An article in the journal Sapiens highlights the current work of anthropologist Ruth Behar in “Lifting the Emotional Embargo With Cuba.” Working with poet Richard Blanco, the two are “cultivating reunion and reconciliation among people and cultures that have been estranged for decades,” said author Barry Yeoman.
Cuba is part of both the poet’s and the anthropologist’s identities. While Blanco grew up hearing about Cuba from his ex-pat community in Miami, Behar was born in Havana, Cuba. Her parents were of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish descent who moved the family to New York City after the Cuban revolution. As a child in New York she gravitated to poetry, which she admits, “offered a refuge…a way to be myself.”
While attending Wesleyan, Behar took a class taught by anthropologist Johannes Fabian that provided a wider lens through which to view other cultures. After graduating from Wesleyan with a College of Letters major, Behar pursued this new passion by enrolling in a PhD program in cultural anthropology at Princeton University.
Throughout her career as a cultural anthropologist Behar has attempted to meld these two interests and her cultural heritage. During the 1990s, she returned to her birth country where she published a bi-lingual poetry collection while studying poet-anthropologists such as Edward Sapir and Ruth Benedict.
When President Obama announced the renewal of Cuban and American diplomatic relations in late 2014, Behar felt compelled to explore this deeply personal and historical division. She began to collaborate with Blanco on a new project that would reconcile poetry and ethnography, and Cuban and American identity. The two named the project “Bridges to/from Cuba.” It consists of a bilingual blog that serves as a unified space for the various stories of Cubans and those of Cuba’s diaspora.
Writing about one of the duo’s visits to Cuba, Yeoman observed Behar’s comfort in this role of cultural bridge-builder. “She was spending the afternoon with two good friends who live in countries that have historically been at odds—countries that form the halves of her own identity—and the relationship between their governments was starting to relax,” he wrote.
Behar currently teaches at the University of Michigan and has received honors that include the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Fulbright Senior Fellowship.