TOWN Sept. 2017

Page 61



Bridging Cultures Local businessman Juan Gonzalez encourages community-driven creativity / by Ron Friis


// photography by Eli Warren

t’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. 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:

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.

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