Enter Maritza Cordero’s Homestead apartment, and it does not take long to realize she loves Elvis, horses and the country. But, mostly, the inside of her modest home reveals the deep love and devotion she has for her family.
The walls are plastered with pictures of her relatives, from black-and-white photos of her long-deceased grandparents to colorful ones of her four children and five grandkids.
“We call my momma’s house the ‘House of Frames,’” said Cordero’s oldest child, Tiffany, 25.
Cordero proudly points out one of only two pictures she has of her father, who was killed in a car accident when she was 4. She says she used to have more photos of him, but they were lost during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
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So in 2011, when her drug-addicted daughter Sarah gave birth to her first child prematurely at 28 weeks, Cordero did not hesitate to become little Jacob’s caretaker.
“Jacob was born right here on the sofa. I delivered him,” Cordero said. “Doctors call him the miracle baby. His heart stopped, but he was brought back to life.”
In June, Sarah had another premature child, and Cordero took in newborn Isabella, too.
“They’re my flesh and blood,” Cordero, 44, said. “I see a lot of things happen on TV, and I was not going to let them take my [grand] babies, not knowing what is going to happen.”
She now is in the process of “fighting to adopt them,” willing to begin “round two” of raising kids, which means decades more of personal sacrifices and struggling economic times.
She was nominated for Wish Book by Maria Barros, of the Arc of South Florida — a nonprofit organization that serves about 60,000 Miami-Dade residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Barros, the organization’s director of Project Thrive Florida City, screamed with joy when she heard that Cordero’s story would be highlighted in the Miami Herald.
“That girl needs it,” Barros said. “She is a Godsend to those kids.”
Jacob and Isabella both receive educational stimulus and therapy at the organization’s school for children with special needs.
“Those kids are here because they have been diagnosed with developmental delays because of cocaine in the mother’s system when she was pregnant,” Barros said.
Cordero said her daughter Sarah has been addicted to drugs since she was 14: “I’ve done everything I’ve could for her.” That’s included putting her in rehab and paying off threatening drug dealers.
Barros said she wanted to help Cordero because she is always positive and worried about her grandkids. “Her own health is not the best, but she goes to work every day at Burger King,” Barros said. “She just struggles to make ends meet, and she would benefit from some help.”
Cordero, born and raised in Homestead, says her life has been rough since her father died. Her mother remarried for the third time, to a man who was an alcoholic and was abusive.
“He always beat up my mom and we had to call the cops,” she said.
Eventually, her mom couldn’t deal with it and left Cordero, then 17, with an older sister.
Cordero felt abandoned and dropped out of high school to work and help support herself. By 18, she was pregnant. She had more kids by age 20. She was married for a year, but it broke up. At 26, she had her last child, Ellena.
“I told the doctor after Ellena, ‘That’s it,’” Cordero said. “I never thought I’d be raising my two grandchildren.”
The new round of motherhood comes at a time when Cordero was almost done raising her own children. Ellena is now 18. She’s a junior in high school, having survived a bout with cervical cancer that led to a loss of 30 pounds on her tiny frame.
Ellena has inherited her mother’s nurturing ways. The beautiful teenager with long dark hair — who would like to become a massage therapist, model and eventually get a job that involves helping kids — gladly takes care of Isabella and Jacob on the weekends while her mother works.
Cordero forgave her own mother, now 74, long ago and helps her out regularly. She also helps out her diabetic stepfather, who requires dialysis four times a week. Cordero had taken in an ill brother, too, before he died from obesity-related problems. (Her two other brothers also have died — one in a hit-and-run while he was walking at just 14 and another from a heart attack).
“My mother’s aunt told me I’m the sole caretaker of the family,” Cordero said.
Carmen Gonzalez, Cordero’s co-worker at Burger King, said Cordero goes to work when she is sick or her back is hurting, from three herniated discs. She’s on her feet, doing prep work for lunch and opening the place on Sundays. “I tell her sometimes she can’t be so hard-headed and stay home to rest,” Gonzalez said. “Your grandkids need you, and if something happens to you, think about it.”
Cordero had not been planning anything for this Christmas. But if she had three wishes, she said one would be for help paying back rent for her $500-per-month place that’s in a complex where litter is strewn all over the lawns. She said she’s about three months behind and dreads getting a call that she is being kicked out, even though she would love to live somewhere nicer with less crime.
“I’ve lived in these projects 20 years, but I can’t afford to live anywhere else,” she said.
She said she also could use some help paying for Isabella’s diapers, which cost about $50 per week, and for gas to transport herself to work and her kids to school. She survives primarily on her weekly Burger King take-home income of $300 a week and periodic income from her husband of 12 years, whose immigration status makes it difficult to find permanent employment.
Barros said Cordero also would like a rocking chair to rock and soothe Isabella, orthopedic shoes for her job and a family trip to Disney World.
“My grandson sits right there in front of the TV and watches The Mickey Mouse Club,” Cordero said. “I would like to take him to Disney World so he could see Mickey Mouse. And I’d like to go, too. I’m a kid at heart.”
How to Help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year.
▪ To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.
▪ To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444.
▪ For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com.
▪ Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.
Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook