Elda Santeiro Martinez, co-founder of Liga Contra El Cancer, was not about to bow to tradition — not when tradition conflicted with her goals.
In a story Coral Gables writer George Volsky wrote as the Florida correspondent for the New York Times in 1977, Santeiro Martinez was featured, along with other prominent Cuban society women, under the headline: “Cuban Women Shed Formerly Submissive Roles.”
At the time, Cuban women, according to Santeiro Martinez, challenged the traditional Latin concept that women should defer to men in all matters of importance.
“In Cuba, for example, if a young woman found out that her husband was unfaithful to her, she would run crying to her mother, who would comment sadly that, alas, all men do it. In Cuba mistresses were institutionalized; here we simply won’t stand for it,” she said.
Sure enough, Santeiro Martinez, who died May 20 in Miami at age 77, feared no one.
“Whatever she put her mind to, she did it,” said son Jorge Romanach. When two beloved men in her life — the man who raised her as a father and her grandfather — got cancer, she realized her mission.
La Liga Contra El Cancer/League Against Cancer, a group founded and run by Cuban-Americans to support cancer patients and their families, was co-founded by Santeiro Martinez in 1975.
“She started the whole thing in our living room,” Romanach remembers of the family home in the Bay Point neighborhood of Miami.
After helping so many others beat cancer, Santeiro Martinez beat it herself 10 years ago following a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer of the tongue. She died earlier this month after choking on food.
Santeiro Martinez, who worked for the Miami-Dade County School Board, was the League’s first general coordinator, followed by Lourdes Aguila. In a Miami Herald story in 1985, Aguila said that Miami had fine cancer research institutions, but that direct care for patients was lacking, hence the need for their group.
The most simple thing became the most joyous thing. My mother aimed to please and to make people feel welcome from any walk of life.
Jorge Romanach on his mother Elda Santeiro Martinez.
In the mid-1970s, Santeiro Martinez hosted a weekly TV series on behalf of the League for Channel 23 (now owned by Univision) and a telethon. The show’s tag line was Lo que es peor que el cáncer es el miedo al cáncer (What’s worse than cancer is the fear of cancer.)
Santeiro Martinez held her position with the League for two years and devoted her time to the Young Patronesses of the Opera (YPO), an arts group she served as president. She was also director of special events for the American Cancer Society. The latter group honored her in 1986 for her 15 years of service. She stepped down from the League when she remarried to devote time to her family.
“There are moments in life when you have three necessary things: people skills, money and time available. I almost started the Hispanic social life here,” she told the Miami Herald in 1986.
“I think her proudest accomplishment was the League Against Cancer,” her son said of her philanthropic endeavors. “The YPO, she held that close, and she was very supportive of the arts … back in the day when Miami was tiny but it had big hitters.”
Along the way, Santeiro Martinez hosted galas for the groups she supported and raised funds for the United Way and Ermita de la Caridad. When Santeiro Martinez finally retired in 2001, then-Gov. Jeb Bush sent her a congratulatory letter that read, in part:
“From being a co-founder of La Liga Contra El Cancer, to leading the United Way School System Campaign every year (the largest in the country), to raising funds for various community based organizations, you have always been a pillar of strength and commitment. … You have always been working in the trenches for the betterment of our South Florida community,” Bush wrote.
Santeiro Martinez was born in Havana on Nov. 27, 1938. In the 1940s and ’50s she split her time between Miami and Cuba. She went to Mount Vernon College for Women, married and settled in Miami in 1960.
“Elda had splendid ideas and worked hard to see them to fruition. If Elda dreamed it, she could usually make it happen,” sister-in-law Ann Ahlf wrote of Santeiro Martinez, a woman who, she said, loved to entertain.
“Her dinners were spectacular. She could spend days making sure that the table was set exquisitely with the exact dinnerware, utensils, flowers, candles. Elda’s lovely artistic nature was reflected in all that she did.”
Santeiro Martinez is survived by her children John, Jorge and Alexander Romanach, six grandchildren and sister Elena Paulina Aleman. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Agnes Catholic Church, 100 Harbor Dr., Key Biscayne.