Bessy Reyna was sitting in a taxi cab at JFK Airport in 1968, a young 20-something foreigner just arrived from Panama speaking thickly accented English. It was late, she was tired, a stranger in a foreign land thoroughly alone, and she needed somehow, someway to get to South Hadley, Mass., and Mount Holyoke College.
And she had $40 in her pocket.
It was at that moment that Bessy, a 2017 inductee of the Connecticut Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame, experienced – fortunately – the kindness of mankind. In a country that can sometimes seem cold and unwelcoming to foreigners, Bessy learned that day that perhaps, just perhaps, her adventure in a new world might turn out OK.
“How much would it cost to go to South Hadley, Massachusetts?’ Bessy asked the amused cabbie, a middle-aged Italian man. “Do you have $250?” he asked.
It took a moment before Bessy realized the man was kidding. In fact, Bessy had a ticket for a connecting flight, and the cabbie kindly escorted her to the proper terminal, carried her luggage, called the family in Holyoke that was going to pick Bessy up, and ensured that she was on her way safely.
When Bessy tried to give him the money she had, he refused and said, “If my daughter ever found herself in your situation, I would like to think that someone, somewhere would be willing to help.”
“This incredible man took care of me,” Bessy recalls in wonderment, nearly 50 years after the fact. “So today, when I do something for someone, I am paying him back. The kindness he showed to me was so extraordinary.”
This story was first told by Bessy, an award-winning, bilingual poet, activist, lecturer and journalist known for her strong voice on a wide range of social issues of the day including women’s rights and on behalf of the gay community, in the first column she ever wrote for The Hartford Courant. Bessy spent nearly a decade, from 2000 to 2009, as an opinion columnist for The Courant, and it was this column that intrigued Editorial Page Editor Carolyn Lumsden enough to hire her as a freelancer.
“It was such a wonderful piece of writing, such a touching story, we just had to bring her on board,” recalls Lumsden. “She knows how to write, to make abstract ideas concrete. Bessy really has a gift for drawing you into a story and sharing a larger moral message.”
Born in Cuba and raised in Panama, Bessy Reyna has lived a full life giving voice to those who have no voice. Driven to learn and explore the world beyond her home in Panama, Bessy was attending college in Panama when she learned of a scholarship opportunity in the United States. She applied and was accepted at Mount Holyoke College.
“I needed an intellectual challenge that I wasn’t getting in Panama, and this was my way out,” she says.
Bessy graduated Magna Cum Laude from Mount Holyoke in 1970, and went on to earn a master’s degree in child development (1972) and law degree (1982) from the University of Connecticut. She continued her pursuit of education in the United States for as long as she could via her student visa to avoid having to return to Panama.
“At that time in Panama there was a military regime and I felt I would be in danger if I returned,” she says. “A lot of my friends were being put in jail or exiled.”
Ultimately, Bessy determined she needed to stay in the U.S. permanently. Because she was born in Cuba she was able to obtain her green card through political asylum.
It was also around this time that Bessy openly embraced her identity as a gay woman, another factor in her wanting to remain in the U.S. She had met her future spouse, Susan Holmes, and did not wish to live a lie in a part of the world where, she says, homosexuality is not as readily accepted as it is in this country. Her choice would prove to benefit countless others.
“When I was writing for The Courant, I wrote a lot of pro-gay articles. As a grad student, I was one of the first students to openly speak to different classes,” Bessy says. “Back then, people were so frightened. There would always be one or two students coming up to me after I spoke, asking ‘can I talk to you?’ That, to me, meant a whole lot, that I could be a part of helping them feel better about themselves.”
Bessy played a leading role in the establishment of both the Rainbow Center and Women’s Center at the University of Connecticut more than 40 years ago, both of which continue today as vital resources and thriving components of the UConn experience.
Bessy is the author of two bilingual books of poetry and has been published in numerous magazines and journals. In 2014, she was the producer of a two-week poetry festival, "Hartford Loves Poetry," which brought poetry to every neighborhood in the city and culminated with a reading by immigrants of poems in over 20 different languages.
Bessy currently serves as arts editor for the Hispanic newspaper Identidad Latina, and is a contributor to www.CTLatinoNews.com. She is a frequent lecturer; has participated in international poetry festivals in Nicaragua, Cuba and the United States; and has taught writing workshops as far away as Guatemala. As a former Master Teaching Artist for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism, and the Partners in Education of the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Bessy has presented poetry workshops to children in urban schools in the Hartford area.
Bessy’s literary and arts awards and commendations are many, including the Connecticut Center for the Book Lifetime Achievement in Service to the Literary Community Award (2009); recognition from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education (2009); the Inaugural Diversity Award presented by the Vice Provost for Multicultural and International Affairs at the University of Connecticut (2006); and the One Woman Makes A Difference Award from the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund (2007).
In 2001, Bessy was named Latina Citizen of the Year by the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and in 2012 she was one of 10 women honored by the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame. In 2016, the San Juan Center in Hartford honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Latino Arts in Connecticut, and she was one of 16 immigrants honored by the Immigrant and Refugee Association of Connecticut.
Bessy’s close friend, Dr. Estela Lopez, a fellow native of Cuba and retired provost of the State of Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, admires her good friend for her lifetime of making a difference.
“I think you have to be a strong person to face all the things Bessy has faced, including being a gay woman, being a poet when it is hard to make a living out of poetry, coming to this country to find herself and then defending those who need to be defended because nobody else does it for them,” Dr. Lopez says. “Bessy is brave, someone who is always giving to those who do not have. It’s in her DNA.”