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St. Petersburg Times
Carmen Gonzalez: Teaching As Her First Love
June 27, 2003
Carmen Gonzalez believes everything happens for a reason.
There is a reason she moved from Puerto Rico to California to Florida, a reason she majored in anthropology at the University of South Florida and a reason she now runs the Multicultural Resource Center, where she teaches English as a second language.
In just five years, her class has grown from three students to more than 1,000, including attorneys, architects and professionals from other countries who need a hand with the language.
Over baby-back ribs and Monterey chicken at Chili's, we talked about how she became a teacher and helps students adapt to American culture and how divine providence worked in her favor through it all.
Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: Tell me about getting an anthropology degree from USF.
CARMEN: I started as a school volunteer (in California), and from there, I worked as a teacher's aide. Sometimes the teacher would leave me alone in the classroom. I said, "You know what? If I can do it, I can do it as a teacher." So I went back to school. I got an AA (associate of arts) degree in early childhood.
Then you moved to Florida?
We decided to move to Florida because the cost of living over there was way too high and we wanted to be closer to Puerto Rico. So we moved down here, and I kept going for my bachelor's so I could get a real job. My major was in multicultural education in California. I went to USF and they asked me: "Multi-what? What do you mean by multicultural?" I said, "Well, you know, the study of people from different cultures." Do you know where they sent me? The anthropology department. That was not my original major, but I did it. I went to anthropology and I graduated with a discipline in social science. Cultural anthropology was the closest I could get to my major. So I combined the two of them.
So you wanted to teach in early childhood, but your major was anthropology?
I kept asking myself, "I have an anthropology degree, what am I going to do?" I used to put on my resume all the things an anthropologist could do. Anthropology has two areas: one is archaeology and one is cultural anthropology. But cultural anthropology is what I'm doing right now. So I do believe things happen for a reason.
After you graduated, you got a job as an interpreter for the school district. What made you want to teach English?
One time, we were in a staffing, a meeting when you have a child with special needs. These parents, Hispanic, they were very happy about this meeting. I was wondering why they were so happy finding out their child was being placed in a special program. The child was having some learning disabilities. And the father said, "I'm very happy because my child is going to be in a special program. He's so smart he's going to be in a special program." I had to stop the meeting and sit down and talk to the parents. It was so difficult. At that point, I realized these parents needed to learn English, at least survival English, so they could go to the school and be able to talk to the teacher. That's when I decided I wanted to become an ESOL teacher, English for speakers of other languages.
So not only do you teach English, but with your anthropology studies, you help people understand cultural differences?
Exactly. You know, how not to get upset when people look at you in the face and you're looking down. That's very disrespectful from the Hispanic point of view. I said, "Hey, when we're talking to Americans, it's okay to look at them in the face."
I guess there can be a lot of misunderstandings.
It's little things that add up. I had a student who said, "My boss keeps telling me, "What's up?' And I keep looking up and I don't see nothing." (Laughs.)
So how did ESOL transform into a resource center in Seffner?
I started with ESOL in 1995-96. They (my bosses) used to say, "Go to this place, go to that place." They sent me to the Beth-El Mission in Wimauma. Then they sent me to Ruskin, Clair-Mel, Mango, Plant City, Dover, Brandon. I got tired. I had to carry all my books. The back seat was filled with books. I decided to start looking for a place, so instead of running behind the students, the students are going to be running behind me in one place.
Now you teach a lot of adults. Do you ever hear from your former students?
Before, they used to come to the center walking or on a bicycle. They come back and show me their car keys. "Teacher, I got a job. Teacher, I bought a house." It's such a nice feeling.
What do you tell your students about getting used to America?
I tell them each culture is good. What you need to do is get the best from this culture and your culture, and then you're ready to go. The problem is, I have some parents who want their kids to learn English; they want them to become American. When these kids become teenagers - I don't know if you know that song from Julio Iglesias, I'm Not From Here, I'm Not From There (No Soy De Aqui, Ni Soy De Alla) - they lose their identity. "Who am I? Where do I come from? What's the typical music in my country?" I'm telling you because I also have a teenager at home. They don't fit in 100 percent with (white) Americans, 100 percent with Hispanics, 100 percent with blacks. I tell the parents, "Let them know they have their own identity." They don't need to be ashamed. You're gaining two cultures, two languages.
Do you find yourself doing more than just teaching English?
Sometimes people come to the center and they're looking for a job. When they receive their INS papers, they want me to help them fill them out. Sometimes I want them to really concentrate on English. But who can concentrate on learning English if they don't have a job, if they don't have food on the table? So I have to put the English on the side.
How long have you and your husband, Ramon, been married?
We've been married for 31 years. I told that to my students, and one of them asked me: "To the same guy?" Excuse me. (Laughs.)
Wow, 31 years. What advice do you give your kids about marriage?
It takes a lot of patience, a lot of forgiveness. My husband is not a saint and neither am I. Sometimes, if we are both mad at each other, one has to step back. Sometimes I step back and keep quiet and let him be the angry one. Then when he calms down, it's my turn. I always tell my husband - he loves boxing - how many times have you been to the ring to see one boxer. Never, right? There's got to be two. Two to fight, two to tango. If you're fighting, I'm not fighting. If I'm fighting, he's not fighting.
A postscript from Ernest
Carmen, who will say only that she's in her golden years, believes an act of divine providence helped her acquire the cultural center on Parsons Avenue. The home did not have a for sale sign, but after an inquiry and a lot of "bending knees," she got it without having to make a down payment. She credits many for her success. Before Carmen got her own facility, Arlene Waldron gave her the key to the Seffner Chamber of Commerce office the first time they met. Patricia Hillman is a four-year volunteer at the center and Carmen's best friend. Ramon and the couple's three children help, too. Carmen also formed a multicultural club that performs ethnic dances at various places in the area. The club doesn't charge, but Carmen takes donations to pay for future work on the center.