Ruth Behar: “Lucky Broken Girl”… Living her Dreams
Ruth Behar is a cultural anthropologist, poet, writer, teacher and public speaker. Her books, poems and lectures reflect the passion and compassion she brings to her quest to understand the depth of the human experience. She was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York City and has lived in Spain and Mexico. She returns often to Cuba to build bridges around culture, literature, art and Jewish life. In this episode, Ruth talks about how an experience she had as a 10-year-old girl changed her life.
She was the first Latina to win a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named a “Great Immigrant” by the Carnegie Corporation. Ruth is the Victor Haim Perera Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
More info on Ruth’s work: https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/ruth-behar/
More info on Rolando Estévez’s work: https://apps.lib.umich.edu/online-exhibits/exhibits/show/main
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Wood: Ruth holds several college degrees, including a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. But, getting to college did not come easy.
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Wood: But of course, she did go to college. And because of that, she has touched thousands of lives. From the many students she has taught here at the University of Michigan, to the readers of her books, poems, and essays. And via Zoom, she’s here with us now.
Wood: Hi, Ruth.
Ruth Behar: Hi, Mike. Good to be here with you.
Wood: You and I first met—and I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but you have a distinction at Michigan News. You were the first guest in the Michigan news studio. It was December of 2014. You were on MSNBC shift. And we had just moved the studio from across campus to our building. Well, and then a few years later at Michigan News, we helped you connect with schoolchildren. I think they were in California and you’re reading your book Lucky Broken Girl, via Skype, you know, a webcam. And I remember us thinking it was kind of weird trying to teach a class via a webcam. Well, here we are, now and of course, that’s the norm. Have you been teaching remotely through the pandemic, and how has it been going?
Behar: Yeah, well, thanks for mentioning those, those earlier experiences and and working together with you, which was great. Those were like very exciting events for me. And yeah, I have been teaching virtually. I taught in the fall my two classes virtually, and now I’ll be teaching my other two classes this semester virtually. And, you know, I think the—the good part about it is we all know we’re in this. We’re all coexisting in this strange, unique moment where we all feel fragile and vulnerable.
Behar: This class I’m teaching the semester is about the concept of home. So, you know, I started off the conversation with, well, our whole idea of home has changed over the course of this year with the pandemic. And, I think the classes and teaching, just for me at least, has acquired a very deep meaning at this time. Like, we really do need wisdom. We really do need knowledge. We really do need conversation. We really do need community.
Wood: You are a cultural anthropologist. In a real nutshell, what does one do as a cultural anthropologist?
Behar: Well, you know, people ask me that question and I’m still figuring it out. You know, it’s the study of cultural diversity. And just like humanity and all its many forms around the world and different moments in time. And I was drawn to anthropology because I wanted to know other parts of the world. You know, I—I you know, I was an immigrant child from Cuba. And so, I was very curious about Cuba because I was always hearing about Cuba, but we couldn’t go back for political reasons.
Behar: And then I grew up speaking Spanish. And so I was very, very interested in Spanish speaking countries in the Spanish language. So anthropology for me personally gave me a chance to connect with places in the world that I wanted to be connected with and that I wanted to spend time living in and getting to know them more deeply. I think anthropology gives you that—that kind of passport. So, yeah, I don’t know if that—I’m, I’m actually often terrible at explaining what cultural anthropology is. Well, I hope that gives you an idea.
Wood: You’re also an author and recently started writing, relatively recently, children’s books. How did that get started, and how is that an extension of your cultural anthropology?
Behar: Well, it wasn’t something I had planned on. Like five years ago or six years ago if you’d said, “Oh, you’re going to be writing children’s books”, I would have said, “What?”. That wasn’t exactly in my plans. I definitely wanted to keep writing. I do love writing and I’m glad to also be an author as well as an anthropologist. And and I’ve written, you know, very experimental kinds of ethnographies in the sense that my books are often very personal and they integrate my story with the story of other people.
Behar: But really, one of my big dreams was to eventually write a novel. And I had been working on an adult novel for many, many years. Every summer when I wasn’t teaching, I would come back to it and work on it and somehow I couldn’t get it just right. And then kind of out of an exasperation that I felt, I just started writing from a child’s perspective, from a ten year old girl’s perspective. I had written an essay about this experience that I had after we arrived from Cuba.
Behar: We were in a terrible car accident in New York, and I ended up with a very, very bad injury to my right leg and had to be in a body cast for close to a year in bed. And they kept changing the cast, and it took a long time for that leg to heal. It was a very bad break to the femur. So I was stuck in bed and I had written an essay about that experience and, you know, the sort of the formative influence that it had on me.
Behar: And so writing it from the girl’s perspective was kind of a very liberating thing for me. You know, like I can get inside this girl’s head. This girl is me and not me, because obviously, you know, fifty years have passed since this experience. So I had to recreate it, reconstruct it, and re-imagine it. And for that, fiction was required. And so it just became the story from this girl’s perspective. And then when I was done, I realized that this is a book for kids and, and that—that became Lucky Broken Girl.
Behar: I think it’s a book that’s very relevant to the pandemic. And I know some kids have been reading it that way because it’s a girl whose life suddenly changes. She can’t go out much or socialize much. She has to be at home. So it’s a book that resonates with the pandemic experience.
Wood: Do you think that experience has shaped who you are today, especially as an observer?
Behar: I did become an observer and I wrote a book called The Vulnerable Observer. And yeah, I think my life really changed. I think I didn’t realize how much it changed till long afterwards. And it was my brother saying at one point to me, “You don’t remember, like, how crazy active you were before that accident”. You know, and what you were like, how physical. And I think afterwards I was always a little bit afraid. Was my leg going to break again?
Behar: Was I going to have to be in bed again? And so it was it was scary. So it was formative that way. You know, maybe I take things a little too seriously, too. You know, maybe other kids would just like, “OK, I’m fine now”. But the good thing was that I did become this observer. I did become this reader. That was a year that I read a lot of books. You know, it was a year to talk to my grandmother and other elders about their stories and kind of become that person again as the story listener that cares about other people.
Behar: Because I wanted other people around me, I had to kind of keep them near my bed, you know. So, you know, so, you know, asking for their stories. And I think I just grew up very quickly that year because I couldn’t play with the other kids. I had been a kid. This was this was Queens, New York. And you played on the street and you played hopscotch and you played tag. There wasn’t much else to do you know?
Behar: This was a pre-computer age. There weren’t video games or things like that. You just played. It was like the parents would go, “Ok, go play, go outside and play you know?”.
Wood: Till the streetlights come on.
Behar: Yeah, exactly, exactly. It was such a different time. And then when I went on to junior high school, as we called it, or middle school and then high school, the way I was always described by other kids was, “She’s intense, she is so intense”. That’s what I remember them all saying about me. It wasn’t that I was attempting to be anything. I think it was just the outgrowth of that experience.
Wood: So that intense teenager who, let’s say 15 or 16 year old Ruth, what did you want to do when you grew up? What do you want to do with your life? Did you know did you think about those things?
Behar: Very much, very much. At that age, I had two wonderful high school teachers, curiously, one Jewish and one Cuban. And I’m Cuban and Jewish. And I had these two amazing high school teachers that really turned my life around, which is why I value teaching and teachers so much. The Jewish teacher taught history and she taught about World War two and the Holocaust. And so I learned about all of that from her, Mrs. Weinstein. And then and then I had the Cuban teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez. She was amazing, too, and she taught Spanish literature class. And that was when I started reading a lot of literature and Spanish poetry and wanted to do something connected to literature and history. Those two disciplines that I was introduced to by these two phenomenal teachers who I’ve stayed in touch with. Mrs. Weinstein, I haven’t heard from her in a while, but several, maybe ten years ago, I was at an event in New York for one of my books, and she surprised me.
Behar: She just came to the event and I said, oh, my God, Mrs. Weinstein. And she was there.
Wood: That is so cool.
Behar: So cool. And Mrs. Rodriguez, or Mercedes—I’ll call her by her first name. She—she’s still around too. And we talk on the phone periodically. Whenever I have a new book, I send it to her. And they both encouraged me to become an educated woman, to go to college. That was not something I was being encouraged to do at home.
Behar: In fact, I had a lot of arguments with my father who didn’t think I needed to go to college. So for me, 15, 16, 17, I was fighting just to be able to get permission to go to college to get a university education. That was top thing in my mind. And it was a lot of arguments, a lot of crying at the dinner table. I really struggled a lot during that time. I felt very misunderstood by my father.
Behar: My mother tried her best to be supportive, but it was hard. And other members of the family, too, I have to say, especially the men, but others as well didn’t understand. They thought I was very strange, that I wanted to read books all the time. And so I was just determined at that age that I was going to be educated. And I think by the age of 15, 16, I was permitted. Or if I wasn’t permitted, I did it anyway. I would get on the subway and go to Manhattan because I was in Queens.
Behar: And Queens was kind of like the immigrant hub. But I wanted to be in the place of great culture and high culture and education and art. And I would go on the subway and we’d go to the Strand Bookstore down around 14th Street. And they also had some books for sale right around Central Park. They had these like outdoor book sales. And I would just go and pick up books all the time. And then I would go to museums.
Behar: I would go to the cloisters, which I thought was like one of the most beautiful places in the world. I go all the way uptown, go to the Metropolitan Museum.
Wood: Did you go with friends ever or are you just out there on your own?
Behar: Both. I would go with friends and I would go on my own. I was just—I don’t know how I was so courageous. I was much more courageous then than I am now. Yeah, I would often go by myself, but I would sometimes go with a friend. I had a very good friend in high school who liked to do those things as well. And I would go with her sometimes. We would also just go into the city to get ice cream.
Behar: There was a place called Serendipity. We would take the bus. There was an express bus that would go all the way up Queens Boulevard and then across the bridge from Queens to Manhattan. And it would let you off right there on 59th Street. And then we would go have a fancy ice cream sundae at Serendipity and then we’d take the bus back. It was—it was high culture. It was like everything I kind of aspired to one day and that I didn’t have it in Queens where no one understood me.
Wood: So I know you did go on to college after all the fighting and got your undergrad and then you went right into a Master’s and Ph.D..
Behar: So actually did the college in three years and spent a semester in Spain, in Madrid on a semester abroad program. And then decided to go on to grad school in anthropology, again, encouraged by one of my teachers there. And finished up very, very quickly. I was twenty five, twenty six when I finished up my Ph.D., and I actually worked first in Spain in that little village I mentioned, and then went on to Mexico. I really got to know the women in this town in Mezquitic as the town is called.
Behar: They told me their stories, and shared so much about their lives. And then in particular, one woman stood out. Her name was Esperanza Hernandez. So she told me her story over a period of time. And then after I knew her story, I said, would you be ok if we recorded this story? Because I think this would make a great book. And then she said to me, oh, yeah, it would make a great book and a great movie.
Wood: And she wasn’t a like a high society lady. She was basically a street peddler, right?
Behar: Yeah. She was a street peddler who lived in this town. She had a small plot of land where she grew vegetables and fruits and flowers. So she would harvest those things and then take them into the city of San Luis Potosí. And she would go peddling. She would take two buckets. One was on her head and the other was on her shoulder, or she would be carrying it. So she was amazing. She was a street peddler who had gone through so much.
Behar: She had experienced a lot of violence growing up. Her father was very abusive and so was her husband. And then eventually she just left her husband. She discovered him with another woman, and left him. She was thought to be a witch because her husband went blind after he left her. And so this rumor spread that she was a witch and that she had done some sort of witchcraft on on the ex-husband. So people were kind of a little anxious around her and a little scared of her and a little uncertain of her.
Behar: And so even I had kept my distance because I had heard the rumors. But then we met at the cemetery on the Day of the Dead when people go and bring flowers to to the graves of their ancestors. And I was there taking pictures. And that was when I first met her. And she, she liked me and started reaching out to me. And I was a little uncertain at first. And then then I felt won over by her as I heard her story and kind of saw how she fit in the town and how people had, you know, maligned her and misunderstood her, mainly because she was a woman that was standing up for her rights.
Behar: I didn’t go there with a mission to get her story. It happened, kind of like just like writing Lucky Broken Girl. It was like I wasn’t on a mission to write a children’s book. It happened. And the same with Esperanza. I wasn’t on a mission necessarily to write a book about her story, but I was interested in women’s stories at the time. And, and this just felt right. We found this commonality through storytelling, and that brought us together.
Wood: I read where you said, “Here I was an anthropologist with a degree and she was an anthropologist without a degree”.
Behar: Exactly. Yeah, I did feel that very, very much. She was the anthropologist without the degree. She was also the writer who was illiterate but could tell amazing stories. And she helped me to become the writer and the author that I wanted to be.
Wood: And out of out of that experience came the book translated Woman Crossing the Border, with Esperanza’s story right?
Wood: I know you, as part of your anthropology and also your yearning to know yourself probably, you went back to Cuba. Were your parents excited that, “Oh, that’s cool, you’re going to go back to our homeland”, or how was that experience? The first time you went to Cuba after the Mexican experience?
Behar: My parents were very upset. They were upset and worried and angry.
Behar: It was like, no, you’re not supposed to go back to Cuba. We left Cuba so you could be here, you know, safe in the United States. You know, if you go there, whatever you say, they’ll put you in jail. You’ll never get out again. So I went despite the worry and the fear and the anger and and the sense that maybe I was being disrespectful to my parents and that the way I should show gratitude is by never going back because they have never been back.
Behar: But I had this other attitude which was, well, you’ve talked so much about Cuba. I’ve grown up speaking Spanish. I’ve heard so much about this place. It’s obviously an important place for us. I need to see it for myself. I need to see it with my own eyes and experience it. And I went for a kind of spiritual closure. I just needed to close the circle and see where am I from, like, what is this place?
Behar: And I went and found every place where the family had lived or my parents, my grandparents. We have family buried in the Jewish cemetery, in one of the Jewish cemeteries outside of Havana. So I have ancestors buried in the soil in Cuba. So I wanted to feel that, I wanted to experience all of that. And I thought I would go once or twice and then be done, after having to really overcome a lot of fear and anxiety. Nevertheless, I managed to overcome the fear and and to start going over and over and over throughout the nineties into the present. I have written books about the Jewish community in Cuba.
Behar: I made a documentary. I’ve written poetry in Spanish and English. It’s been published in Cuba. I’ve even taken Michigan students for three years. I founded a semester abroad program in Havana and I took the University of Michigan students three different winters, which are semesters. We would go to Cuba. I became very, very involved with Cuba, particularly with cultural and artistic life and religious life, with Jewish life in Cuba. And all of that is very, very much a part of my life and hoping that I can go back again, maybe in 2022. When hopefully things are better for the whole world. That’s definitely something I look forward to.
Wood: Who is Rolando Estevez and how has he impacted your life?
Behar: So Rolando Estevez is a book artist. He’s also a writer and poet who lives in the city of Matanzas, which is about two hours away from Havana. And he has had a huge impact on my life and on Cuba and Cuban art and Cuban bookmaking. I met him in the early ninties, actually. I was participating in the Havana Book Fair and I met him there. And he was displaying these beautiful handmade books that he was making with this independent publisher in Matanzas called Ediciones Behere.
Behar: His artistic designs were just stunningly, stunningly beautiful. So I became an immediate fan of his work. And I was writing poetry at the time and we became friends and I told him about my poems and he said, well, you’re going to have to give me those poems in Spanish because I don’t read English. And that’s what led me to translate and to also write some poems in Spanish. And I would give them to him and he would mentor me on them, and then they would become part of the handmade book collection.
Behar: And there’s a Michigan connection because I brought him and the first editor of Ediciones Behere, I brought the two of them to Ann Arbor. I think it was in 1998 if I remember correctly. It was their first trip to the United States and University of Michigan was the first university in the United States that they visited and they brought their handmade books and the university acquired many of them. So our graduate library has this wonderful collection of these handmade books.
Behar: I just co-published an anthology about Rolando Estevez’s work called Handmade in Cuba. So that’s out there for people who want to know more about Estévez and his books.
Wood: So lastly, after this career and studying cultures from Spain to Mexico and of course, Cuba, what advice would you give a young person starting out, whether it’s an undergrad or a kid in high school or whatever? Any advice on how to make choices that you know, on how your life will go?
Behar: I think just follow your passion. I think a lot of people want to have a script. I’m going to do this and then this and then that. You have five year plans kind of thing. I just maybe because of my personality wasn’t like that. I just followed my passions and my passions took me in so many different directions from a little village in northern Spain where I was studying land tenure and things that I never thought I would study to working with a street peddler in Mexico who was thought to be a witch, to going to Cuba and meeting a book artist and writing poetry in Spanish.
Behar: I mean, just so many amazing things have happened. And I think it’s just been a result of following my passions, you know, and I understand the need for practicality. Being an immigrant child myself, it was definitely something I always thought about. Well, you know, I’m just going to be, you know, on the streets somewhere if I don’t get a good job and have a salary. Those are things that my parents worried about all the time. They thought I was making terrible decisions.
Behar: And then I did great, you know, with anthropology. I got a job. I wrote books. I was fine. You know, I was fine. But imagine if instead I had done kind of what my father was saying. He was saying, well, “Ok, you’re so smart, you know, you’re going to college. Well, why don’t you become a doctor or a lawyer if you’re so smart?”.
Wood: You know, I’m glad you didn’t become a doctor or a lawyer because the world would have missed out on all your great stories and your poems. And I’m sure all the students you’ve taught and you’ve touched so many people. And thanks for sharing your story today. I really appreciate it.
Behar: Thank you, Mike. I really appreciate it. All your questions and all your generous comments. Thank you so much. This has been great.
Wood: And thank you all for taking the time to listen. I’d also like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News for their support of this podcast as we all stay isolated at home. Remember, if you liked what you heard, search for Michigan News Beyond the Headlines, wherever you get your podcast. And don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so you won’t miss an episode. Season two is just started and there will be many more inspiring stories to come. I’m Mike Wood. Be well, be safe and I’ll see you beyond the headlines.