Elena York Sanchez was born in Cuba in 1921, the youngest of seven siblings, to Augusto W. York, originally of Marietta, Ga., and Aurora Valmaña of Marianao, Cuba.
Her father met his future spouse, a teacher, after arriving in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt as one of the famous Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. She taught him Spanish, and his Southern charms won her heart. After the war, the Southern gentleman stayed behind, becoming a Cuban citizen and founding the Cuban Signal Corps.
He is noted for introducing volleyball to Cuba and officiating at car and bicycle races and boxing matches. He rose to the rank of Comandante of the Cuban Army. His sister Alice would marry a relatively famous Baptist preacher named William Jesse Barton, who was the sixth pastor of the First Baptist Church of Homestead.
After the Communist Revolution in 1959, most of his progeny, and their children, returned to the States. Some moved back to Georgia, others to Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina and, yes, Miami, where we return to mom, Elena.
Married to my father, Manuel Francisco Sanchez, in Cuba, they became one of the thousands of Cuban refugees fleeing the new Marxist government. I was 2 when I left the island; the family relocated to New York for several years. It was in Harlem that my brother Tony was born.
Eventually, my father’s siblings, spouses and children would all move to Miami.
Mom not only managed the household, but she worked as a teacher and later as a social worker with Florida’s HRS, from where she would retire. After working a full day at her “day” job, she worked at my father’s grocery store in Little Havana (Topeka Supermarket), including weekends. And she still had time to be a Cub Scout den mother and volunteer at our church, St. Kevin’s.
She also remains active, to this day, with La Juventud Católica, a Catholic activist and religious organization to which my father belonged for over 50 years.
My father’s market and family restaurant and cafeteria became the meeting place of some of the most notable of early exile radio personalities and actors, including Leopoldo Fernandez (Tres Patines), El Chino Wong and Rolando Ochoa. The store was only blocks away from the first home of Belen Jesuit Prep. The priests were family friends of my father and family, as he and his siblings had attended Belen in Cuba.
From my parents’ home in West Dade, we watched a man land on the moon, saw FIU being built and walked to attend the outdoor Mass of John Paul II in Tamiami Park – all milepost moments in South Florida.
My parents’ home was not only an amazing place to grow up in, but also an island of hope and love for the whole family. Many a relative, friend and stranger found themselves living there throughout the course of the years. From widowed aunts, separated uncles, an elderly grandmother, newly married and single cousins, and even a homeless stranger that showed up once at our church, Mom made room for all.
After the unexpected death of my father, Mom’s attentions shifted toward a new generation that included her grandchildren and turned her attention to music and poetry.
I still recall my father’s funeral in 1988, when Miami Auxiliary Bishop Agustin Roman showed up unexpectedly. Mom was humbled by his visit and asked Bishop Roman how he had become aware of my father’s passing.
“Elena, come now, you are more famous than Coca-Cola,” he told her.
I could fill pages and pages of family anecdotes, from Mom’s involvement with Miami’s “Centro Mater” near downtown, the building of “La Ermita de la Caridad,” her work during the Mariel Boatlift, food drives, visits to homeless shelters.
She has always been more than a witness to our community’s history – she has been an active protagonist. Not a political figure, nor a captain of industry or finance, yet in the circles she traveled – and in the lives of people she met – lives were changed for the better, kind words were shared, and hope and love imparted. The world is a much better place because she is in it.
Last Thanksgiving, the descendents of Augusto W. York gathered here in Miami, at the home of his last living daughter, Elena. We are grateful to the generations who came before us and helped define the values of who we are today.
My mother, who will turn 90 on Aug. 19, has always been a source of light, of gentle and humble grace, of quiet, enduring strength, and of infectious humor and love. Southern and Cuban generations, both past and present, are ennobled and proud of this amazing South Floridian. Thanks Mom!