For Melendez-Cooper, it was all about community connections
Family and friends of the late Alejandro Melendez-Cooper describe him as a visionary whose larger-than-life personality helped unite the Hispanic community in southeastern Connecticut.
Melendez-Cooper, 73, died Nov. 20 of complications from Lymphoma treatment. He leaves his wife, Maria Amparo Cruz-Saco, and three sons: Martin, Claudio and Adrian.
Born in Lima, Peru in 1948, he came to the United States 41 years later. That's when he began to build the relationships that would become the Hispanic Alliance of Southeastern Connecticut, a group he founded in 2000 as a way to enhance Hispanic contributions to the community.
He developed his extensive network by taking a genuine interest in those around him, according to those like protegee Mirna Martinez, fellow immigrant Francisco Moya and attorney Rita Provatas.
The alliance is housed at 170 State Street. Martinez serves as interim co-director along with Melendez-Cooper's son Claudio.
Martinez said the legacy of the Hispanic Alliance's founder is two-fold: It's the deep, personal connections he forged combined with the resulting good work. She pointed to 300 college scholarships that have been given out, food that's been distributed, health care that's been provided and art that's been shared — all in the name of fostering an active, involved, progressive and generous Hispanic community.
Melendez-Cooper was "naturally intrigued" by everyone he met, according to Martinez. She said he gave people his full attention so he could learn more and, together, discover how their shared interests might benefit the whole community.
"He was just very loving about it, very real about wanting to connect for the purpose of our collective community work, but also because we're human beings and share that innate interest," she said.
Moya, who came to Connecticut from Spain in 2009, said Melendez-Cooper was quickly introduced to him as the "person who can help."
"When you move to a new country, you literally don't know how anything works," Moya said. "Either you have support of some sort or you're not going to make it. And he provided that support to everyone he came in contact with."
Moya called Melendez-Cooper a mentor, best friend and a father figure who inspired him — and helped him forge the connections — to launch a successful information technology company.
"There was no business to him," Moya said. "Business was personal, because everything is personal. And he was able to find connections everywhere."
Cruz-Saco told The Day that Melendez-Cooper completed a bachelor's degree in the social sciences in Lima as a young man and began further study in economics before heading to Barcelona, Spain, where he honed skills as an abstract painter for seven years.
The couple married in 1985. They came to the United States in 1989, when Cruz-Saco took a job first at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. and then at Connecticut College as an economics professor. Melendez-Cooper continued to paint and did volunteer work until getting his Green Card, which was the start of a career in the New London social services.
His first job was as a caseworker at Centro de la Comunidad. He also worked at The Opportunities Industrialization Center of New London County and was manager for the Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership program in New London. He became executive director of Centro in 2004 but left almost a year later to become director of the New London Community Health Center. He remained there for 10 years.
Provatas, who identified herself as the first attorney in the New London area to take on immigration law as a specialty, said she first met Melendez-Cooper 20 years ago at a children's birthday party. Their mutual interest in helping the immigrant community brought them together professionally many times over the years, with his more recent work with the Community Health Center providing a valuable source of referrals for the immigrant population — especially undocumented immigrants — who don't know where to find medical care.
She said he always emphasized commonalities rather than differences and reinforced for the New London community that "if we take care of each other, it will only improve life for everyone."
Nadesha Mijoba, country director for the Haitian Health Foundation and a former president of the Hispanic Alliance, considered Melendez-Cooper her best friend. They collaborated many times over the years in the area of healthcare as well as the arts.
Mijoba said the two collaborated on some exhibits when she owned the Provenance Center gallery on State Street. In talking about the man as an artist, she said his goal was to simplify the world around him by "filtering out the extraneous and needlessly complex."
Melendez-Cooper left unfinished paintings in the bright, open studio at home in Waterford. Finished artwork hangs all over the house on walls that evoke the same warm, earthy feeling as his canvases. Blocks of color and an abstract take on geometric shapes are prominent. His palette of deep gold, orange, red and blue was an homage to the indigenous people of Peru.
Mijoba said she would like to curate an art exhibition of his work as a gift to the New London community on Melendez-Cooper's behalf.
"He seeks to expose the beauty lying just beneath the surface, colors and textures creating a path to a universe both neatly organized and elegant in nature," she said.
Tracee Reiser, a retired senior associate dean for community partnerships at Connecticut College, said she worked with Melendez-Cooper for decades on issues related to public health, youth education and the legal system.
She was one of many who described Melendez-Cooper as a "big person" whose heart and astute mind led him to connect deeply with people.
"He's also very creative and artistic and he could always see what could be, not just what is," she said.