Governor Perdue signed a controversial anti-immigration bill in 2006, she resigned from a commission he’d appointed her to in protest.

One year later, her health started to decline.


End of one life

First it was COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease. Then what the doctors call afib, short for atrial fibrillation or an irregular heart rate. Then it was polymyalgia, an inflammatory disorder. She endured a year of ER visits, hospital stays, diagnoses, specialists.

Motivated by fear and love, my siblings and I tried to buoy her spirits with our affection and attention especially since she and my father by then had divorced. In 2007 when she was awarded the prestigious Purpose Prize – now the AARP Purpose Prize, which awards financial grants to social impact leaders over the age of 60 — my brother and I tagged along with her to Mountain View, Calif., for the ceremony. Luis, ever the adventure planner of our family, organized scenic day trips and whale watching excursions, but we ended up doing them without her. Uncomfortable and restless, but smiling and hopeful, she stayed in bed saving her energy for the awards luncheon where she gave a funny, touching speech. No one would have suspected she wasn’t well.

Four months later, I deserted Ayoka in New York to spend those last three days with my mother in Atlanta. Her life ended just as we were leaving her apartment to go to dinner with my in-laws. I was in her home office sending work emails when she called for me from her bedroom. It wasn’t the usual, “Hey, Isa come here for a sec,” holler. There was something off in her voice, and I remembered she called out for me twice, the second time I knew something was wrong and I ran. I found her in a chair by the bed, clenching her left shoulder in pain and asking me to call 911. After I relayed to the dispatcher what was happening, I grabbed my mother’s cellphone and called my brother and sister so they could talk to her. Then I just hugged her and spoke encouraging, loving words while we waited for the paramedics to arrive.

Later the doctors told me there was nothing I could have done to save her. Ultimately she succumbed to atherosclerosis, a coronary heart disease caused by plaque in the arteries. The memory of every detail of that day haunts me, from telling the paramedics the wrong elevator button to push to watching a fireman perform CPR on her through the window of the ambulance and turning away because I just couldn’t watch.

So I try to focus on other memories from that weekend. The day before she died, we were driving around Atlanta when we passed the small rental house we lived in near the end of the Sarita Restaurante Cubano days.

“I’ve come a long way,” said my mother in a wistful way that took me aback. I knew immediately and viscerally what she meant. It was a five-word recognition of the immense distance traveled across her “accidental life.” That’s what she sometimes called her complicated, at times harrowing but ultimately fulfilling journey.

“Yes, and I am so, so, so proud of you, Mommy,” I replied, because I wanted her to be happy forever and ever. “I love you so much. We all love you. We are all so proud of you.”

And I held her hand on the gearshift the rest of the drive. Today I still relish the memory of feeling her warm skin. I’ve never known anything softer.


Beginning of another

I was with my in-laws, my sister and her children at Piedmont Hospital when the attending doctor declared my mother dead. We sat with her one last time. We signed papers donating her organs. But beyond that, I can’t recall where I went, with whom, or what I did in the hours between her death and when my husband, Lang, arrived later that evening, cutting a business trip short. But when I saw him, I knew then that our bond would be stronger than it ever had been before and in a way that my mom had always wanted. “Go be with your husband, he’s your family, stop spending time with me here,” she would order me whenever I insisted on spending the night with her at the hospital that year during one of her stays.

My brother, sister and I were all a wreck at the funeral, but we mostly held it together and got through it. Though a number of media outlets had covered her death and Atlanta leaders including Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin had released statements, I was shocked when I turned around in my front row pew to see the chapel packed with what I was later told was a thousand mourners. After the service, women and men I did not know, of all socio-economic levels, many of whom only spoke Spanish, gave me hugs and told me how much my mother had helped them, how she had touched their lives, how she had been their voice, how she was an angel to them.

I had long understood intellectually that my mother had an impact on people’s lives, but I never grasped the reach or the depth of that influence. In a moment of profound clarity that day, my definition of success changed. From a young age I had defined it as career accomplishment — my Barbies had corner offices and I started working and interning as soon as I was old enough. To be fair, that drive and work ethic has served me well and is rooted in my immigrant background, my respect for the sacrifices my parents made and their role modeling.

But those hugs from strangers showed me that success is also touching lives, changing lives, sticking your neck out, fighting for your family and for your community. Success was what my mother had managed to achieve without me fully realizing what she was doing. I was focused on the awards, the press clippings, the material signifiers. I saw now how all that hovered below her real contribution, the work that was more meaningful to her than anything except for her love of her children. And I knew that as soon as I could stand on solid ground again, my life would take on more meaning, too.

But solid ground evaded me. In the weeks that followed my mom’s death, longstanding family fissures between my brother, sister and I grew first by tiny increments and then explosively. Without my mother there to act as a buffer, we fell away from each other. Six months after my mother’s death, my brother died. Mourning one loved one is terrible; mourning two is unbearable.

Something happened in the months that followed my brother’s unexpected death as I processed my family’s dramatic reduction in size: I wanted to grow it. I longed to celebrate life. Lang and I had just begun talking about starting a family before my mother passed, but now those conversations took a more serious tone. It wasn’t easy, juggling two busy work lives, coping with depression and anxiety attacks, and then there was what my doctors referred to coldly as my “advanced maternal age” — we were getting old. Though emotionally depleted, we persevered hoping there would be a positive outcome one way or another. It took several years, but in 2012, our beautiful, healthy baby boy was born.

But in the intervening years before my son was born, I struggled. I mourned the loss of my mother and brother, and I endured the emotional pain of settling their estates, all while facing the ups and downs of a complicated journey to motherhood. It was all too much. I decided I needed a salve to soothe my heart, and it would take the form of a memorial that would honor my mother.

I sought out guidance from community leaders who knew my mother. Initially I wanted a street or highway named after her, but I learned it could take years and too much bureaucratic red tape. Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts suggested a park, and I knew instinctively it was the right choice given my mother’s love of children and nature. There were two parks available for renaming and one happened to be across from where Sarita Restaurante Cubano had been, walking distance to the neighborhood where my mother lived for 30 years. Coronet Way Park was about the length of a city block, shaped like a triangle and shaded by 100-year-old oak trees. That the small playground was in a general state of neglect and the grounds were in need of love didn’t bother me. I saw potential.

I had no idea how long it would take to get it renamed, but I trusted my resolve and tenacity, setting aside 20 minutes a week — all I felt I could emotionally spare — to figure out how to get it done. As it turns out, my mother’s legacy made the process go faster than I had anticipated. With the help of civic and political leaders; family and friends; Park Pride, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to improving greenspaces; and a generous donation from AT&T executive Ralph de la Vega, a loyal friend of my mother’s, the park was renamed Sara J. González Park in 2009.

My job is done here, I thought. I had honored my mother’s legacy, Latino children for years to come would see on a sign a name they culturally identified with, and Georgia had its first ever park named after a Latino. On the sunny September day of the dedication, supporters and members of the media came out to hear my sister and I talk about our love for our mother and her work helping others. It was one of my happiest days since the deaths of my mother and brother. But later that night, the pain crept back, the tears flowed. I wanted to punch a wall, which is how I often felt when I thought about their deaths. A memorial is a remarkable monument to love and impact, but I realized then that it doesn’t drive out the sadness in your heart.


A new calling

Over the next couple of years, I found my footing in a new normal. A loving and patient husband, therapy, cool jobs and being a new mom all helped recalibrate me. As the deputy editor of Billboard magazine I enjoyed success covering the intersection of social issues, politics and culture, and I was thrilled to be contributing to the larger conversation around topics like immigration and gun safety. Slowly I began to see my mom’s park through a lens that was less about my connection to her and more about what was happening regionally and nationally, at a time when minorities and immigrants were being marginalized and disparaged.

In 2014 I heard about a developer who wanted to give the park a significant gift, and I connected with Herbert Ames, a senior vice president of Edens, an Atlanta-based real estate development company, whose donation set forth a new phase for the Sara J. González Park. What was once a beacon for me would now, fully realized, become a beacon for the community.

Along with the gift from the developer, additional donations and a grant from Park Pride, I established a steering committee consisting of neighbors and community leaders. Together, we crafted the inclusionary tenets of the Sara J. González Park, which celebrate diversity with an all-abilities playground, wheelchair access, a small soccer field and a legacy plaza.

On a clear and mild Tuesday earlier this month, we broke ground. About 50 people came out for the noon ceremony including friends and family, neighbors, business owners, Latino civic leaders, media as well as longstanding and new government leadership.

“The footprint of this park in acreage is small, but the impact is huge,” said Daniel Calvert, a City of Atlanta urban planner who contributed to the design of the park. Before the ceremonial shoveling of the dirt, Atlanta City Council President Felicia A. Moore spoke about the concentrated Latino population in the neighborhood. Robb Pitts recalled his friendship with my mother. The crowd cheered when I told them we were making history.

“The park serves the community while sending a positive message to the entire state,” said Calvert.

If all goes as planned, our revamped park will debut in August. I continue to raise funds for a sculpture for the legacy plaza, as well as educational programming.

The park comes at a time that is critical for the state’s Latino communities. The growth of Georgia’s Latino population is currently outpacing every other state, while at the same time, more Latinos are being deported from Georgia than any other state. I think my mother would be humbled and honored to have a park named after her, but also glad that if only through her name she is still part of an important conversation on immigration and minority representation. I like to believe she would see the value for the community that she was determined to uplift.

This year I am honored to serve as a 2018 Presidential Leadership Scholar. A few weeks ago, former President Bill Clinton spoke to our group in Little Rock, Ark.

“Community benefits from diversity,” he said. “Be relentlessly inclusive.”

I think about his words and how they intersect with one of my mother’s lodestars, culled from her life as a immigrant and American patriot, a woman who believed in the American Dream while trying to make that dream happen for others: “We are an asset to society not a liability,” she would say.

My mother loved children. She was driven to connect with and help others. She believed in giving voice to the voiceless. You may not be able to hear her voice at this park, but you can feel her presence and experience her core values firsthand: Community. Family. Diversity. When I take my son to the park he connects with a woman he never knew while playing with the neighborhood kids, who, like him, represent unique journeys. It’s the culmination of the story of a young woman turned leader, who didn’t intend to impact anyone’s life except for her children, and yet she did.

And now I hope I have, too. Thanks, Mom.

Author Anne Lamott wrote an essay in 2010 that went viral called “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” pooh-poohing the idea that mothers were special or deserving of recognition. I fumed when I read it. As a mother myself, I know what a thankless job parenting can be much of the time, and I appreciate the fact my sons are old enough to recognize that now. More importantly, as a daughter I’d give anything in the world if I could shower my mother with the affection she deserves today, but she is just a memory now. So instead I take extreme satisfaction in presenting Isabel Gonzalez Whitaker’s moving story about honoring her mother’s legacy. And I encourage everyone who’s lucky enough to have a loving mother in their lives to treat her like the queen she is today and everyday.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Isabel González Whitaker is the former features editor of InStyle magazine and deputy editor of Billboard magazine. She has been published in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. She recently moved with her family after 17 years in New York City to Memphis where her husband, Lang Whitaker, is the GM of the Memphis Grizzlies esports team.