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Della de Lafuente, pioneering journalist, dies at 51

Smart, funny, warm and outspoken, Della de Lafuente could buttonhole a CEO and ask tough questions about business ups and downs, or tweet photos of Little Toot, the tiny Hudson River tugboat that enchanted her by breaking up the ice when she ferried across the Hudson River to her home in New Jersey.

She died early Friday at a hospital in West Bergen, New Jersey. The pioneering journalist, who suffered two strokes, was 51.

She reported for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Arizona Republic, Crain Communications and the San Antonio Light. At the Sun-Times, she investigated health care issues, including denial of coverage by insurance companies and patient dumping by hospitals. Later, Ms. de Lafuente worked as a senior editor at Latina magazine and a deputy editor of Working Mother magazine. She also contributed articles to the Associated Press and Businessweek. Eventually, she joined Adweek, where she was senior editor of the Hispanic Marketing Report.

At Adweek, Ms. de Lafuente interviewed a top executive at Adrenalina, an ad agency that focused on the Hispanic market. She spotlighted Adrenalina’s successful — and lucrative — pitch to Heineken that won it the Tecate and Tecate Light account. The subsequent 2008 Spanish-language commercials were groundbreaking for their humor and savvy. They depicted a distraught Mexican mother and father addressing their hard-working son in the U.S. and their concern that he was drinking watery American beer.

In 2009, then-agency president Manuel Wernicky hired Ms. de Lafuente at Adrenalina, praising “her access to an enormous range of contacts and her passion for reaching out to people, getting around barriers and closing deals.”

“She has such a broad and vast expertise across a full range of disciplines: business, marketing, multicultural, Latina issues,” he said. “She’s a natural communicator who commands just about any issue you can think of.” Adrenalina was later acquired by the ad agency kbs+, which handles accounts for BMW, Vanguard, Goldman Sachs and HomeGoods. Ms. de Lafuente was the company’s director of corporate initiatives. She promoted kbs+ and its ad campaigns, snaring awards for its creative commercials and workplace quality.

“She was an amazing, authentic, good human being,” said kbs+ CEO Ed Brojerdi. “She helped us win [a competition to be named] one of the ‘best places to work in New York City.’ ”

“She had a passion about helping others, and did so much for the voice of women and multicultural issues,” said kbs+ spokeswoman Angela Renfroe.

Her Twitter account reflected her interest in women’s concerns. After “The Imitation Game” premiered, she retweeted a Huffington Post story about the film on English World War II codebreaker Alan Turing. The bosses were men, but about 80 percent of the codebreakers were women, the story said.

Though her life was in New York City, the South Texas native “was always on the lookout for big sky, the best brisket and folksy people, just like the characters she knew from her youth,” said a friend, Dave Carlin, a reporter for New York’s WCBS-TV.

She grew up in the citrus-growing belt of Harlingen, Texas, the daughter of Adolfo de Lafuente, who was born near the city of San Fernando in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. He owned a roofing and construction company and developed real estate. Her mother, Olga, was raised in the Rio Grande Valley in the city of Mercedes, Texas. A high school English teacher, she impressed on her daughter the importance of clear writing and proper grammar.

Ms. de Lafuente studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a source of pride. When she wore UT shirts around Manhattan, passers-by raised their hands and two fingers in the pronged symbol for their football team, the Longhorns. “People driving around would give her the ‘hook ’em’ sign,” said her sister, Edith.

Her car still had Texas plates.

She witnessed the 9/11 attacks from the windows of her New Jersey apartment overlooking Manhattan. “When she was getting out of the shower, she could see the smoke already from the first tower,” her sister said. “She saw the second plane” hit.

She was especially fond of animals, tweeting reports about rescues of lost or abandoned pets. After she died, many dog toys were found in her apartment, new and still with tags. When she visited Texas, she always brought surprises for the family pets. Her sister thinks she was planning to bring them to the de Lafuente dogs, Buster, Blondie and Pepper, on her next trip home.

In addition to her parents and sister, she is survived by another sister, Veronica. Visitation is from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Rudy Garza Funeral Home in Harlingen, Texas. A funeral mass is planned at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Francis Xavier Church in La Feria, Texas. Ten cousins will be her pallbearers. A New York City memorial will be held April 10.