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José González
Pioneer from the early 1970s

José González

José González has been a subject of the Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island on several occasions. In this interview, he talks about education: bilingual education, in Rhode Island and on a national level; the educational policies effecting all children in the Providence Public School, and especially what it means to be “Hispanic” in the school system; and his own education, including his experiences in the New York schools, where he grew up, and his goal of getting into Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. A leader in the Rhode Island Hispanic community since the 1970s, Dr. González shares with us his visions on education for Latinos, and has some important words for both non-Hispanic, Hispanic youth and for all people of color about how to succeed and what it means to work hard to reach your dream.
I was born in New York City and I was raised in Brooklyn. Spanish was my first language. I was 15 years old when I moved to Rhode Island; I was starting the 10th grade. That was in 1968. Growing up in Brooklyn in public housing, there was a lot of crime and violence. My whole family had been in New York since the late 1940s and they were starting to move out of New York. Part of my family went to Miami, I had family going to New Jersey, California, and some family left for Chicago. My aunt was married to a guy in the Navy and he was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When they closed, they relocated him here to Rhode Island, here to Newport. So [my Aunt] was living here maybe three years and she told the rest of the family to come. And we did. Those that didn’t go to New Jersey and the other places ended up coming here to Rhode Island.
My main goal then, was to give back to the Latino community by going into social work. But I had a moral dilemma. In social work you sometimes provide too much support, and don’t educate people into becoming independent. And you have this realization that the best way you can help the Latino community is by educating them.
José González
In New York, there weren’t any Bilingual programs and I spoke Spanish the first four and a half, five years of my life. So when I started kindergarten I didn’t understand anything. As a matter of fact, from kindergarten to grade three, I don’t remember having any conversations. I see pictures [in my mind] of what I was doing, but I don’t remember speaking to people or understanding people, their conversations. So the first three years of my schooling were just acquiring language, trying to communicate. Now, I remember some of grade three, and some of grade four and from there on I was learning English and speaking English. But at home it was always in Spanish. The way I learned English was a forced assimilation of language.

I went to junior high school right in Brooklyn. Then, I went for one year to Brooklyn Tech High School, which is one of the five examination schools in New York. You have to take an exam to get in; just as here in Providence, we have Classical High School, which is a public high school, but you can’t get in unless you pass an entrance exam. There were few students of color there. I was in one of these pilot minority programs. This was right after desegregation when they were trying to integrate the selective schools, which were basically all white. I don’t remember taking the test or anything, but I got accepted into Brooklyn Tech, which was a pre-engineering high school.

When we moved to Providence and went to high school here, we really didn’t find an ethnic mix. There were six Latinos who graduated from Central High School, the year I graduated. Six Latinos! People then didn’t know what Puerto Ricans were. They thought I was Cape Verdean. They thought I was Portuguese. They thought I was everything else, but they had never heard, they didn’t even know where Puerto Rico was. A lot of people couldn’t even tell you on a map where it was. They didn’t know that we spoke Spanish. It was a very new experience. Central High School is so different now, from when I graduated – right now (2002) it is 60% Latino. And there were six of us then that weren’t down in the basement, in the ESL class. So, the numbers have really turned around.

For my first year in college, I went to the University of Rhode Island. I went through the Special Program for Talent Development (TD), which took in inner-city minority kids who would not normally have been accepted by the university. If I had applied on my own, there was no way I would’ve gotten in. But, through this program, an educational opportunity program, they took me in. The TD program did offer help. We had study groups, we had tutors. They even gave you financial incentives, like book awards and monthly stipends. The whole idea was that the university environment was not created for people who are not white middle class students. In the 60s and 70s they started to address the need to bring in more people, but not necessarily to create a more diverse and receptive environment for the diverse populations. There was a handful of us [in this program], maybe twenty-five.

So my first year at URI, I was totally overwhelmed. I didn’t do well. I got kicked out of the university because I just didn’t have the skills and abilities to survive a university experience. I was coming from a public school in Providence that was, again, large, urban, under-funded, and drastically under-prepared its students. I was just devastated.

After that first year, I transferred to Rhode Island College. There was no difference between the Latino community at RIC and URI. At both schools the Latino presence was insignificant, it wasn’t anything. We formed the first Latin American Student Organization (LASO) with a handful of students. The first LASO at RIC was in 1972. And again there were maybe eight students that were Latinos. And that was it. And you know when we mentioned LASO [to others in the school], people would think there were forty, fifty members. We would actually threaten to strike or have a sit-in because they wouldn’t give us resources like the other organizations. We wouldn’t get stipends [for our activities] and had no student activities support. They just saw us as rebels, so we played the role. We were rebellious.

What was the reason for my success at RIC compared to URI? Well, you know I think it was persistence. You realize that what other people have you need to have, and that they are no better at it than you are; that you are fully capable of doing equal, if not better than the work they can do. It is just quickly trying to catch up. I had no study skills but I learned. When I entered college I must have been at an eighth grade reading level. I hated reading and I realized that had to learn to love reading. I really hated the library. I thought it was a ghost town and I never wanted to go there. But I knew that it was a source of knowledge. So what I started to do was sort of uncover, to develop a greater awareness of who I was and what I needed to address, face my deficiencies. So I went to get help from other people, I went to the writing center. I never handed in a term paper unless someone had read it through, and people worked with me.

After I received my undergraduate degree at RIC, I went on to get a Masters in Bilingual Bicultural Education. It was a two year program at RIC, and when I graduated, I had a Bachelor’s degree in social work and a Master’s in Education. I wanted to help people. I’ve always enjoyed helping people. Because I was Bilingual, my family took me everywhere, to the hospitals, to the welfare office, to help someone get new glasses. I was always translating for someone in my family. I don’t even know how well I translated, but I was always helping people. Neighbors would call my mother and would say, “Hey could I borrow your son to go and get something here...or there…” So, as a result, I thought social work was a good profession.

My main goal then, was to give back to the Latino community by going into social work. But I had a moral dilemma. In social work you sometimes provide too much support, and don’t educate people into becoming independent. And you have this realization that the best way you can help the Latino community is by educating them. You know it’s like the story about being a fisherman: If you give somebody a fish, they can eat it today. But if you teach them how to fish, they will be able to eat for the rest of their lives. So I thought, people don’t need hand-outs, what they need is a hand up; to get out of poverty.

Here I will use the example of my two brothers and myself. With the help of a single mom, we grew up on welfare and lived in public housing. My older brother [Roberto] is the first Hispanic judge in the state of Rhode Island. My younger brother is a mechanical engineer with General Motors. And, I went to Harvard and got a doctorate’s in Education. Hey, that’s almost unheard of in this society. But, it demonstrates that it can be done, that there is a great possibility. And what do you have to latch on to? Education. All three of us had this awakening. It was either work in the factories, or in the fast food restaurant, or deal drugs and steal cars, or get your act together and utilize the resources that are out there. And education is one of these free resources.

After I got my Masters, I went to NY and after that I went to URI and I worked in their admissions office. In 1990 I started my doctorates degree while at URI and then I went to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. I really did it because I wanted to challenge myself, but at the same time to prove to the rest of the society that we [Latinos] can be Ph.D’s, EDD’s, MD’s all of the D’s we want. I finished my dissertation in 1997 and then I started to look for a more significant job. That’s how I became the director of Equity and Access at the [Providence] school department.

In closing, I would like to say one thing: Hispanics are not going anywhere until we can develop enough of a power base in politics to influence decision makers who have no right to make decisions for us. You know a lot of the politicians are misinformed. They are not there because they are ignorant, but they are swayed by the political and corporate world and they make decisions for us that have major impacts on our lives. And until we have the lobbying power to say, “You do that and you’ll never be re-elected!” That’s what lobbyists and other resourceful people say when they go to Washington and set up offices to tell politicians what to do. If the tobacco industry can convince politicians that there is no harmful effects of smoking why can’t we tell them we are living in such conditions. We have to get our kids out of lead poisoned environments. We have to get our kids away from the drug and alcohol and crime ridden neighborhoods. All of these environments that are so negative and counter productive. But we can’t live in poverty.

Most of people don’t even vote, most won’t fill-out the census form. How can we do it? We are stuck in the mud. We have to educate the people that it is important to show up, it is important that you let people know you will be going out to vote in November. That’s the bigger picture of the kind of situations that are still so challenging.

So we serve, we are social workers, we are teachers, we’re educators; we are creating the new generations of leaders. But today’s leaders are challenged by the same things over and over; the challenges we had when I first moved to Rhode Island. I couldn’t get people to come out and vote years ago, and it still seems that today’s leaders are having the same trouble getting out the vote. Even though we are more organized, we have voter registration; you can’t get a license if you aren’t registered. You know things like that. There’s been much improvement yet there is much more that needs to be done.
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