Alexis Hernandez Abreu first picked up the cello at age 3. Music quickly became her language of choice. She was performing classical cello with Twin Cities professional ensembles and theater groups by her early teens.
“Music was her breath. Music was her essence,” said friend and fellow musician Laurie Witzkowski. “She was so immediately and deeply connected to different kinds of music.”
Throughout her life, she learned to play an assortment of instruments, including the Celtic flute and whistle, accordion, Celtic harp and percussion. She frequently performed for In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis.
Abreu died on Sept. 21 after a battle with fallopian tube cancer. She was 49.
Friends and family say she was also a fervent peace and social justice activist. Her family described her as a “gentle, fierce, steady musical note beating a drum for a better world.”
Hernandez Abreu was born in Minneapolis in 1971, the daughter of a physician and a judge. She took up cello when her older sibling began playing the instrument.
“When she was 6, she was in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies,” said her mother, Carol Vaubel. “At age 10 she was playing in string quartets.”
By her teens, she was part of ensembles performing at the Guthrie Theatre and Fine Line Music Cafe.
At 15, she danced and performed as part of Peace Child, a cross-cultural traveling theater group that toured the United States and Soviet Union. Hernandez Abreu also traveled to Nicaragua at age 16 with the help of a sister-state program to work alongside the Sandinista Youth. She contracted dengue fever on that trip, which resulted in chronic bouts of illness, her mother said.
Hernandez Abreu graduated from St. Paul Open School in 1988. After high school, she held a variety of jobs, including traveling musician, trolley driver and organic farmworker before enrolling in the Spanish program at the University of Minnesota. She studied abroad in Havana, Cuba. That’s where she met her husband, Raudemar Ofunshi Hernandez Abreu, in September 2001, when she stepped inside a cultural center to ask for directions.
“She never went to school that day and I never went to work that day. We spent all day long having conversations and it was wonderful,” her husband said.
She returned to Minnesota and spent two years researching how to help her fiancé immigrate. The couple married in Minneapolis in December 2003 and had three children: Akinbemi, 16; Oyafunke, 14; and Osumare, 11. Music and activism were an integral part of the family.
“Alexis used to play music for me every day,” her husband said. “That is how she connected with people.”
In recent years, Hernandez Abreu worked as a musician and interpreter at schools. She also worked for an immigration law firm and was proud of her work helping to reunite families.
She was a member of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, Alaska.
Hernandez Areu was diagnosed with stage three fallopian tube cancer in May 2017. She underwent treatment and believed she had achieved remission. The cancer returned within months.
In addition to her husband and children, Hernandez Abreu is survived by her mother, Carol of Minneapolis; brothers Charles Vaubel of Springfield, Mo., Kassian Vaubel of Minneapolis and Frank B. Wilderson III of Irvine, Calif., and a niece and nephew.
A memorial service has been held.