SPRING HILL — Cecilia Diaz's family could count on two holiday traditions.
The native Puerto Rican would make arroz con gandules, rice and pigeon peas, prepared with homemade sofrito and pork shoulder. And when it was time to eat, Mrs. Diaz always said grace, giving thanks for food and her family.
Christmas Eve dinner was to be no different. Instead, the beloved matriarch's family is preparing for their first holiday without her.
The 75-year-old Spring Hill resident was driving home from the noon service at St. Frances Cabrini Church on Sunday when, authorities say, Gregory Gerard Sanchez ran a red light at Mariner and Landover boulevards. Sanchez's Ford pickup slammed into Diaz's Mitsubishi as she tried to turn south onto Mariner, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Mrs. Diaz died at the scene. Sanchez, 26, suffered minor injuries. The crash remained under investigation on Monday. Investigators say they do not suspect alcohol was a factor.
Records show Sanchez, of Spring Hill, was arrested in May and charged with driving under the influence. The charge was dropped two months later.
Sanchez is also a defendant in a civil lawsuit alleging "auto negligence," according to Hernando County court records.
Details about the two cases, as well as Sanchez's driving record, were unavailable Monday because state and local offices were closed for the holiday. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for Sanchez's address hung up on a Tampa Bay Times reporter who asked to speak to him about Sunday's crash.
Mrs. Diaz's family members converged at her apartment on Monday, struggling to follow the instructions she gave them to follow when her death came.
The deeply religious woman who attended church every week saw death as a glorious passing to eternity in heaven, said one of her four daughters, Maribel Vargas-Diaz of Atlanta.
"She would want us all to celebrate," said Vargas-Diaz. "She always said, 'I don't want anybody crying at my funeral. I want everybody laughing, I want everybody smiling.' "
The third of five children, Mrs. Diaz was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico and after high school moved to Connecticut. There, she reconnected with an old friend named Oscar Diaz, who told her years earlier that he'd marry her one day. In 1950, he did.
She worked as a teacher's aide. He was a school bus driver and later, a carpenter and construction foreman.
In 1980, the couple moved to Tampa, where Mrs. Diaz continued to work as a school aide. She loved being with the kids, her family said, but felt especially drawn to students learning English as a second language because she saw herself in them. About nine years ago, she retired from her post at Woodbridge Elementary in Tampa.
An active member of Tampa's Incarnation Catholic Church, Mrs. Diaz traveled the country as a missionary teaching Bible study classes. She led classes closer to home, too, for inmates at the Orient Road Jail.
The couple moved to Hernando County not long after she retired to be closer to one of their daughters. Mr. Diaz died in 2006 after battling cancer.
Earlier this year, Mrs. Diaz and her chihuahua mix Linda — Spanish for "pretty" — were among the first to move into Vista Grand, an apartment building for people 55 and older.
She was one of the building's most active and sociable residents, regularly inviting neighbors to share a meal with her.
Earlier this month, Mrs. Diaz danced at a masquerade ball wearing a mask she made in an arts and crafts class.
When a neighbor returned home from surgery recently, Mrs. Diaz was the first to volunteer to help.
"She was a very good woman, always smiling," said Rosalyn Negron, who lived next door.
Mrs. Diaz doted on her six great-grandchildren and had one on the way.
The holiday already brings memories of another family member. Mrs. Diaz's father Antonio Vargas died less than a week before Christmas in 2007.
The circumstances of Mrs. Diaz's death adds to the pain of her absence, said one of her dozen grandchildren, 28-year-old Angel Vera of New Port Richey.
"To find out it was caused by someone's negligence makes it harder," he said.
Mrs. Diaz planned to have Christmas Eve dinner at the Spring Hill home of her daughter, Ivonn Vera. Another daughter, Cecilia Diaz, was coming from Land O'Lakes.
Vargas-Diaz and Mrs. Diaz's other daughter, Arline Diaz of Bridgeport, Conn., weren't going to make the trip to Florida for the holiday this year. Neither was 23-year-old Jhamile Scott of Augusta, Ga., who drove down with other family members on Monday when she heard the news of her grandmother's death.
"Grandma got all the family together again, which she would have loved," Scott said.
Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Reach Tony Marrero at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.