PENINSULA PROFILE: Professor reveals life, artistry in her Cuban homeland
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Reina Barreto, a Peninsula College professor, pauses along the Malecon, the iconic sea wall in Havana, Cuba. — Photo by Michael Mills

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

CRISTINA GARCIA, THE National Book Award-nominated author of six novels including Dreaming in Cuban, A Handbook to Luck and King of Cuba, is this spring’s writer-in-residence at Peninsula College.

During her visit, Garcia will give two public programs, first in Forks and then in Port Angeles.

Garcia will read, in English, from her works and engage in a discussion at 6:30 p.m. April 30 at Peninsula College’s Forks Extension Site, 71 S. Forks Ave., with Peninsula College professor Reina Barreto providing a simultaneous translation in Spanish.

Garcia’s keynote address follows at 12:35 p.m. on May 1 in the Little Theater at Peninsula College’s Port Angeles campus, 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd.

Garcia writes about history, both personal and political, from the point of view of a strong woman, said Barreto.

“She’s interested in women having a voice, women expressing themselves,” while navigating the immigrant experience, family struggles and the unbroken ties to their heritage.

“What also impressed me,” Barreto added, “was her knowledge of the natural world . . . her books are about more than family life and history.”

This past winter, Barreto began a Cristina Garcia Book Club for students and the public. The group’s fourth and last meeting is from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 22, in Library Study Room B at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, and the book for discussion is King of Cuba, Garcia’s latest. For more details, phone Barreto at 360-417-6268.

Garcia was born in Cuba on July 4, 1958, but grew up in New York City; she attended Barnard College and later earned a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. She began her career as a journalist and remained in that profession for 10 years, to ultimately become bureau chief for Time magazine in Miami.

Starting in 1990, Garcia devoted herself full-time to writing fiction, and has since penned books for adults, teens and children; her work has been translated into 14 languages.

Her debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban, centers on a young Cuban-American woman coming of age in the United States while navigating the complexities of identity, language and family relationships. Nominated for the National Book Award, Dreaming in Cuban is credited with increasing the visibility and acceptance of Latina/o writing within mainstream American literary canon.

Garcia has also edited two anthologies, Cubanísimo: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature and Bordering Fires: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Mexican and Chicano/a Literature. Two works for young readers, The Dog Who Loved the Moon and I Wanna Be Your Shoebox, were published in 2008. A collection of poetry, The Lesser Tragedy of Death, followed in 2010 and a young adult novel, Dreams of Significant Girls, is set in a Swiss boarding school in the 1970s.

Among her many honors, Garcia has been named a Guggenheim Fellow and as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University. She’s now University Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University-San Marcos.

For more about Garcia’s visit and other free, public events on campus, see or the Peninsula College page on Facebook.

Diane Urbani de la Paz

Peninsula Daily News
As a girl, Reina Barreto experienced one Cuba.

She’d fly from her home in Tampa, Fla., to see the homeland of her mother Matilde Rabiña, a dancer with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in the 1950s who later went into exile in the United States.

Barreto also traveled to the island to visit her grandmother, who had remained in the country after Fidel Castro’s revolution.

But on Barreto’s most recent trip, she went as a scholar, a seeker of art and culture, past and present. Her Cuban family members are deceased now. This time, Barreto visited an island filled with contradictions.

She wanted to show her husband, Michael Mills, the house where her grandmother, Regina Lafuente, had lived.

As they walked in, Barreto found it in a kind of limbo. Under Cuba’s Communist regime, the property would not be passed down to Lafuente’s heirs.

The house was empty, except for some boxes. Inside, Barreto, found a trove of family photographs and newspaper clippings.

These were pictures taken over decades, and newspaper articles about her grandfather Pedro Rabiña Mendez. A medical doctor, he had been part of Cuba’s revolutionary transition to a system that provides free health care.

In spring 2013, Barreto and Mills, both professors at Peninsula College, spent 10 intense days exploring Cuba, especially Havana’s neighborhoods and the Malecon, the oceanfront esplanade that defines the capital city.

A year later, Barreto continues her study of this place, a country she finds more fascinating and puzzling than ever.

Just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba remains a mystery to its American neighbors. That’s due in part to the U.S. embargo in effect for nearly 54 years, and to the complicated relationship Cubans have with their government and the continuing revolution.

When Barreto gave a public Studium Generale lecture at Peninsula College last month, she asked her audience: When you think of Cuba, what comes to mind?

The Buena Vista Social Club, that Cuban musical ensemble, was one of the first answers. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion of the 1960s came up, too, along with Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Barreto, a speaker of enthusiasm and nuance, hopes to open a modern window from here to the island. U.S. citizens are going to Cuba on expensive “people to people” tours, or departing from Mexico or Canada to circumvent the embargo.

But for many here, Barreto’s words and photographs were rare insights to what’s happening in the nation of 11.3 million.

The Malecon is where you go to see everyone. It’s also where young lovers go to get away from the watchful eyes of their families. With the extreme housing shortage in Havana, couples live with their parents or their in-laws, Barreto explained.

Like New York City, Havana never sleeps. Music plays on the Malecon night and day, as people dance, drink rum, stroll and ride the coco taxi.

The capital is a jumble of buildings from Spanish colonial times — the 16th and 17th centuries — through the Art Deco period and the repurposed edifices of today.

A former social club for the rich, Barreto said, has been turned into a public ballet school. A Moorish-style building with balconies, collapsed in places, is a kind of apartment complex.

Artists, elite and otherwise, make their mark indoors and out; they have turned one whole district into an art playground.

“People take whatever they can find and turn it into some form of art,” Barreto said, showing photos of a bathtub made into a mixed-media piece.

“People surround themselves with art . . . being in Havana is so visually stimulating. There is so much inspiration.

“There are conceptual artists, experimental artists,” professionals who receive free training and are paid salaries.

Those salaries run $17 to $25 a month. It’s no wonder Cuban artists — Cubans, for that matter — are a resourceful people.

They adore baseball. “If you want to make quick friends,” Barreto said, “baseball is a great topic
. . . take some baseball caps.”

Cubans are not smoking cigars and wearing berets and camouflage a la Che Guevara, she added. Some tourists are, though.

Barreto, who teaches beginning Spanish as well as Latin American literature at Peninsula College, hopes to organize a student trip to Cuba, possibly in 2015. Meantime, she is bringing Cristina Garcia, one of the best-known Cuban writers working today, to the campus.

Beginning in late April, Garcia will give free lectures and a writing workshop at Peninsula College’s sites in Port Angeles and Forks (see box this page).

Barreto was instrumental in bringing Ana Castillo, a Mexican-American writer, to Port Angeles in 2009. Barreto has also organized a Spanish conversation table at the college, and this year put together the Cristina Garcia Book Club for students and the public.

In a way, Barreto is doing pioneering work since this part of the Pacific Northwest doesn’t have the large Latino community other U.S. regions do. And Barreto, who came to teach at Peninsula College in 2005, seeks to close the gap between English literature and Latino literature; whatever the language, after all, writers write about the things we share.

Garcia, for one, explores the dynamics between parents and children, brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren. Her books — Dreaming in Cuban, The Aguero Sisters, The Lady Matador’s Hotel for example — delve into family secrets, how memories differ and, Barreto said, the search for answers to the question, “Where do I belong?”

For Barreto, family and belonging are complicated. While her mother was born and raised in Havana, her father was from Colombia; he moved to Chicago and later went to work for the United Nations.

Barreto was born in 1972 in Malawi, where her father was assigned as a community planning and development worker. The family followed his U.N. work to North Yemen and then to Nigeria.

When Barreto was 11, her parents returned to the United States to live in Tampa, where her mother would teach ballet. Barreto took ballet classes but also learned the salsa, merengue, cha cha and mambo from her mom.

“The funny thing is that my dad didn’t dance,” she said with a smile.

Barreto is a restless soul, used to moving, used to urban life. She earned her bachelor’s in international relations at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., a master’s in liberal arts at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a doctorate in Spanish at Florida State University. Barreto’s first teaching job — and the place where she met her future husband — was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

When she learned of the opening at Peninsula College, Barreto was curious, as was her husband.

Michael is from Eureka, a town on the northern coast of California. A playwright and professor of creative writing, he has long admired writer Raymond Carver, who lived the last 10 years of his life in Port Angeles.

When Barreto came here for her interviews, she was struck by the Olympic Peninsula’s beauty. But “I thought it would be challenging,” she acknowledged, to live in such a rural place far from her family.

But “how peaceful it is,” she said, “has been sustaining.”

Barreto has brought considerable spice and spirit into the halls of academe, said Bruce Hattendorf, Peninsula College’s associate dean of instruction.

He still remembers a Studium Generale lecture Barreto gave several years ago on the folkloric dance of the Spanish-speaking world.

“She not only discussed the dances and music from an academic perspective, but demonstrated some of the dances herself on stage,” he said. “She lives and embodies the arts, as well as studies them.”

Barreto “didn’t try to reduce the [Cuban travel] experience to easy generalizations,” Hattendorf added. Instead, she delights in the fact that, as he said, “culture is messy.”

Barreto “is a great asset to the college and community,” Hattendorf said, “because of her spirit and her willingness to seek out experiences with art and culture and bring them back to share.”

Last modified: March 22. 2014 6:22PM
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