Sara J. González lived a life so impactful, that her daughter believed it was worth commemorating. González whose passing occurred a decade ago, was a Cuban immigrant, former business owner, and mother of three who took her experiences and used the lessons that came from them to help her community.
Now, a small park located on an acre and a half of land within a diverse community existing in the Deep South ensures that González’s work as a Latinx community advocate continues to thrive.
Despite her fate, Sara J. González became a fierce advocate for women and immigrants.
CREDIT: Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte
A move from Cuba to New York upended González’s life completely but in an interview with FIERCE, Isabel González-Whitaker her daughter says that while Fidel Castro, the former Cuban dictator, affected her life in profoundly damaging ways, he also changed who she was supposed to be. González-Whitaker describes her mother as “lady of leisure” during her life in Cuba. As a young beauty, González was handpicked by Christian Dior himself to model in his Havana runway shows and at 17 she became swept up in a romance with an eligible Cuban bachelor who was a decade older than her. Life was lavish, but it was far from self-governing. “It was very appropriate for that generation to marry early, to not go to college, to not have a career or frankly have a voice and so she didn’t,” González-Whitaker explains. “When she came to this country she was forced to educate herself, she was forced to find a way to make a living and survive. So I think at the same time it was a very difficult journey but it had a silver lining because she was able to find her voice and her calling.”
In 1960, after the Cuban Revolution, her fate on the island she’d grown up on was completely uprooted. Her husband at the time was denounced by Castro as a counter-revolutionary and soon, she and the two children she’d had in Cuba were forced to flee with him. González went from runway model to working at a Saks Fifth Avenue department store in New York City. After some time she divorced her husband and moved with her two children to Miami where she eventually remarried and had González-Whitaker. After a few years, the family relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. It’s where, in 1978, González and her husband would start a small Cuban restaurant that González would discover yet another fate that would go onto affect the lives of thousands of people.
While loyal customers and friends were able to sustain the restaurant for almost 8 years it was eventually shuttered, but not before clearing out González and her husband of their bank accounts and thus their morale. González-Whitaker says that while the business found its successes, they were mostly based on luck. “There weren’t any resources to help her navigate and she stumbled,” González-Whitaker explains. “They couldn’t figure out how to build it into a bonified success story and she was taken advantage of through business dealings but that fueled her.”
After the small business she owned closed, González became determined to make sure other immigrants wouldn’t experience her same struggle.
“After that, she [developed a belief] that there should be a way to come to this country and make your American dreams come true without having to struggle so hard to do it,” says González-Whitaker of her mother.
A year after the Cuban restaurant went out of business, González started work as a receptionist for the Latin American Association (LAA). Determined to make her way to the top, she acquired the skills and knowledge that ultimately made her an advocate and liaison to the corporate community. Her work was so impressive that she went on to the Olympics. Literally.
In 1996, González was recruited by the Olympics committee to help them with Latino community outreach for the games being held in Atlanta. From there she took on various roles helping the Latino community in Atlanta. She helmed projects as a director for the Atlanta Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, became the founder of the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development (HACED) where she shepherded Latinas and immigrant entrepreneurs wanting to start their own businesses. Through her work, several projects were ultimately launched into million dollar businesses. “There was a lot of momentum around it and it was a really powerful way for her to be in,” Gonzalez-Whitaker says.
So powerful, that in the years after her mother’s death, González-Whitaker says she was moved to pay tribute to her mother’s efforts and achievements for their community. “When she passed I just knew in my heart I wanted to memorialize her as a mother and someone who sacrificed a lot to come to this country for her family’s well-being but also as someone who dedicated her life to trying to make life easier for those who come to these shores.” She considered having a street sign and a highway named after her, but then someone suggested she try doing a park, a place González-Whitaker’s says her mother would have loved because of its ability to bring communities together and inspire children to play. “She was a great believer in diversity and that diverse communities are better communities and that children should be happy and innocent for as long as possible.”
In 2009, González-Whitaker managed to rename an Atlanta-based park in her mother’s name while fulfilling the throughline of her efforts as well.
CREDIT: Community residents who live around Sara J. González Park convene for its groundbreaking. Credit: Erik Soderstrom
After raising money and support from her mother’s community, González-Whitaker renamed Coronet Way Park—a park playground located in the culturally diverse neighborhood her mother spent the last thirty years of life—w in her name. Sara J. González Park became the first ever in Georgia to honor a Latino in 2000. Today it is among the 4% of parks in the United States dedicated to Latinos.
The significance of a Latina named parked is hardly lost on González-Whitaker who spent most of her childhood in Atlanta. “I grew up without these cultural representatives and signifiers. I grew up in the south feeling pretty darn marginalized. People might not know who Sara González is but they’ll recognize that last name with that accent over the ‘A’ as something culturally familiar to them. That [type of] representation and cultural embrace gives voice to who we are and proves that we exist and that’s just a driving force of mine.”
But González-Whitaker’s journey to commemorate her mother was far from completion. As she points out in her interview, parks require quite a bit of maintenance and not just in the care and keeping of the amenities and vegetation, but in the community it is located in as well.
Fifteen years had passed since González-Whitaker had lived in Atlanta and been part of the community that was slowly gentrifying. She knew that to make it a park that was truly loved and cared for, one that accomplished the efforts of ensuring diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance that had been part of her mother’s life’s work, she had to get residents involved. She started with a steering committee. “In the act of creating that steering committee I was connecting neighbors who had never met and pulling them together on a project that is generally a very feel-good project,” she says before admitting that she felt “blessed that these neighbors felt like ‘yes we love the idea of a shared experience, we love the idea of inclusion and diversity and the celebration of diversity.'”
In the years since, González-Whitaker has continued to ensure that the park strives for inclusivity. She’s added all abilities and wheelchair access and hosts events that fight for the community. In response to the families and children being separated at the border by the Trump administration, the park organized an interfaith prayer vigil.
González-Whitaker’s hope is to see her mother’s park inspire those who play in it. She also wants to make room for more monuments dedicated to Latinxs.
CREDIT: Sara J. González Park located in Atlanta. Credit: Erik Soderstrom
“Now that I’ve done this I want other people to know that it’s not a hard entry to having people who touched people’s lives and represent positive aspects of the community memorialized. It’s important,” González-Whitaker explains. “I grew up without these cultural representatives and signifiers. I grew up in the South feeling pretty darn marginalized and like I didn’t belong. People might not know who Sara González is but they’ll recognize that last name with that accent over the ‘A’ as something culturally familiar to them. Representation and cultural embrace gives voice to who we are [minorities] and proves that we exist.”
Sara J. González Memorial Park is located in Atlanta, Georgia at Coronet Way and Bolton Road on the city’s Westside. It is in the same neighborhood that González spent the last 30 years of her life until her passing in 2008.
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