Sara J. Gonzalez Memorial Park ceremony to be held Thursday

The park in Atlanta is the first in Georgia to honor a Hispanic citizen

During Sara Gonzalez’s more than 30 years in Atlanta, she left behind a legacy of giving as an advocate for immigrant rights and Hispanic economic growth. As founder of the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development and in her role as president and CEO of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, she touched the lives of many seeking hope and happiness in a new country.

From the time she arrived here in 1975, until just before her death in February 2008, she remained involved in the community. That’s why her sudden death came as a shock to those who were close to her.

“Sara and I were colleagues at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games,” Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said in a statement following Gonzalez’s death. “She was a friend whose vision for Georgia included everybody.”

She was a leader in the Hispanic community, noted Ralph De La Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility. “If you wanted to do something in the community, you went to her. ... It’s almost impossible to imagine what impact her efforts have had on this generation and future generations.”

After Gonzalez’s death, her daughter Isabel Gonzalez-Whittaker, a senior editor at In Style magazine in New York, decided it was important to honor her mother in a way the entire city could recognize.

“I talked to my brother and sister and said if any of us deserve to be recognized for their contributions it’s our mom,” Gonzalez-Whittaker said. Along with her sister Ofelia and her late brother Luis De La Valette, the three began a campaign to immortalize their mother’s memory.

“We talked about naming a street after her, but then someone from the city suggested a park,” Gonzalez-Whittaker said.

Thursday at 4 p.m. an official ceremony will be held at the park with members of Gonzalez’s family present, as well as De La Vega and Mayor Franklin.

“I’m proud to say that this park is the first named after an Hispanic individual in the entire state of Georgia,” said Atlanta Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Dianne Harnell Cohen.

Born to Ricardo Jofre and Cecilia Rodriguez Jofre, Sara Del Carmen Jofre Gonzalez came into the world on Sept. 28, 1935 in Havana, Cuba. As she blossomed into a young woman, she was picked to model professionally for designer Christian Dior. The Jofre family was upper middle-class, and Sara enjoyed a comfortable life.

Sara’s first husband, Luis de La Valette, Sr., was a recognized equestrian who had represented Cuba in the Pan-American Games. His family owned the Perez-Vento Sanatorium and had been publicly denounced by the newly-installed Castro regime as counter-revolutionaries. In fear of imprisonment or worse, Luis and Sara fled Cuba with their two children.

“It’s ironic,” daughter Ofelia recalls. “My father knew Castro at Havana University. They were classmates and he came from a well-to-do-family. ... We were lucky. We were among the first to leave, at a time when you still could. Many were unable to or did not have the resources to.”

For a time Sara resumed work as a fashion model in New York. When her marriage to Luis Sr. ended, she eventually met and married Harvard fellow Dr. Fernando Gonzalez. The two had a daughter, Isabel in 1971. By 1975, they landed in Atlanta.

Sara and Fernando opened one of the first Cuban restaurants in Atlanta, Sarita’s, which was reviewed by USA Today in 1986 and featured as one of the best Cuban restaurants in the country. The restaurant ultimately closed, but Sara frequently credited the experience as giving her the passion for wanting to help others succeed where she had failed.

After the restaurant, Gonzalez took a job as a receptionist for the Latin American Association, which helped newly arrived Latinos acclimate to Atlanta. There she discovered her calling as a community advocate.

“She became a pillar of the Latino community, helping the disenfranchised, the entrepreneurial, the unequipped,” her family wrote in a tribute booklet. “She gave people the tools to fulfill the American dream, a dream she herself fulfilled,” Gonzalez-Whittaker said.

On Aug. 22, family, friends and volunteers gathered and cleaned up the former Coronet Way Park. Ofelia de la Valette and her dance studio, Dance 101, have adopted the park and have committed to regular clean-ups. Through the generosity of Ralph De La Vega and AT&T Mobility, new signage has been installed, announcing that the park is now known as Sara J. Gonzalez Memorial Park.

“It’s sad to think about our world without Sara here,” De La Vega said. “But one of the best things I remember about her was that she was always a lot of fun. You were never without laughter when Sara was around.”

If you would like to attend:

WHAT: Sara J. Gonzalez Memorial Park Ceremony

WHERE: Corner of Coronet Way and Bolton Road, in Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta

WHEN: 4 p.m. Thursday