Byline: TONYAA WEATHERSBEE
When Nilda Alejandro moved to Middleburg in 2003, one of her first purchases was a rooster.
It was also one of her first disappointments.
"The rooster was like, well, he was weak," Alejandro said, with a laugh. "He went, 'coo, coo, coo.' He wasn't very loud."
But what didn't disappoint was the neighborly atmosphere created by the rooster, chickens, hens, exotic birds and other animals on her 3-acre spread.
"My doorbell started ringing, and there were the children of all the families here asking if they could feed the animals," Alejandro said. "It was amazing."
Alejandro was glad to let the children share in what her backyard had to offer. After all, sharing is what they do in her native land of Puerto Rico, a place where she grew up on a farm amid the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Now, as president of the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce of Northeast Florida and president of El Concilio Jacksonville - the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations - Alejandro works to help Hispanic people share their culture and connect with the rest of the community.
It's a task that Alejandro, 53, revels in - and others appreciate.
"I knew her since she came here five years ago," said Maria Torres, a volunteer who was recognized by the chamber for her work in helping with the Puerto Rican Day parades. "Anything having to do with the community, she's there.
In fact, when Alejandro tried to award Torres for her work with the chamber, Torres tried to demur.
"I don't need recognition to help her," she said.
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Alejandro's original plan, however, wasn't to start a non-profit geared toward helping Hispanic people find their way around Northeast Florida.
Now divorced, she had planned to operate a lawn care business with her former husband. They moved to Middleburg, she said, to escape Pennsylvania's winters.
"After 13 years, I decided I couldn't handle any more of the cold and snow," she said. "I said, 'I think it's time for us to move to Florida.' "
They thought about moving to Orlando, but they settled on Middleburg "because it's country, and we could have animals."
Alejandro liked the change in climate and the friendliness of her neighbors. But trying to connect to the Hispanic community was difficult and frustrating. Unlike in the North, where Hispanic communities tend to be concentrated in urban areas, here it was spread out.
"Once we moved here, I did not know anybody at all," Alejandro said. "So I turned on the radio and found a Spanish radio station, and I found out that they were having a festival, the Hispanic Heritage Month festival."
Alejandro saw that as her chance to become involved, so she asked to do a presentation with 21 Hispanic girls who would represent the 21 Spanish-speaking countries. …