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Orlando Sentinel

Concrete Devotion Emma Rivera's Azalea Park Yard Is The Epicenter Of A Family

By Jeff Kunerth, Sentinel Staff Writer

February 8, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

On a street of lawns devoid of landscaping, Emma Rivera's front yard is like a mural painted on a blank wall.

There's a white arch that acts as an entryway to a front yard with a semi-circle of ornate lawn furniture, a birdbath fountain topped by a castle, a pair of old-style lamps, and plaster statuary of a cart, donkey and old-fashioned farmer.

Dead grass and dirt have been replaced by four pallets of 18-inch-square, brick-style pavers, pounds of white stones and bushels of reddish mulch. A border of yellow blocks gives the front yard a terraced look, as if the house sits a little higher than the yard.

Sprinkled throughout the front yard are small lawn-ornament animals: bunnies, frogs, turtles, ducks, cows. Enclosing it all is a white picket fence.

The front yard springs from the memories and imagination of Rivera, 65, who bought the house in Azalea Park 11 years ago. But the work was done by Kenny Bonilla, 26, a gift of gratitude to the woman he calls "Mom."

His real mother, Rivera's only child, is somewhere in New York, or maybe Philadelphia. The two seldom speak, and Bonilla never knew his father. It was his grandparents, Emma and her husband, Hector, who raised Bonilla and his brother, Kevin, from adolescence to adulthood.

The Riveras moved from Philadelphia to Orlando to provide a home for their grandsons. From his grandmother, Bonilla learned about devotion to family, the responsibility a man has to his wife and children. What he didn't get from his own parents, he got from Mom.

"My Mom, my grandmother, was always there for me," he said.

With help from Mom, Bonilla, a hotel front-desk clerk, and his wife, Cynthia, a medical assistant, were able to buy a home and make a life for themselves and their three kids in Orlando. Emma Rivera's house serves as a day-care center for the preschool-age children. The living room of her home is childproofed with easy-to-clean tile floors and clear, plastic slipcovers encasing the couches and pillows.

Without Mom as baby sitter, Cynthia and Kenny Bonilla couldn't make enough at their jobs to afford a place of their own.

The front yard was one way Bonilla is paying his grandmother back. Naming his first child after his Mom was the other.

"Even before I met my wife, I said if I have a daughter, I'm naming her Emma," he said. "It's how I can show her [Rivera] how much she means to me."

When he looks at his 5-year-old daughter, Bonilla sees his grandmother looking back at him. The little girl and the old woman, he said, share the same name and the same face. His other kids, 15-month-old Catherine and 2-month-old Kenny, look more like him, he said.

"I don't know if that's God working his magic, but if you look at them you can see they look alike," Bonilla said.

Before they bought their house, Bonilla and his family lived with his grandparents. They still spend much of their time there.

Emma Rivera's house is the epicenter for all family functions, and the front yard Bonilla constructed with his sweat and devotion is the focal point of any get-together. Other families might gravitate toward the back yard for barbecues and parties, but at the Riveras' house, it's the front yard that seems to draw the crowd for feasts of Emma's specialty dish of roast pork, rice and pigeon beans.

"It's the keystone to the family," Bonilla said.

On hot, summer evenings, his wife said, it's nice to sit outside on the patio furniture with the old-style lights on and just talk and relax. It's a busy street that Emma Rivera lives on, but somehow when you're sitting in that front yard, the cars driving by seem to disappear, Bonilla said.

"It does a lot of things. It's tradition. It gives you a feeling of some place where you can relax," he said. "And you're not looking at all that dirt."

Bonilla's own house is a few blocks down the street, a white-stucco block home with turquoise trim and a chain-link fence and his silver Honda Civic parked in the front yard. It was a rental before they bought it. The house needs work.

Bonilla has plans for his own lawn. But he won't replicate his grandmother's front yard. Hers is a reminder of the yards of rural Puerto Rico, where she grew up. His will be the antithesis of his inner-city childhood in New York.

Bonilla envisions lush landscaping, tropical plants and lots of green, green grass.

"I'm from the city. Grass is a luxury," Bonilla said. "I basically want the American dream -- have a family, have a house, buy a dog, eat fried chicken."

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