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Visit brings family its heart

A 94-year-old Cuban grandmother comes to the United States for the first time and helps knit up unraveled family ties.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Every day for almost 20 years Emilia Georjina Alfonso begged God for a chance to lay a flower at her daughter's grave.

Three weeks ago, her prayer was granted when the 94-year-old grandmother took her first-ever plane trip, a temporary journey out of Cuba, to visit with her daughter's children.

With this bittersweet closure, a family is grasping for a new beginning. A link that was broken with the death of her daughter -- the only one of her 13 children to leave Cuba -- is being reforged.

And in the microcosm of this family, the American quilt is being restitched. Mrs. Alfonso is a black Catholic Cuban woman who speaks only Spanish. Her grandchildren, the offspring of a Cuban woman and an American man, are family and amalgam.

"As children, they always classified us as Hispanic,and you know you've got this other blood inside of you and you're not really sure about it. So you're kind of like, am I African American, or am I Cuban? What am I?" said Kathy Alderman, 43, the oldest of Mrs. Alfonso's American grandchildren.

"Going to Cuba let me know who I am," she said of a trip last fall that laid the path for their grandmother's journey. "Even though I am a black American woman, I am a Cuban woman also. So now I actually know who I am. It's totally clear now."

Her sister emphasizes her American heritage.

"One thing I can always remember is my mother taking her citizenship, and that's something that stayed in my mind. I was there when she received her citizenship. That was a great step for her," said Angela McKahand, 39.

"I remember her studying late at night to take the test. I remember her saying the Pledge of Allegiance. That's something that stuck with me."

For the grandmother, the past weeks have been an odyssey of tears, laughter and wonder.

Her American grandchildren, on the other hand, are using the visit not only to rediscover their Cuban roots, but to learn about the mother whose tragic death has never been solved.

Orlando Cooper was 12 in 1982, when his mother, Hilda Andrea Cooper, drowned near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. He arrived from Illinois Wednesday.

"I was not going to miss the opportunity to meet my grandma," said Cooper, 30, as he sat in his older sister's Lakewood Estates home.

"I never knew anything past my parents, especially on my mother's side. Meeting my grandmother brought back a piece of my mother. It brought back a major part of my mother."

His siblings have been savoring their role as hosts to their lively grandmother. Since her arrival, Mrs. Alfonso has been fussed over at St. Petersburg's police headquarters, slurped ice cream on St. Pete Beach and sampled a Baptist service in Clearwater.

"My father's mother died when I was 6," said Mrs. Alderman.

"When I see people with grandmothers and mothers, I always wish that I could have a relationship with my grandmother. I haven't taken her shopping for clothes and stuff like that, but I've spent quality time with her."

Christopher Cooper, 34, who brewed strong Cuban coffee, fried yellow plantains and cooked a large pot of spaghetti for his grandmother one recent afternoon, took her on an excursion to Home Depot.

"We spent at least an hour, and I just went for one item," he said, adding that his grandmother had been fascinated with the store.

Cooper, a police officer, also took her to work.

"Everyone gathered around and started talking," he recalled with a smile. "Chief (Goliath) Davis stopped by. He spoke a few Spanish words. He said hello and how are you doing, in Spanish. I was surprised. We couldn't even get by the lobby."

The grandmother also spent time with Mrs. McKahand at her Clearwater home.

"The four days she spent with me, we were like kids in a candy store," Mrs. McKahand said.

"We stayed up at night and we looked at the Spanish station together. Even though I'm not fluent in the language, all I had to do was get one word out and she knew exactly what I was saying."

Indeed, communication seemed to be no problem for the re-united family. Mrs. Alfonso speaks no English and her grandchildren, though they grew up with their mother speaking Spanish at home, know little of the language.

Earlier this year, Mrs. Alderman enrolled in an evening Spanish course at Northeast High School.

"I knew we had talked about getting Grandmother over here," she said. "I wanted her to be very comfortable when she came here. I wanted to not sit here and smile at her. I wanted some answers. I wanted to be able to talk to her."

Mrs. Alfonso, tiny and animated, arrived in the United States on May 21. Although she had never flown in an airplane before, she handled the trip with aplomb. The only worry came when she arrived in Miami and her granddaughters were not at the airport to greet her.

"Angela was late," said Mrs. Alderman with a giggle.

But their grandmother, who lives by herself about five hours by bus from Havana, in a small tin-roof house without plumbing, was forgiving -- after giving them a good-natured scolding.

Speaking through a translator, she said their mother was the fourth of her 13 children. Hilda Andrea left Cuba when she was 17 and was the only one of her children to emigrate to the United States, Mrs. Alfonso said. She did not want her daughter to leave Cuba but gave permission when her wealthy employer asked to bring her to this country.

Her daughter returned to Cuba three times after she left the island in the early 1950s. On her third trip, she traveled with her oldest children, Peggy, who died of cancer in 1998, and Kathy. The Cooper children also remember their mother returning to Cuba shortly before her death, but their grandmother has no recollection of the visit.

During the past weeks, Mrs. Alfonso has shared new information about her daughter. From the time she left Cuba until her death, Hilda Andrea never failed to send money home each month. And growing up, she had been quiet and loving, Mrs. Alfonso said.

Little that was said surprised her grandchildren.

Their mother was fiercely protective of her family, said Horace Cooper, 38, who was named after his father, who died of kidney failure in 1987.

"Our mother was a very special person. Until my mother passed away, we were a perfect family. (When she died) it was like the bottom fell out. I didn't know how our family was going to make it. . . . I tell people that was the worst thing that could happen to me. There can't be anything worse," said Horace Cooper, a computer technician who lives in Georgia.

"I felt that my life ended for me that day. I was the one who had to identify her at the morgue," he added.

The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide.

Hilda Andrea, who married her American husband in 1956 and had six children, was found near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Mrs. Alderman refuses to believe that her mother could have committed suicide.

"I do not believe it is true. I prayed and asked God every night, Lord, just show me what happened. . . . My father never wanted to pursue it. It was devastating to him," she said.

"I think she was very lonely," said Mrs. McKahand, adding that her mother probably missed her family in Cuba.

"Looking back, I think probably the cause of my mother's death was that she was so close to Cuba but yet so far," Horace Cooper said.

"Sometimes you just want to be around your family, and I think that she probably felt that she could reach out and touch them, but she couldn't. . . . We'll never know."

After their mother's death, the Cooper children lost virtually all contact with their grandmother, though there was some communication through cousins who live in the Maryland area. It was through the urging of those relatives that Horace Cooper first traveled to Cuba in 1998. He and his siblings, except Orlando, visited the island the following fall.

Going to Cuba had long been a priority, said Horace Cooper, who was nicknamed "the ambassador" by his siblings because of his trailblazing journey.

The visit gave him a sense of fulfillment.

"There was a part of you that was missing for such a long time," he said. "The fact that my mother was passed on, it was almost like a reconnecting with your family."

For Mrs. McKahand, it was good to recognize family resemblances.

"I really wanted to see where I was in the crowd, and I found myself," she said.

And, teased her sister, "Chris found his ears."

Laughing, Christopher Cooper said, "I think we found closure. It's like finding your family history. There's a completeness."

Part of that completeness, said the Coopers, came from rediscovering their culture.

Their mother cherished her culture, cooking Cuban dishes for her family, taking them to Catholic church and sending them to Catholic school. Today only Christopher and Orlando Cooper consider themselves Catholic.

Their mother also practiced Santeria, a religion with African roots, in which slaves substituted Catholic saints for the names of ancient deities. She spoke Spanish with friends and resorted to her native tongue when her children were misbehaving. Schoolmates often teased them about their mother's accent, Mrs. McKahand said.

What would their mother say could she see them now, pondering their heritage under the gaze of their contented grandmother?

"I am sure her soul is smiling down on this whole situation," Horace Cooper said.

"I think it is one reason my grandmother is still around. She wanted to meet the family of her daughter."

Their grandfather died yearning to see them, Mrs. Alfonso said.

"I never thought God and the saints would make a way for me to be here today."

-- Acenett Peters of the Times staff provided translation for this article.

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