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  March 17, 2003

It Pays To Be Opinionated, Says Newspaper Columnist

Bessie Reyna likes to argue, and it has paid off.

Reyna, who now writes an opinion column for The Hartford Courant that appears on the third Friday of every month, says her strong views helped her get a college education.

"I was very fortunate to be opinionated the day I was interviewed for a scholarship at Mount Holyoke College. I wanted to study in the U.S. but didn't have the money," says Reyna, who was born in Cuba and raised in Panama. "During the interview, I got into the most amazing fight about poetry. I thought I blew it."

Image: Bessie Reyna

Bessie Reyna, a columnist for The Hartford Courant, discusses newspaper opinion writing and social change during a lunchtime forum March 12.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

But the opposite happened: she got the scholarship. "My strong opinions impressed them," she says.

Reyna made her remarks March 12 during a Rainbow Center Out-to-Lunch program in the Student Union.

Reyna, who is gay, said her background makes her "a little bit of an outsider ... you are always looking at society from the outside."

After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Reyna earned a master's degree in child development from UConn and a Juris Doctor degree from the UConn School of Law. While here, she was involved with the creation of the Women's Center and the original gay and lesbian collective.

When something bothers Reyna, she does something about it. Several years ago, before she started writing her monthly column, she was upset about the publicity that Jennifer

Lopez got after the Grammy awards. Her outfit got more publicity than deserving musicians, Reyna said.

"That particular year there were more than 10 nominations for Hispanic musicians, but there was nothing in the newspapers about their accomplishments," Reyna said. "All you saw the next day was Jennifer Lopez and her dress."

Reyna wrote an opinion piece about it and sent it to the Courant. They printed it.

Before long, she had her own column.

"Editorial prides itself in being completely independent from what is happening in the rest of the paper," she said. "It's interesting, because sometimes you will see a lot of contradictions between what the editorial stand is and how the front page news is reported. People always write letters about that. They ask, 'Where are you standing?' So there's this intellectual ideological dichotomy that happens in the newspaper."

Reyna said she answers all the e-mail and phone calls she gets from people who read her column. Some can be quite nasty, she said, reading some examples. "It doesn't matter what I write about, someone is always offended." But that's not necessarily a bad thing, she added.

She urged the audience to speak out in various ways, including writing a letter to the editor.

"Be true to your social activism," she said. It's the only way that any kind of change can happen."

Reyna is a frequent contributor to Northeast magazine. She has received awards for her poetry from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and the Greater Hartford Arts Council. And she was the editor of El Extra Cultural, the arts page of El Extra News, a bi-weekly, Hartford-based bilingual newspaper.

Her long-time involvement with the Hispanic community in Connecticut was recently recognized by the CT Puerto Rican Forum/Hispanic Professional Network, which gave her an award for her contributions to the cultural life of the community.