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Author Interview: Margarita Barresi

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Margarita Barresi, author of A Delicate Marriage.

FQ: I want to begin by thanking you for the opportunity to read A Delicate Marriage. Before getting into the specifics of the book, I’d like to ask a bit about you. In your bio, it states you were raised in Puerto Rico by your grandparents "...hearing stories about the ‘good old days’..." I would imagine you have some wonderful tales to share, but could you tell us about one that you often think of when reflecting on your time with your grandparents?

BARRESI: I loved hearing about my grandparents’ courtship. My grandmother was a debutante, and my grandfather was a poor nobody when they were dating, so my grandmother’s father, Cheo, did not approve of him at all. Cheo did everything in his power to derail the romance—from insisting all their dates be chaperoned to ordering expensive drinks my grandfather could not afford to making my grandmother mourn her own grandmother for an entire year during which she was not allowed to socialize. You’ll recognize some of Cheo’s tactics in A Delicate Marriage. He was relentless.

FQ: Your credentials, ranging from public relations, marketing communications, and now full-time writing, are impressive. What was the catalyst that sparked your interest in becoming a full-time writer?

BARRESI: I’ve been an avid reader all my life and have always wanted to write my own book. I used to wake up from dreams writing dialogue in my head that sounded like the current book I was reading. But as a young adult I was not adventurous enough to become a creative writer. Instead, my career in communications involved a lot of writing and I enjoyed that, but as I got older, I became more secure in my ability to make my dream come true and decided to take the plunge. Age has a way of letting you ask and answer, “What have I got to lose?”

FQ: You reference your two cats: ‘Luna’ and ‘Rico.’ Were they rescued from Puerto Rico? Any connection between Hurricane Maria and their finding a forever home with you?

BARRESI: Yes, Rico and Luna survived María as kittens and ended up in the same shelter in Puerto Rico. Someone had brought Luna there and poor Rico wandered in by himself one day. An organization called Paws 4 Survival brought them to Massachusetts. They were super bonded, so although I had wanted to adopt only one cat, we took them both. They are they funniest, cuddliest, most social cats I’ve ever known. I’m sure it’s because they’re Puerto Rican!

FQ: I was fascinated with the distinct line between have and have not in Puerto Rico’s history. In 2019, the company I worked for held a conference in Puerto Rico. Part of the conference program was to end with a day of service where all employees participated in a rehabilitative restoration that would leave a positive impact on the community. We were blessed with the opportunity to spend the day in Yabucoa and did many service projects. I was astounded to learn a lot of what these beautiful people still struggled with in the aftermath of a hurricane that devastated this beautiful island nearly two years prior. I certainly don’t want to turn this into a political discussion, but I thought about this experience when you referenced Yabucoa as one of the areas where the ‘jibara’ (poor people) lived. What is your view on the timeliness (or lack thereof) of the relief post-Maria?

BARRESI: I know Yabucoa well, as it was my grandfather’s hometown! María decimated Yabucoa and every town on the island, with rural and mountainous areas suffering the most. Yet help from the U.S. was slow and insufficient. A 2022 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights compared the government’s response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, both of which hit in 2017. In Texas, FEMA distributed more than $100 million to hurricane survivors within the first nine days after the storm. Nine days after María, a stronger and more destructive storm than Harvey, FEMA had distributed $6 million in aid throughout Puerto Rico. The inequity is staggering, even though both populations are U.S. citizens. In Puerto Rico today there are still houses with blue tarps for roofs, as well as many abandoned properties because their owners could not afford repairs after the hurricane.

FQ: In line with my previous question, you infer in a few areas of the book the inherent resistance from the native people when it comes to accepting help from the U.S. What was your inspiration for weaving this into the storyline?

BARRESI: To answer that, I need to revisit some history. In 1897, after 400 years of colonial rule, Spain agreed to give Puerto Rico its independence. Plans were underway to sever the colonial relationship when the Spanish-American War broke out and Spain lost. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico became one of the spoils of the war when Spain ceded the island to the U.S., which was interested in its strategic Caribbean location. So, there was a generation that rightly felt the U.S robbed Puerto Rico of its independence. I mean, they were so close to autonomy! Puerto Ricans are a proud bunch, and this baggage still plays a big part in how many of us see the world.

FQ: There is a compelling passage you wrote in the epilogue: "...The government’s brilliant idea, instead of adjusting the budget, had been to issue bonds. They borrowed money from Wall Street, and when they couldn’t pay it back, the banks allowed them to borrow more. Maria had hit an island with a debt of $74 billion and an infrastructure in ruins. The American, in whom Papi had held such faith, had abandoned them decades ago. According to the news, they weren’t stepping in to help now either..." How were you affected when writing such powerful prose?

BARRESI: Well, thank you. I’m glad you found it powerful because that was my intent. As part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, it’s been incredibly difficult to witness these events from afar. In addition to the U.S. stepping away, we’ve had corrupt government officials who made a lot of bad decisions. María, for me, was the last straw. I was incensed at the lack of response from the federal government. The news showed FEMA “helping” by distributing Doritos and candy bar packets in towns where people were starving. I was angry when I wrote those words and I still am because Puerto Rico will never be the same.

FQ: You touch upon the dynamics of the position the man and woman assume in the household. During the era of this story, Marco was portrayed as the provider and Isabella as the mother and homemaker. In your opinion, when did this change? (i.e., blurred lines between man providing and woman nurturing).

BARRESI: This dynamic was very much of its time, particularly in Hispanic Catholic households. However, many poor women took on sewing and ironing during the early years of the 20th century and later, when the island became industrialized, they worked outside the home in factories. Puerto Rican women also had influential female role models throughout the 20th century. Doña Felisa Rincón De Gautier was mayor of San Juan from 1946 to 1969. Others include the writer Julia de Burgos, poet Lola Rodríguez de Tío, many women in business, and even Rita Moreno. Today, of course, successful Puerto Rican women abound, even in the Supreme Court.

FQ: I was charmed by the beauty of Old San Juan when I was in Puerto Rico. There is a sense that pulsates wherever one walks along the streets of a place in time that I fear won’t exist in another generation. I sensed this when reading different scenes in A Delicate Marriage. If you were given the opportunity to maintain this allure to the end of time, what would your contribution be to solidify this happening?

BARRESI: I will continue to write about Old San Juan and perhaps entice people to visit and spend their money there. Hopefully, it will always exist as it’s listed in the National Register of Historical Places and several of its structures are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Many of the buildings in Old San Juan predate any European-built structures on the mainland.

FQ: It’s interesting that during Muñoz’s reign and Operation Bootstrap, hundreds of American companies were brought to the island through the ’70s. Yet post ‘modernization’ and when the incentives ran out, the Americans left with nary a backward glance. What is your view on this?

BARRESI: The concept of corporate social responsibility and “doing well by doing good” did not exist back then. Companies came to Puerto Rico because they could operate tax-free and pay their workers lower wages. When those incentives ended, so did their interest. The exodus was callous, irresponsible, and created a tax void the island hasn’t been able to fill to date.

FQ: I want to thank you again for writing a wonderfully captivating and historically rich story. I would imagine you are already deep into the process of penning your next book. If so, are you able to share? If not, when? The world needs more authors who are capable of telling a great story!

BARRESI: Thank you! I am working hard on the next project. While researching A Delicate Marriage, I learned that doctors tested the birth control pill on women who lived in housing projects in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. These women did not know they were participating in a drug trial, just that they could take a magic pill that would keep them from conceiving. Even though the trial results were problematic, the FDA approved the pill, and the rest is history. But there were real costs to the women in Puerto Rico and that’s what my next book is about.

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