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Giving voice to a community

A photo of her childhood Cuba reflects pastoral calm -- little Gigi engulfed in a sea of flowers.

"During summers, I was a tomboy on a horse," recalls Coralia "Gigi" Lora-Hetzner, a winner of The Buffalo News and WNED-TV co-sponsored Jefferson Award.

Revolution turned young Gigi into a political exile -- and eventually led to her humanitarian work in Buffalo.

Her father owned cattle, sugar cane and dairy farms in Cuba.

"My family was an early supporter of Fidel Castro, who several times bivouacked his followers on the ranch," Lora-Hetzner remembers.

But during the revolt, her father died in Havana with her mother at his side.

The farmland was sold. Gigi and her surviving family lived in a condo near composer Ernesto Lecuona -- "we could walk down the street and listen to him playing the piano," she said.

A few years after Castro took power, food and medicine were scarce, and bank accounts frozen.

In August 1962, Gigi, her mother and three sisters left Cuba for Miami, leaving behind all their possessions.

After five days in Florida, they went to Rochester, joining an aunt and uncle who had been in the United States for six years.

Lora-Hetzner, married to Buffalo State College history professor Don Hetzner, moved to Buffalo in 1968.

Her work with Spanish-speaking individuals and families came about by chance several years ago.

"I was standing in line at a grocery store, when I heard a woman speaking Spanish," she said. .

"I went over to her and introduced myself. Over the next few months, I helped her and her family and friends adjust to the United States and Buffalo. The word went around among Cubans coming in to Buffalo that I was willing to give them assistance, and since then I've helped a number of families."

And she has helped the greater Western New York community as well with her volunteer work.

A trustee of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Lora-Hetzner also works with organizations ranging from the Junior Group of the Albright-Knox Art Galley to the Buffalo Ronald McDonald House.

Self-employed as a Spanish interpreter for several court jurisdictions and retail and industrial firms in the area, Lora-Hetzner has also served in other groups including the Buffalo Public Schools Committee on Special Education, the International Gateway Task Force and the Buffalo Board of Assessment Review.

"Gigi has a long-standing and deserving reputation as a hard working and caring advocate for growth in our city," says Joy Testa Cinquino of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. "She epitomizes everything we look for in a strong and enthusiastic individual. She's truly kind-hearted."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? E-mail: or write to Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.

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