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Puerto Rico Profile: Juan Gonzalez

April 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"Mine is the perspective of a Latino who has grown tired of having our story told, often one-sidedly, without the passion or the pain, by ‘experts’ who have not lived it," writes Juan Gonzalez in Harvest of Empire: The History of Latinos in America (Viking, 2000). Gonzalez, a columnist for the New York Daily News, has spent more than 30 years as a writer and activist committed to telling his story, and the stories of Latinos throughout the United States, with the passion and expertise of direct experience. In the process, he has become an influential voice in New York’s Puerto Rican community.

Juan Gonzalez was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1947. His father, Pepe, grew up in the slums of Ponce and served with the 65th Infantry Regiment of Puerto Rico in North Africa, France, and Germany during World War II. When he came home from the war, he married Florinda, a young woman whose mother had died giving birth to her and whose father had left to work in the Dominican Republic and never returned. In 1948, they moved to New York with their infant son to join Pepe’s brother Tomás, who had left Puerto Rico in the great post-war wave of migrants in 1946.

The Gonzalez family lived in El Barrio, the Puerto Rican neighborhood in East Harlem. The ethnic makeup of the area was far from homogenous, however, and the family had a good deal of contact, not always friendly, with their Irish and Italian neighbors. Pepe Gonzalez worked first as a dishwasher at the Copacabana night club, then moved on to better-paying union jobs. By the mid-1950’s, the family moved out of their cold-water apartment, and out of East Harlem, into a public housing project in another part of New York City.

Juan Gonzalez did not learn English until he started school, where he faced a sink-or-swim policy of linguistic and cultural immersion. He still remembers a teacher telling him, "Your name isn’t Juan. In this country it’s John. Shall I call you John?" Moreover, he vividly recalls the plight of other Spanish-speaking children who were slow to learn English. "I never forget the fear that these children had, being in a country where they didn’t understand anything that was going on in school, and yet somehow grappling to learn [the] subject matter."

That experience made Gonzalez a strong proponent of educational programs that ease Spanish-speaking students into English learning environments. He has also suggested that all students in regions with large Hispanic populations should learn Spanish and English to help break them out of "monolingual ghettoes."

Despite the initial challenge of English immersion, Juan Gonzalez excelled at his studies and eventually enrolled at Columbia College. While at that Ivy League school he was influenced by the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements that were sweeping through the college and the country in the mid-to-late 1960’s, and he participated in the student protests that shut down the Columbia campus in the Spring of 1968.

At the height of that era of protest, Gonzalez helped found the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group inspired by the radical left-wing agenda of the Black Panthers. After the Young Lords disbanded in the 1970’s, he went on to act as President of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, an organization founded in 1981 with a more moderate agenda of voter registration and civil advocacy.

In addition to his work as an activist in New York’s Puerto Rican community, Gonzalez has built a successful career in journalism. The winner of a 1998 George Polk journalism award and a lifetime achievement award from the Hispanic Academy of Media Arts and Sciences, he has been a daily columnist for the Daily News since 1988. "When I started working as a columnist here 12 years ago, there was only one other Latino columnist at the paper, and both of us had been the only columnists at any major newspaper in the last 20 years," he said during an appearance at Newseum/NY last year. "Now you have a number of Latino columnists."

"There are so many Latinos coming to the United States, and their numbers are increasing at such a rapid rate, that it’s inevitable that even the dullest of news managers eventually recognize that if they want to grow in urban markets they have to change the way they do business," he said. "Eventually they actually put some Latinos in decision-making positions and begin to hire folks."

Throughout his journalism career, Gonzalez has been a harsh critic of decision-makers and opinion-shapers who ignore or distort issues involving Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. "I am perpetually amazed at the lack of basic knowledge that most Americans have about Puerto Rico," he told The Progressive last year. "Even to the point of whether Puerto Ricans are foreigners or Americans."

In an effort to set the record straight, Gonzalez spent eight years researching and writing Harvest of Empire: The History of Latinos in America. The book is an account of the historical factors, going back five centuries, behind some of today’s most important issues, from illegal immigration to free trade to the status dilemma of Puerto Rico.

"The Latinization of America did not begin with Ricky Martin," Gonzalez told the Dallas Morning News.

Harvest of Empire has been praised by the New York Times as "a serious, significant contribution to understanding who the Hispanics in the United States are and where they come from." Another critic proclaimed that Harvest of Empire "should be required reading in all our high school history courses as well as in our colleges and universities."

As the title suggests, Gonzalez’ book examines the political and economic expansion of the United States over the past 200 years, including a critique of U.S. policies toward Latin America. However, he sees the "harvest" of those policies, namely the massive influx of Hispanic people into the United States, as a positive force for the nation.

"Profound change in our country’s ethnic makeup need not undermine its deepest-held beliefs," he writes. "Just as the abolition of slavery signaled a new beginning, a chance to make democracy more universal, so too can a policy of embracing the Latin American masses with whom U.S. history has always been so intertwined.."

In the midst of his discussion of the "Latin American masses," Gonzalez does not forget his native Puerto Rico. "Congress should immediately schedule a [binding] plebiscite on Puerto Rico’s permanent status," he concludes. "Only through genuine decolonization can the second-class limbo Puerto Ricans experience finally end."

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