The written world
From covering civil war in Latin America to telling the stories of poverty-driven migrant workers in Florida, throughout the years writer John Lantigua has delved into an array of conflicts arising in the lives of Hispanics.
At 59, the award-winning novelist and journalist said words have always been an integral part of his life, which is in itself a compelling story wrapped in writing and reporting.
"Books were particularly important to me because my early life was marked by my being ripped out of one culture and replanted into another," he said.
As an only child to a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, Lantigua lived in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in New York City and spoke only Spanish. At the age of four, he and his parents moved to a part of New Jersey where no Spanish-speaking people lived.
"I was forced to learn English very quickly so I could be enrolled in school. My parents never spoke Spanish to me again, and since there were absolutely no Hispanic kids where I grew up, I had no Hispanic friends," he said. "My sense of identity was stranded somewhere between my life in New Jersey and that life that I’d been forced to leave behind."
Lantigua’s miscontrued sense of identity while growing up later played a major role in his endeavors as a writer with a passion for exploring the afflictions of Hispanics.
"My entire professional career … has involved going back to that Latino culture, both in this country and in many parts of Latin America," he said.
For Lantigua, the link from journalism to the realm of fiction came naturally.
"The fiction comes out of what I get from investigative reporting. The two are inseparable," he said.
After being submersed in many Latin American countries for extended periods of time, in some cases as long as six years, Lantigua became drawn to writing stories about his surroundings.
Lantigua started in the 1970s by covering the large Hispanic community in Hartford, Conn., which is mostly Puerto Rican. In the 1980s, he covered the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador."Those issues are the issues that I’m obsessed about." Lantigua said. "You go back, and you want to write about what the people’s lives were."
During his time in Nicaragua, Lantigua reported for United Press International and later The Washington Post on "the Contra war," the country’s war that followed the overthrow of former leader Anastasio Somoza Debayle. He covered how both sides, the Sandinistas and the Contras, violated human rights. During this time, Lantigua also published his first two novels, Heat Lightning and Burn Season.
In the 1990s, he covered the Cuban exile community in Miami.
†"I’ve been caught in the middle all my career between people shouting their positions, and in some cases shooting at each other, he said.
"My books, they all have to do with the last 50 years of history in Latin America. They have been very tumultuous. I’m taking it from World War I on, you’ve had really serious upheaval in almost all Latin American countries."
Finally, during the past five years he’s written a lot about migrant workers in this country, who are mostly Mexican and Latin American nationals.
In both 2004 and 2006, The Palm Beach Post, where Lantigua still works, was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Prize for Journalism and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists Award for Investigative Reporting.
In both cases, the series that won the award concerned migrant farm workers. Lantigua was a lead reporter on both teams. As part of his contribution, he too crossed the Arizona border with a group of migrants looking for work in this country and continued to travel the country toward Florida with them.
"Reporters should always get to know as many people as there is time for on any story they are covering. Don’t just interview people. Have conversations with them. Quality and confidence as a reporter – a reporter who wants to exercise the profession for a long time – I think can only be gained that way, by absorbing as much humanity as possible," he said.
Lantigua will be the main speaker at an Arte Publico Press fundraising luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the University Hilton.
He will also discuss and sign copies of his latest novel, The Lady from Buenos Aires, at 6 p.m. on Friday at Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet St.
Additional reporting by Deborah Aranda