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Embraced heritage

Maura Barrios has made it her mission to preserve West Tampa's Latino heritage.

Published June 4, 2004

WEST TAMPA - Maura Barrios has lived in London, Boston and New York but learned her most powerful lesson after returning home 14 years ago.

She discovered her passion for community activism stems from her heritage. Her great-grandparents were Cuban cigar makers.

"They were activists. They organized around political issues, they organized around labor issues," she said. "I think it's part of my community history, and I'm a product of my community. I'm not unique."

Barrios, 54, had careers in business and social work, but it was after she re-established roots in West Tampa that she became involved in issues to help her community.

She joined the staff at the University of South Florida in 1990 and helped create its Latin American and Caribbean Studies program.

Barrios grew up on Main Street in West Tampa, two blocks from where she lives now. She remembers N Howard Avenue alive with businesses, neighbors speaking in Italian and Spanish, and people stopping one another on the street to say hello.

"There was a sense of extended family," said Barrios, who is fluent in Spanish.

It was also a working-class community where many of its children didn't envision school after high school, she said. It didn't help, Barrios said, that administrators at Jefferson High told her and other students in 1967 that they wouldn't be accepted into colleges because Jefferson was not accredited.

Barrios applied anyway and got into Utah State University.

While there, Barrios studied dance and bonded with other Latinos. It led her to study Latin American history as well as American Indian and women's history.

"Sometimes you have to run away from home to find out who you are," Barrios said.

She traveled and worked around the globe, married in the late 1980s, had a son, Anton, and later divorced.

She moved back to Tampa because she wanted her son to have what she had growing up, the network of family and community. Barrios got a job at USF working in the provost's office during the day and studying for her master's degree in the evening.

She delved into the history of Cuban Americans. The deeper she dove, the more Barrios realized her home didn't receive the attention of Ybor City.

But unlike Ybor, which became associated with bars, Barrios wanted West Tampa to have something more reflective of its roots. She wanted people to hold on to the bodegas, not bring in Starbucks.

Barrios began traveling to Cuba and organized humanitarian aid missions. Others joined Barrios in her work.

Kenya Dworkin, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, met Barrios about eight years ago when Dworkin began researching a book about Cuban cigar workers. They became like sisters, Dworkin said.

Since then, she and Barrios have worked to host conferences to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, where Dworkin was born, and community events for West Tampa.

"Maura gives a lot of herself," Dworkin said. "She's not afraid to go out on a limb. Whoever she is, she is all the time and she's not afraid to take flack for it."

At USF, Barrios and friends discussed enhancing the university's outreach to the Latino community, said colleague Donna Parrino. The university started an annual heritage celebration and worked on ways to help local Latinos get jobs.

In 1997 Barrios and Parrino helped form USF's Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. It promotes academic, research and service activities related to Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino studies.

"You know the saying, you're born with a silver spoon in your mouth? I think Maura was born with a flag in her hand," said Parrino, who worked with Barrios in forming the center and is in charge of a Kellogg grant at USF that helps increase the number of Latino graduates.

"She's always been an activist. She never loses sight of her roots and never loses sight of the goals we need to attain."

Barrios is working on a "walking-talking" West Tampa project called "Telling Our West Side Story." Barrios wants to catalog the stories of the people who have lived in West Tampa and work with schools and community groups to share them through art, dance and music.

"We're trying to bring a pride and awareness of the neighborhood, the spirit, the values . . . because it doesn't look like the other new neighborhoods in Tampa," Barrios said.

"It has a character that needs to be preserved."

Maura Barrios

AGE: 54


JOB: Assistant director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of South Florida.

SECOND DREAM JOB: Farming. She has tomatoes, papaya, pecan, fig, avocado and sour orange trees in her yard.

PASSION: Preserving West Tampa.

SOFT SPOT: "I'm a dog lady." She has three of them, two she found on the street.

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 10:50:24]

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