It’s a sunny Saturday evening in Greenville and a group of 20 people sit around a portable projector screen in the Community Room of M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers. Presbyterian College professor Clinia Saffi stands before them, discussing poems and poets from Latin America while the audience nods, smiles, and answers her frequent questions. In the background, Javier Durán plays light flamenco arpeggios on his guitar, and when she wants to move to the next slide of her PowerPoint, Dr. Saffi signals the tall man in the blue blazer sitting with her laptop. “Por favor, Juan . . .”
This is what a meeting of Greenville’s Spanish Writers looks and sounds like, and the man at the laptop is the group’s founder, architect, and driving force, Juan Gonzalez. From conversations that began in 2014 at The Write Place on Pendleton Street (a creative salon run by local writers Lucy Beam Hoffman and John Jeter), Juan built this community of culturally concerned readers and writers who share Latino roots. In a few short years, Spanish Writers has grown into an important facet of Greenville’s vibrant cultural scene.
Spanish Class // Juan Gonzalez hails from Mexico but has lived in the Upstate for 25 years. To encourage cultural understanding and to celebrate diversity, he started the group Spanish Writers, which meets at M. Judson Booksellers & Storytellers. More than just a writing club, the group includes a musician, flamenco dancer, spoken word poet, and other creatives mostly of Hispanic origin.
When you speak with Juan, he looks you right in the eye. His perfect English is soft-spoken, and he’s a thoughtful, active listener who is uncommonly modest and generous. Lucy Beam Hoffman says, “Juan is a passionate advocate for the arts. Whatever he does, he uses his heart.” When Juan tells you that “Spanish Writers wants to give more than it receives,” you believe him.
Growing up in the small city of Ojuelos de Jalisco, Mexico, Juan loved math and chess, and competed in contests for both. “At first I saw chess as just a game,” he says. “Later I understood there is much more to it.” He tells a story about winning a regional chess tournament at age 13 against a much older man when his opponent swapped a valuable bishop for a simple pawn, just because the placement of Juan’s piece bugged him. His takeaway? “We can be a pawn and still win,” he says, “as long as we are strategically located.”
Juan first came to the Upstate some 25 years ago on a Fulbright-García Robles scholarship to pursue a graduate degree at Clemson. There he got a master’s in mathematics and met his future wife, Mayra, from California, a graduate student of international trade. They soon married, decided to settle permanently in the area, and bought a home. Since then, the couple started a family and Juan built two successful companies: Optimum Professional Services and the real estate development firm Innovation Builders.
Tonight’s event, however, is not about business, even if Juan treats it just as seriously. A meeting of the Spanish Writers is about building community, exploring culture, and encouraging participants to embrace their creative side. The 40 or so members of the group range in age from young writers-in-process to published authors in their seventies. Some have graduate degrees, while others have not finished high school. One is an advocate for abused children. One dances flamenco. One is just fifteen years old. While not all the Writers are writers, they all share an intense appreciation for creativity in English and Spanish.
Local author John Jeter says, “Juan is one of those rare people that’s totally inclusive. He embraces everyone.” Although they are a bilingual group, Juan stresses that all are welcome in Spanish Writers and he uses social media daily to expand their membership and audience. The group’s Facebook page publishes members’ original work and its number of followers increases daily—every morning more than five hundred people wake up to the same notification: “Juan Gonzalez has posted in Spanish Writers.”
Juan for All // Gonzalez is a humble man with significant determination. After settling in the Upstate with his wife, Mayra, he started two successful businesses and the Spanish Writers, which now has about 40 members and a growing Facebook following of more than 500.
Member Vera Gómez had been writing and performing her poems in Greenville for more than twenty years when she met Juan, but joining the group changed things for her. She says, “I finally felt connected to a group of writers that share my culture and upbringing and understand from where I come. It’s a nice change in helping better integrate Greenville.” Juan stresses the importance of the community aspect of the group: “People have found meaning and fought loneliness through Spanish Writers and feel the group belongs to them,” he says. “In it, they find a reflection of themselves.”
Spanish Writers has been especially active in local schools and universities. Working with Furman intern Alana Parish this past spring, the group presented “Hispánica,” a showcase of narratives, poems, paintings, songs, and dance, to Furman students, faculty, and the public at large. At a recent event at Greenville’s Next High School, the Writers ran a workshop for some 200 teenagers. The students began by answering a questionnaire about their likes and dislikes, their future plans, and fears. These answers sparked discussion of how simple statements of personal opinion can launch new stories or poems. “Creative writing can be a valuable tool to navigate the turbulence of adolescence,” Juan says. This is the kind of community engagement he is most proud of.
In the future, Juan would like to expand the group’s access to publication venues (both individually, as well as collectively), and to export the Spanish Writers’ model to other cities and even countries. Despite his outwardly gentle nature, Juan pursues his goals with great determination and drive, that same entrepreneurial spirit that supports him as a businessman.
Back at M. Judson, it comes time for Juan to speak. His stories—which he amazingly recites in his second language with no notes—explore the different elements of identity we all think about: family, work, sacrifice, hard times, loyalty, love, friendship. Through his narrators, Juan gives voice to people who often have no voice. Even if they are set in another country or another language, Juan’s stories, like the bonds between the Spanish Writers, build bridges to something universal, something we can all relate to.