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She made American dream be real

With hard work and tight purse strings, the Cuban immigrant and Elvis fan inspired her friends and family.

By JANET LEISER
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 12, 2002


Elina Govantes
1909 -- 2002

* * *

Michael DiMaio spent 15 years studying to be a cardiologist so he could care for the sick, waking most mornings before 5 a.m. to visit patients at the hospital.

When his determination wavered, he thought of his grandmother, Elina Govantes -- a Cuban immigrant who made a good life for herself and her family in Ybor City despite the obstacles.

"She was my inspiration. She never cowered or backed away from any challenge," said DiMaio, tears filling his eyes Tuesday as he remembered the vivacious lady he called Nana. Mrs. Govantes -- a lover of dancing, fishing, cats, Elvis and her family -- was 93 when she died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer's disease.

"My grandmother told me you set your goals and let nothing stop you," said DiMaio, 46, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas.

Most mornings, Mrs. Govantes woke before 5 to water her vegetable garden and yard. At 4 foot 11 and 95 pounds, she trudged around the yard in oversized black rubber boots.

After the sun came up, she usually donned a large, straw hat.

"She was a sight," said grandson Victor DiMaio, 47, a Tampa political consultant.

Even on the hottest days, Mrs. Govantes refused to use the air conditioner, except for about an hour a day.

"She lived through the Depression," said Victor DiMaio. "She didn't want to waste money."

In her early years, she worked at LaCirila Cigar Factory. Later, she would recall living in a one-room house with a light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

During World War II, Mrs. Govantes and her husband, Rudy, started their own cigarmaking operation at their Ybor City house.

"She was really a good business person," said her only child, Mercedes DiMaio. "In spite of very little education she was able to save money."

The couple also opened a mom-and-pop grocery.

They rented at two locations before buying property at Tampa Bay Boulevard and Habana. All three stores were called Old Glory. They had the third store for 25 years, until her husband's death.

At the end of the day, she'd turn on the record player in the kitchen, grab her grandsons and dance.

"If my grandmother wasn't working, she was dancing or gardening or doing something," said Victor DiMaio. "She hated to sit still."

She adored Elvis: She had every record he ever recorded.

"To my grandmother, Elvis could do no wrong. He loved his mama," said Michael DiMaio.

A St. Petersburg Times photograph of a crowd surrounding Elvis during a 1961 visit to Weeki Wachee Springs was one of her favorite possessions. She is right there in the front gazing, awestruck, at the king. Her grandsons are nearby.

And she loved to fish. Snook and redfish were her favorites.

Many of her grandsons' friends, including mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez, attended the Tuesday service at Gonzalez Funeral Home.

They recalled fishing trips with Nana when they were boys.

Billy Alfonso returned the favor. In the later years, he often took her fishing in his boat, until her sickness began to get the best of her about five years ago.

"She was so full of life. To be stuck in a bed like that was tough," said Victor DiMaio.

Not a day passed that Victor didn't visit his grandmother, he said. She lived with his parents on Aileen Street. He helped caretaker Nancy Williams bathe her and feed her.

He was there Saturday when she closed her eyes for the last time.

She was buried Wednesday at Centro Asturiano Memorial Park next to her first husband, who died in 1968.

In addition to her daughter and two grandsons, she leaves a great-granddaughter, Melissa.

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