A Conversation With Cristina Barrios

Ana B. Remos

Spain's Former Consul General in Miami, Cristina Barrios, opened the doors of her house to talk about her diplomatic career.

The residence of the former Spanish Consul General in Miami, Cristina Barrios, looks like Tara, the iconic house in Gone with the Wind, albeit smaller, although its historic legacy rivals the film’s plot. For starters, the domicile was a wedding gift from General Leónidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic to his daughter, Flor de Oro, upon her marriage to international playboy Porfirio Rubirosa. It also belonged to Desi Arnaz, the legendary Cuban musician who, together with wife Lucille Ball, created I Love Lucy, one of the most beloved American TV shows of all times. The property now belongs to the Spanish government and is used as the home of their consuls in Miami. The artworks that adorn the historic home come from all corners of the world and reminds us of Ambassador Barrios’ extensive diplomatic career. If walls could talk, one could hear tales of romance, success and desperation that would inspire a best selling novel, even a Hollywood film. Ambassador Barrios passed away in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. 
Cristina Barrios. PHOTOS: Alexia Fodere.
The grand old house does not hide its age. Located in Granada Avenue, one of Miami’s most beautiful streets in the posh neighborhood of Coral Gables, the abode has a majestic entrance, typical of southern colonial houses, with classic columns and a semicircular driveway, where one can envision the arrival of luxurious carriages from a bygone era. The house is not too big. It has a traditional foyer that opens to a set of stairs leading to the second floor, where the four bedrooms are located. The first floor dining hall can easily accommodate up to 16 guests, and it is often used for elegant public and private dinners. Two living rooms, a small media room, an office, and a kitchen with a service room look out onto the pool, terraces, and gardens that surround the property. The interior is decorated with an amazing art collection.
Without a doubt, the most attractive spaces are the two front porches that run the length of the house with open vistas of the legendary Biltmore golf course, ideal for delightful afternoon visits and charming entertaining. The former consul, humble and spontaneous, had the character of one who has led an intense and accomplished lifestyle. She turned the terrace into her favorite escape. There she received guests, but it is also the place where she relaxed when she was home alone. Barrios, who was a devoted art lover, liked to make herself available to the public, visiting numerous events and frequently hosting informal gatherings at home. One of the outside vestibules serves as a an outdoor dining hall.
The consul ensured that the dinners she hosts there, during the warm Miami winter, are sensational. The light wicker furniture on the second vestibule, with its yellow details, contrasts with the blue from the pool and the green of the surrounding foliage, ideal for a meditative state of mind. The natural lighting that fills the main living room is a welcoming reminder that one is in tropical Florida. In this room the consul placed two very simple and comfortable couches, dressed with light pillows and blankets to give the space a homey feel. The oversized symmetrical art pieces that hung on the wall were very impacting. They depicted Havana’s famed seawall, perhaps an allegory to the divided Cuban people: those on the island and those in exile. The consul’s nephew, artist Ignacio Barrios Martínez is credited with the impressive photograph. On top of a cupboard, one finds a precious collection of sculptures from the Mexican State of Chihuahua.

Front Gate. PHOTOS: Alexia Fodere.
Diplomacy runs in the blood of the Barrios family. Her brother is also an ambassador and was Consul General in Havana from 2007 to 2011, coinciding with Consul Barrios’ appointment to Miami in August of 2010. Cristina Barrios was an avid art collector, and this is evident by the way she showcased her favorite art pieces throughout the entire residence: photographs by Spanish photographer Alberto Garcia-Alix, a piece by Mexican painter Sergio Hernandez titled Tratado de la melancholia (Treaty of Melancholia); Afro-Cuban paintings by Eduardo Roca (Choco), a collection of paintings by Mexican artists such as Juan Soriano and Manuel Felguérez, by the young Spanish genius Javier Velasco and by Cuban painter Alejandro Campins. Before heading upstairs, a framed newspaper article caught our attention; it is a 1962 clipping of a photo of the residence.
The consul explained that she came across it while removing the molding from the wall. Artist Javier Velasco, a former personal friend of Barrios, preserved the crumbling pieces and added a poem that heralded the distinct environment the consul created in her former home, reflecting her personal style and personality. Consul Barrios exuded a sense of self assurance by the way she carried herself and the way she spoke, something she had learned throughout her long diplomatic trajectory. Although she had a very successful career, Barrios said that in an alternate universe she would have liked to be an actress. After laughing about the ironies of life, she happily acknowledged that she loved what she did. Barrios entered the diplomatic corps in 1979. She showed us a photograph that captured the investiture of a young Cristina Barrios by an also young King Juan Carlos I. In 1990 she became the first woman to hold the title of Diplomatic Instructor and General Director of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a position she occupied until 1998, when she was named Spain’s Ambassador to Sweden. She began her career as Spanish Consul in Dusseldorf, Ambassador to Sweden and Latvia, and in 2003, she was named Ambassador to Mexico. During 12 years she practiced as General Director of Protocol, the oldest title of Spanish diplomacy, which she held under four different administrations. Between 1991 and 1992 she organized the Peace Conference, the Ibero-American summit, the 500th anniversary of Spain’s arrival in the Americas, the Barcelona Olympic Games, and the Seville World Expo.
She remembered this time as a fast-paced period during one of the most significant years in Spain’s public campaign to bring attention to its wonders. Thankfully it all turned out great, and millions of people were exposed to the magnificent cultural treasures of the Iberian country. Christina didn’t mince words, and like any good diplomat, she spoke only about what is necessary, with skill, moderation, and aplomb. “I also had a special periplus in 2007, a year and a half as Ambassador for Climate Change, and a special mission for the reconstruction of Haiti that lasted almost two years…I like to work, I love the people,” she said.
She proceeded to say that her favorite post was as ambassador to Mexico, “Mexico is an extraordinary country of crucial importance. I made many friends there who I still keep in touch with.” Barrios, petite and lithe, had a hoarse voice and liked to smoke. She wore her hair short, and walked so swiftly that, at times, she seemed to float off the floor. She had a strange, yet attractive knack for listening attentively, without taking her gaze off you, even for a second. She followed her brother’s footsteps in diplomacy after studying philosophy, literature and scenic arts, hence her desire to be an actress.
She credited her line of work for allowing her to experience diversity and giving meaning to her life. “It is not a monotonous career,” she said and pauses before describing her professional mission, “I defend the general interests of Spain and the Spanish people who live abroad. I’m in charge of placing my country and its people above everything else.” The former consul acknowledges that in this era of social media, “the importance of diplomatic representation has not been lowered, but it has changed.” According to her, the diplomatic corps continues to be as necessary today as it was before. “These new forums do not communicate what happens every single moment of every day in every country. That is why the ambassador exists; his job is to be selective with the information.” Barrios went on to say that there are different spheres of power and influence, and all of them are
equally important.
1. Mexican pottery on cupboard; above, Mount Igueldo, San Sebastian by the Spanish artist Gonzalo Chillida. 2. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup. 3. Bird by Mexican artist Sergio Hernández. PHOTOS: Alexia Fodere.
She conceded that one of the most notable characteristics of the Spanish people is their flexibility. “We do not improvise, we are an organized country, but we do enjoy flexibility. When we are confronted with a complicated situation, we find and tackle the problem, and always find a solution.” She also spoke about the significance of her post as Consul General in Miami, and explained that there are 350 Spanish businesses headquartered in Florida and 8 bilingual schools; the numbers are still growing. There is also the topic of Cuba, which is very important to Spain. “We have received 20,500 petitions for Spanish citizenship. Drug trafficking, international contraband and fiscal crime are also very important subjects in her agenda” According to the census of the time, there were 25,000 Spaniards living in Florida today. Throughout her career, Cristina Barrios learned the importance of establishing excellent relationships with those around her, regardless of who they are or the characteristics of their environment. “It is a job that needs dedication day after day with a very important social component. It takes a lot of energy.” ■   

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