In the mosaic of people who lived at Champlain Towers South, the Cattarossis were a multi-generational family whose love for one another made life a pleasure: The elders were enjoying retirement to the fullest; their daughter, a working mom, was building a successful career as a photographer; and her daughter was just starting to discover the world.
Gino Cattarossi, an 89-year-old retired engineer from Argentina, and his wife, Graciela Ponce de León, 86, a former diplomat from Uruguay, were “happy parents and grandparents” to Graciela, 48, and Stella, 7, living in their “peaceful condo overlooking the ocean.” Daughter Andrea, 56, had flown in from Buenos Aires to help out as Gino was set to undergo heart surgery to replace a pacemaker.
They all perished during the collapse of the building in the early hours of June 24, leaving friends and families in Uruguay, Argentina and Miami heartbroken.
“We miss them very much,” said Nicole Mejias, daughter of Marcelo, who is Graciela’s and Andrea’s brother. She organized a GoFundMe campaign to help the family and especially Andrea’s three sons, who live in Pilar, a city in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Andrea’s husband was expected to come to Miami to take Andrea’s remains for burial services in Argentina.
The bodies of all five family members have been recovered from the rubble. Stella and Graciela were both found on July 2, Andrea was found July 5, and Gino and his wife were found July 6.
Gino and Graciela were described as adventurous, fun-loving and curious about everything that life had to offer. They were also generous parents to four children who shared their love of travel, good food and the arts. In addition to Andrea, Marcelo and Graciela, the couple had another daughter, Joanne, who lives in Buenos Aires with her husband and four children.
Married for nearly 60 years, Gino and Graciela were passionate about culture and history. They loved art and travel books, which filled shelves at their Surfside condo. Gino had taken up painting after retirement, and learned to do stained glass work in recent years, according to La Nación, the Argentine newspaper. Graciela was an avid reader who loved French literature and wrote articles for travel publications.
Their love story began in New York in the late 1950s.
Ponce de León was a trailblazer with an adventurous spirit who as a young Uruguayan diplomat moved to New York to work as part of her country’s mission at the United Nations. It was 1958, and she was assigned to a human rights commission that worked closely with the Uruguayan ambassador to the U.N., Enrique Rodríguez Fabregat, a key official in creating the State of Israel. (A street is named after him in Tel Aviv, according to his obituary in The New York Times.)
Fabregat later became an influential voice in the fight for human rights in South Africa. While at the U.N., Ponce de León met with top leaders of the time, including Nikita Khrushchev, then premier of the Soviet Union, and Golda Meir, on her way to becoming prime minister of Israel.
At around the same time Ponce de León began her job at the United Nations, Cattarossi, fresh from engineering school in his native Argentina, landed in New York to improve his English. With the construction sector booming in the United States, Cattarossi soon got a job at Bechtel, Halliburton, Kellogg Brown & Root (now KBR). They met, fell in love and got married, settling in Long Island, according to El País, the daily newspaper in Madrid.
Their first daughter, Andrea, was born while the couple was spending some time in Buenos Aires in 1965. They returned to New York in 1967, when Marcelo was born.
A year later, Cattarossi decided to take a job in Argentina, where he worked on energy and mining projects all over the country. Graciela worked at the foreign affairs ministry in Montevideo, Uruguay, at the time, when her daughter Joanne was born. After the couple reunited in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s, Graciela was born in 1973, according to La Nación.
A friend who was quoted in the report said Cattarossi was restless and full of energy, and that Ponce de León was happy to accompany him in his adventures. Their children grew up to be successful professionals: Andrea and Marcelo became architects, Joanne has an online furniture business and Graciela was a lifestyle photographer.
“We all had a love for the arts, and that came straight from mom,” Joanne told La Nación.
Her sister Graciela was also passionate about design and architecture, and had a successful photography business in Miami. But her biggest love was her daughter, Stella. The single mom lived for the blond, happy Stella, according to her friend Kathryn Rooney Vera.
“Her devotion to her child was unparalleled,” said Vera, who has known Graciela since they were neighbors at Miami Beach’s Grand Venetian in 2008.
Vera, whose children attended Von Wedell Montessori with Stella, said Graciela’s generosity extended to friends as well as family. The photographer shot maternity photos of Vera and presented them to her as a gift to commemorate what she believed would be Vera’s last child. Then Vera got pregnant with her fifth.
“She was so excited for me,” Vera said, describing Graciela as “down to earth” and “a little bit Bohemian.”
Stella always came first. Mother and daughter were so close that they shared a bed. Vera said she hopes her friend had time to wake up before the calamity, reach out to Stella and pull her close.
The girl’s father, a Miami firefighter who had kept vigil at the site for seven days and eight nights, was able to say goodbye to his little girl after her body was discovered by his coworkers.
More than 200 workers stopped to salute as Stella was carried away.
Miami Herald staff writer Connie Ogle contributed to this story.