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CGA Professor Brings Multicultural Flavor To English Courses
Jose B. Gonzalez
Earns State's Faculty Of The Year Award

By Bethe DuFresne
Day Staff Columnist
Published on 10/17/2003

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.

The course was an introduction to American literature, so the teacher, 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”).

Student reaction, 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 honored Gonzalez with its Higher Education Faculty of the Year Award.

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 literature.

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 Shakur.

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 like that.

New London High wasn't a first-rate academic experience, says 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,” enthralled 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 asked him.

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 experience.

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 21st century.

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.

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