Those who know me beyond the political know that María Juana was like my second mother. Although our blood relationship was not exactly close (she was my mother's first cousin), she and I grew very close over the years. In fact, she never had any children, but as the Lord said in Isaiah 54, women who never physically bear children will be blessed with more children than those who have. Maria Juana's relationship with me and many others is proof of that.
Her husband Salomón Cohen is a very successful self-made businessman who co-founded one of Mexico's largest department store chains. He has since sold his shares of the chain, but remains very successful in other business ventures. María Juana and served as her husband's community liaison, if you will. She spearheaded many charitable causes on behalf of the family and the business and became one of their community's most honored philanthropists.
María Juana was born in Cuba and was blessed to have experienced the best days that country saw. Like the rest of her compatriots, she lost the nation of her birth to leftist totalitarianism and was forced to seek exile in the United States. Though she eventually married a Mexican and lived among Mexicans, she never compromised her "Cubanity." She spoke like a Cuban, she danced like a Cuban, and she acted like a Cuban--proudly.
She never hesitated to express gratitude to her new homes Mexico and the United States for welcoming her, but she always remained very vocal about her disdain for the Stalinist regime in Cuba, vowing never to return until there was meaningful democratic change. Unfortunately, like so many others, she did not live to see that day.
María Juana's greatest blessing was meeting her life partner Salomón. He afforded her a wonderful life, they traveled the world together, yet unlike most in their position, María Juana and Salomón never allowed their social ascendance and wealth get to their heads. They didn't adhere to the archaic norms of a society that oftentimes demands class consciousness and division.
They were as content sharing a bench with the locals at the corner taco stand in Tijuana or Cuban cafeteria in Miami as they were at a 5-star restaurant in New York. During meals at home, they shared their kitchen table with their servants, who were never to be called that in their presence. In fact, some of them chose to keep Salomón company at the hospital during Christmas after he had asked them to leave and return home to spend it with their families. It was stirring to witness those same employees--longtime servants, groundskeepers, and housekeepers--weep at the burial as if they themselves had lost a loved one. The fact is, they had.
My favorite María Juana story that illustrates her compassion and humility happened several years ago at the home of a local socialite. In typical María Juana fashion, over the course of a few months, she befriended a servant who worked at the home of this rich woman. During a dinner at this house that she and Salomón were invited to, María Juana stood up from the table to greet her. This was followed by a request from the woman who invited them to not fraternize with "the help." María Juana politely replied that it would never happen again, turned to Salomón, and asked to leave because she could not remain in a house that forbade people from being kind to others. That happened over 30 years ago, and she never stepped foot in that house again. She was willing to offend a rich, potentially powerful woman in defense of a servant. That was María Juana.
I for one will miss her, and so will her husband, family, friends, and the countless people whose lives she touched.
Full-page tribute from husband Salomón Cohen
Full-page tribute from friends
Half-page tribute from Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante
1992 LA Times article
Obituary in Tijuana newspaper "Frontera" on her passing:
TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA: Known for her altruism and contributions to the city’s development, María Juana Cohen, wife of Tijuana World Trade Center Board president Salomón Cohen, died this Friday.
“I have known her for many years. She was a great woman, very active and philanthropic. She was always willing to support any cause. She always helped,” said Laura Lozano de Velazco, friend of the deceased.
The director of the City of Tijuana’s Department of Family Development José Luis Hernández Silerio said that he shared grief with the deceased’s husband, Salomón Cohen, whom he described as an altruistic man who helped forge the city ahead, and with his wife contributed to the overall development of Tijuana.
“We grieve with Mr. Cohen over the irreplaceable loss of his wife,” said Hernández Silerio.
María Juana Cohen belonged to the [Hurricane] Gilberto Relief Organization, supported the Castro Limón Foundation, belonged to the WIZO San Diego Jewish Organization, contributed to the Trompo Museum, and was a promoter of the fine arts.
This great advocate of Tijuana will be remembered for her big heart and willingness to accomplish good such as hosting events for organizations that benefit children with cancer and the needy, said her friends.
“I remember her with much affection. She was a great woman who was always very humble. She was marked by her Cubanity, her cheerfullness, how she danced and laughed, her beautiful eyes, and more than anything, her happiness and yearning for life—her light,” said Rocío de la Rosa, María Juana Cohen’s personal assistant and friend.