|New London — Jose
B. Gonzalez, associate professor of English at the U.S.
Coast Guard Academy, is the recipient of the Connecticut
Department of Education's Faculty of the Year Award in
higher education. A native speaker of Spanish, Gonzalez came
from El Salvador to Connecticut as a child.
course was an introduction to American literature, so the
Jose B. Gonzalez, naturally focused on major authors.
His reading list at Three Rivers Community Technical College
in Norwich was composed entirely of minority writers,
including Richard Wright (“Native Son”), Julia Alvarez (“In
the Time of the Butterflies”), and the poet Langston Hughes
(“Harlem: A Dream Deferred”).
Gonzalez recalls, surprised him. “It would be nice,”
one student said, “to read some American authors.”
For those who think multiculturalism has reached
saturation point in the United States, this anecdote may
make them think again.
On Thursday, during the Eighth Annual Connecticut
Conference on Multicultural Education held at the Hartford
Marriott in Farmington, the state Department of Education
Gonzalez with its Higher Education Faculty of the
A native of El Salvador,
Gonzalez is now associate professor of English at the
U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He was lauded for increasing
multicultural awareness at the academy and developing its
only courses focusing on Latin American and Latino
The 36-year-old Waterford resident also got special
notice for including rap in his literature courses, but he
doesn't make too much of that.
Rap “has real merit as a poetic genre,” says
Gonzalez, a poet himself, and it can be useful as a
point of reference. But his syllabus doesn't feature Tupac
Born in the capital city of San Salvador,
Gonzalez came to the United States with his family
when he was 8 years old. Like many immigrants, they settled
near a relative. “All it takes is one,” says
Gonzalez, who had an aunt in New London.
Back in Central America, his father had worked in
construction and his mother was a seamstress. Here, his
father worked for the former Thames Valley Steel.
It was difficult to uproot, but Marina and the late elder
Jose Gonzalez wanted more for their children. “I'll
never forget the sacrifices they made,” says
Gonzalez. “We were one of the first Salvadoran
families” in a city with many Puerto Ricans and Filipinos.
He and his siblings, older sister Evelyn and younger
brother Ivan, found it hard to fit in.
“We spoke funny,” says
Gonzalez. He was teased and beaten up so mercilessly
by other students at Winthrop Elementary School, he says,
that his parents sent him to St. Mary's.
Although early on he got some tutoring in English, he
never had any bilingual classes, which are still the subject
of hot debate. He doesn't criticize bilingual education, as
long as it's brief, but for obvious reasons he doesn't
consider it essential.
By the time he was a teenager,
Gonzalez says, he had even stopped dreaming in his
native tongue. Social life improved at New London High
School, where the small but sturdy young man excelled as a
student and took up wrestling.
“I wasn't really a wrestler,” he admits, “but I
was a member of the team.”
As luck would have it, the team coach was also his
English teacher, Francis DePeter, who told him, “We need
smart guys on the team.” Teachers should know, says
Gonzalez, the weight of a small bit of encouragement
New London High wasn't a first-rate academic experience,
Gonzalez. But he had a few great teachers who made
all the difference.
One of them was Richard Foye, now acting superintendent
of schools. Foye's history course, “New London and the Sea,”
Gonzalez with tales of merchants and whalers.
He earned a degree in business communications from Bryant
College in Smithfield, R.I., and then a Master of Arts in
Teaching English from Brown University in 1991.
In 1998 he received a Ph.D. in English from the
University of Rhode Island, where his dissertation was
“Fiction in the Latino Autobiography.”
It took a while, says
Gonzalez, to persuade employers that he should be
teaching English, not Spanish. In fact, he has long spoken
and written more fluidly in his adopted language.
Experience has taught him that the diversity of those
with darker complexions is still often lost on his fellow
countrymen. With his baby daughter bundled into a carrier on
his chest at the Schemitzun dance festival at Mashantucket,
causing him to eat a snack standing up, he was mistaken for
a Native American. “Is that how Indians eat?” an observer
The focus of
Gonzalez' own ambition is less fighting
discrimination than creating a “wave” of appreciation for
Latino culture and experience.
His wife, Kristin, is also a teacher, although for the
time being she is at home raising their two daughters,
Cassandra, 4, and Olivia, 2.
Gonzalez says he loves teaching at the Coast Guard
Academy, where students are respectful, motivated and
natural leaders. He also enjoys interacting with his peers,
both civilian and military, who often have broad world
On a tour of his office
Gonzalez pulls out a box containing the first
Hispanic G.I. Joe doll, modeled on Medal of Honor Winner Roy
P. Benavidez. The doll didn't appear on the market until the
The office bookshelves are stocked with works by Latino
masters such as Oscar Hijuelos and Isabel Allende. But
Gonzalez takes special pleasure in pointing out
lesser-known works such as “Indian Killer” by the Native
American Sherman Alexie. Asked which authors inspired him
while he was growing up, his first response is Henry David
Thoreau. It wasn't so much Thoreau the environmentalist that
enthralled him, he explains, as Thoreau “the soul survivor.”
Thoreau did his own thing, says
Gonzalez, and followed his own path, thereby creating
a universal model.