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New York Daily News

A Lifeline For Latino Survivors Of 9 - 11


April 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
New York Daily News, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Nineteen months have gone by since the World Trade Center tragedy, but tears still flow from Blanca Cruz Aquino's eyes when she talks about it.

That fateful day, Cruz Aquino, a tall, serene woman, lost her 32- year-old daughter, Doris Torres, a foreign trader in one of the many financial companies located in the towers.

"For me, the tragedy is still the same. Every day I need to see her, to kiss her," Cruz Aquino said, swallowing hard.

"I am living day by day; you never know what's going to happen anymore. Doris was beautiful and smart, and that day she left for work, as she used to do every day, and never came back."

But despite her lingering sadness, Cruz Aquino, who left Puerto Rico for the Bronx in 1967, met last Thursday with 20 people - all of them Spanish-speaking 9/11 victims - at the Red Cross offices on 100 Varick St. for a party.

They were celebrating the first year of Alegra de Vivir, or Joy of Living, one of many support groups organized by the Red Cross September 11 Recovery Program - and the only one for Spanish speakers. Its purpose is to help families reclaim their lives and independence.

"The name of the group is optimistic, and they chose it themselves," said Carlos Daz, 28, who was born in Puerto Rico and is one of two Red Cross counselors dedicated to the group.

"This is more than a job; these people are friends, they are family, and they need emotional support, help with the language, etc."

The members of Alegra de Vivir are the first to acknowledge their need for help, and that the group, which meets every other Thursday at the Red Cross, has become their lifeline.

"The group has done a lot for me. Carlos and Nelly [Lpez, the other family specialist working with the group] really care. They check on us often to see how we are doing or if we need anything. They've helped us overcome some of the pain and the trauma," said Mara Elena Gmez, a Colombian immigrant who has lived in New York 23 years. She barely made it out alive of the 59th floor of Tower 1, where she worked as a housekeeper for six years.

Confidence shattered

But Gmez still cries when she remembers her ordeal, and cries even harder when she talks about the people - most of them complete strangers - who helped her escape the horror.

Like the rest of the group - people who came from Mexico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru and Chile - Gmez was strong, optimistic and full of confidence in her ability to build a good life for her family.

Sept. 11 shattered that confidence. All Alegra members lost a close family member or survived the attack. Their strength was sapped, their optimism drained. They found themselves disoriented, emotionally lost, financially depleted.

"I wasn't afraid of anything before," Gmez said. "I was willing to tackle any job, any situation, any problem. Now I am not the same person. I'm still afraid of getting into an elevator. But the group gives me strength and people to share my pain with."

She says the people in the group have been getting better.

"At first, we cried and cried," she said. "Now we talk, we laugh, we do things together."

Gmez and Cruz Aquino insisted on making clear how grateful they are to the Red Cross for its help, which ranges from financial aid and medical care to family support groups like Alegra de Vivir.

"I feel that the name of our group is really appropriate," Gmez said. "Here we are finding again our joy of living."

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