This article was first published in the Spring 2014 print edition of UConn Magazine. To access more stories and videos like this, visit s.uconn.edu/spring 14 or download UConn Magazine’s free app for tablet devices.
It was 1933 when UConn students so insightfully designated the husky as the symbol of strength, grit, and resolve that has come to define the true spirit of the University. In this special feature, UConn Magazine invited 11 proud UConn alumni to speak out about what defines them, from their darkest struggles to their greatest triumphs. And no matter how different their backgrounds, their hardships, or the mistakes they may have made along the way, that same enduring strength and indomitable spirit remains, living on at the heart of every Husky.
Born in Cuba, Bessy Reyna ’72 MA, ’82 JD immigrated with her family to Panama before the revolution. Curious and intellectual, she rebelled against the traditional roles expected of women in Latin American society. Adversity takes many forms, she says: “Sometimes it’s surviving a culture when you don’t want to be part of that culture.”
Her mother’s life served as a warning. “She was so bright, with so much to offer, but all she could do was take care of a husband and children,” Reyna says. “She was not allowed to work, and I knew I couldn’t do that.”
Reyna discovered a love of poetry as a child in Cuba, and soon found that writing helped clarify her feelings. “A teacher selected me to recite ‘Los Zapaticos de Rosa’ by José Martí, the poet and martyr of Cuban independence. It was a long poem and, as I stood in front of the school reciting it, the beauty of the words and the meaning of the poem greatly affected me.” A few years later, she began writing seriously, in response to the death of a school friend.
Today, Reyna is an award-winning, bilingual poet; an activist and opinion columnist who writes on issues of gender, ethnicity, and equality; and a sought-after lecturer and guest artist. She is the author of two bilingual books of poetry: The Battlefield of Your Body (Hill-Stead Museum, 2005) and Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover/ Memorias de la amante infiel (tunAstral, A.C., 2010, Toluca Mexico). In 2010, she was one of 10 women honored by the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
I never wanted to depend on anyone else. –Bessy Reyna ’72 MA,
Reyna first came to the United States in 1968 on a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. A first-generation college student, she says her father, who never finished high school, dreamed that both his children would attend university – something she and her brother, now a civil engineer, accomplished.
If there is a thread that weaves through the tapestry of Reyna’s life it is determination. “I saw women in cultural quicksand who couldn’t get out. I didn’t want that. I never wanted to depend on anyone else,” she says.
Graduating magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke, Reyna never did return to Panama to live, in part because of the military dictatorship. Instead, she arrived at UConn, where she earned a master’s in child development and family relations and a law degree.
UConn was also where she found community through activism. Joining students in working to establish the Women’s Center and the gay and women’s movements on campus, Reyna helped create various educational and social programs, including a gay speakers bureau that gave informative talks in classes. “Just being there and for people to see us as human beings was, by itself, an educational experience,” she says.
On her trips to UConn nowadays, she enjoys visiting the Student Union. “I see the Women’s Center and the Rainbow Center and the Cultural Centers, and I feel like a little part of me is there,” she says.
It was also at UConn that Reyna met Susan Holmes, then-manager of von der Mehden Recital Hall. The two, who were both activists in the marriage equality movement, have been together for 35 years, marrying just weeks after same-sex marriage was legalized in Connecticut in 2008.
Now retired, after 16 years at the Reporters of Judicial Decisions office of the Connecticut Supreme Court, Reyna is teaching and lecturing, and pens an arts page for Identidad Latina, a Hartford-based newspaper.
And there are poems, always poems. “Ever since reciting the poem in fourth grade,” she says, “poetry has integrated my life.”
Hear audio clips from UConn Magazine‘s one-on-one interview with Reyna:
Learn more about Reyna’s work at bessyreyna.com.