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`Papi y Papa': A gay, Cuban-born couple's journey to fatherhood

BY ANA VECIANA-SUAREZ, [email protected]

family Though he had a meager memory of his own father, Armando Lucas Correa dreamed of becoming one at an early age. Even as a boy he knew that home and hearth, the comfort of family, was what he most enjoyed.

Achieving fatherhood proved a challenge. As half of a longtime gay couple, Correa was constrained by technology and money, but neither would stop the editor of People en español from achieving his lifelong dream.

His journey of disappointment, surprise, heartbreak and, finally, triumph serves as the narrative for his poignant Spanish-language book, En Busca de Emma: Dos Padres, Una Hija y el Sueño de una Familia. (In Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family; Rayo, $15.99). Correa discusses the book, in Spanish, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Miami Book Fair International.

And yes, the Emma of the title is his daughter with Gonzalo Hernandez.

``For so long I had wanted to be a father,'' says Correa, 49, in town last month from New York to visit his mother and promote the book. ``It was something I knew I was born to do. And with Emma, even before we had her, I could smell her. I could touch her. I dreamed of her. I dreamed of myself as her father.''

There's an addendum to the happy ending that became Emma, now 4. Correa, known as Papa, and Hernandez, known as Papi, are expecting twins, a boy and girl, at the end of December with the same surrogate who carried Emma.

Emma's take on this development is decidedly upbeat. ``She's very excited about having a little brother and a little sister,'' Correa says. ``Every night she wants to talk about the babies. She never gets bored with that.''

Emma was conceived through in vitro fertilization with a procedure in which a single sperm from Correa was injected directly into a donor egg. That embryo, helped along with a special hatching process, was frozen for three months before being implanted in the surrogate womb. Cost: $125,000, a dizzying sum the couple was able to pay only by selling their New York apartment.

``The sad thing about this is that it's a lot of money, and the person who makes the least amount is the one who makes the most sacrifice, the surrogate,'' Correa says. ``The bulk goes to legal transactions and medicine.''

Correa and Hernandez maintain an excellent relationship with Mary Salfiti, the California woman who carried Emma and now the twins. Salfiti, who has two children of her own, took an instant liking to Correa.

``He was warm and kind and I knew he would be a good father,'' she says.

Correa and Hernandez stayed in touch with Salfiti after Emma's birth, so when the couple decided to have more children, she was the logical choice.

``I told them I would help them complete their family,'' she says. ``It's good for them and it's good for me.''

In this second go-around, three embryos from the original procedure were implanted, only to be lost a few days later. The couple found a new egg donor and begin the process again with a new batch of embryos, which eventually resulted in the twins.

family 1 Correa says Emma's favorite bedtime story is En Busca de Emma, a shorter, simpler version he wrote for his daughter chronicling her earliest existence, from conception to birth. Photos, including ones of her birth, accompany the text.

The preschooler knows about the egg donated by Karen and the womb belonging to Mary. She knows, too, how Correa cut the umbilical cord and wept with happiness in the delivery room.

``From the very beginning, we've told her about how she was conceived -- in ways she could understand, of course,'' Correa says. ``You can say that her story has been an open book.''

She already knows, he says, that other children have one father and one mother, or only a single mother or father, or maybe two mothers.

``I believe children should grow up with the truth and that it's never too soon for them to learn it. Her truth, her reality, is what she has, not another. The most important thing is for a child to grow up surrounded with love and in the presence of God.''

Correa, a playwright and an art and theater critic in Cuba, is a well-educated man who speaks in measured tones. He and Hernandez, a photographer, have been together since 1985, or, as he points out, ``half of our lives.'' They have worked out a typical child-care arrangement: Hernandez, who earned less, has stayed home with Emma.

After arriving in Miami from Cuba in 1991, Correa worked briefly for El Nuevo Herald before moving to New York as a writer for the recently launched, Spanish-language People magazine. By most standards, he lived a fabulous life in an exciting city interviewing glamorous celebrities, secure in his relationship at home. But by 1999, he desperately wanted to fill a void.

Adoption seemed the best route to fatherhood, but after much research, Correa decided it was too uncertain. Many countries accept only married couples or require adoptive parents to be younger than a certain age.

He thought he had run out of options until he read a story about a Phoenix man who had become a father through surrogacy. Even then, it was a difficult road. At one point he was wrongly told he was infertile; another time an agency wanted $90,000 upfront.

Despte the heartbreaks, or maybe because of them, the journey to find Emma has strengthened Correa's religious faith.

``We've used science and technology to achieve certain things,'' he says. ``But if an embryo becomes a baby, that's through the grace of God.''

In preparation for the birth of the twins in California, Correa and his family will fly to Los Angeles Dec. 20 to stay with Hernandez's sister. They plan to rent a house as other relatives join them to help care for the babies.

Correa, Hernandez and their brood will then fly back to New York, where Hernandez will continue to stay home with the children -- this time with the help of a sitter.

``We have everything planned,'' says Hernandez, ``but of course we worry. That's normal. I've learned that's something you do a lot of as a father.''

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IF YOU GO

Armando Lucas Correa will speak about his book, ``En Busca de Emma'':

Saturday at 1:30 p.m., Miami Book Fair International, Room 3315. Nov. 23 at 8 p.m., Books and Books, Coral Gables.

Nov. 30 at 8 p.m., ``El Show de Cristina'' on Univision (Channel 23).

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