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One Voice from the South Bronx: Q&A with New York Times Reporter David Gonzalez

By <a href="/centrovoices/meet-the-authors/samuel-nemir-olivares">Samy Nemir Olivares</a>

Amid the Bronx’s tragic episodes of arson fires, poverty and crime during 1970s, a generation of Nuyoricans were rising up among the turmoil; a time that shaped their life’s calling.

Among them was David Gonzalez, an acclaimed New York Times reporter and photojournalist. He was born and raised in the South Bronx by his Puerto Rican family, just two blocks away from Nuyoricans such as the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and the bongocero Benny Bonilla. For the past 40 years, Gonzalez has devoted his professional life to capturing through images and words the essence and battles of the city’s mostly Latino and Puerto Rican communities. As a member of the photographers group Seis del Sur (Six from the South) Gonzalez and his colleagues have showcased their work featuring these issues in several expositions and media outlets, serving as a voice for many voices.    

Click above to hear David Gonzalez talk about reporting from Puerto Rican and Latino communities
and see a sample of his photo coverage since the 1970s.

His family's sacrifices and Catholic-school education took Gonzalez to Yale University and later to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The complex Bronx panorama he grew up in and his quality education were pivotal in sparking his interest in social issues. “It’s important to not forget what happened,” he said.

After working at Newsweek, Gonzalez moved to The New York Times in 1990, becoming one of the first Latino staff at the paper. There he led the Bronx and Central America/Caribbean bureaus. Along with reporting, he co-edits Lens Blog and does the biweekly Side Street photo-essay feature for the City Room blog.

For his social conscience and in-depth work, Gonzalez won Columbia University's Mike Berger Award in May 1992, and the 2008 Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for "House Afire," a feature for The Times. He was inducted into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) Hall of Fame in 2013.

Centro Voices contributor Samuel (Samy) Nemir Olivares talked with Gonzalez. Here is an edited version of their conversation.


Samy Nemir Olivares: What do you think your impact has been on Latino communities?

David Gonzalez: I have been able to show my colleagues the kind of stories that are out there. ...I think I also tried to make the point that my parents gave me the gift of Spanish. I know that there are people out there when they are hiring reporters they think that Spanish is a happy coincidence, like your hair color or whatever, that you just are happy to have been born with it. Well no, it is a skill, just like you go crazy about some reporter who went to Harvard to learn Russian. Well, guess what? We have a knowledge of a language and culture we were born and raised with, and that is a hell of a reporting tool, isn’t it? El hecho que yo puedo tirarme a un lugar a hablar un español, español del boricua… we have the skills as Latino reporters, a real job skill, and I am hoping that people realize that the fact that some of the best stories I have done were reported entirely in Spanish. For example, I spent an entire year in a church, pasé un año con pentecostales en Manhattan, un año, reportando esto en español, porque el pastor era dominicana y la congregación era mayormente dominicana y había dos o tres boricuas… Pasé todo el tiempo reportandolo todo en español, and that gave me access to them on a level that I think somebody who doesn’t speak Spanish couldn’t have.

SNO: So, what do you think has been your contribution, in general terms?

DG: When you are the editor you’re able to make some decisions about the kind of stuff you want to focus on, and one of the things I have done in (my) blog is been able to discuss the issue of representation: how are people of other countries or minorities represented, how are they portrayed? … I mean the paper is doing those things; I think we can always do more. . .I think we do have a paper that understands, and I think it is important because if you look at how American society is changing it is clear who are going to be our readers thirty years from now. And I think any newspaper that is smart— and I like to think The New York Times is a smart place—knows the importance of being able to cultivate those communities down the line.

SNO: To what extent have Latino reporters impacted the paper’s coverage?

DG: Una punta[sic] de vista muy distinto. Mireya Navarro que se crió en Puerto Rico, Angel Franco el fotógrafo. Again, we all bring to the table our life’s experiences. When I write about, for example, people in the South Bronx who were struggling getting their buildings… you know, struggling for credibility or respect, I know what it is like because I grew up in neighborhoods like that. I know what it’s like because I lived in a neighborhood that was falling apart and where people banded together to demand that the city provides services. We bring insights into a situation that they might not know about. I think that the real thing we’ve got to talk about is that we opened up the world to them in some ways, the world that’s literally right in front of them. I’m not saying that I should be a chauvinistic New Yorker, but I mean our city is so diverse that you can literally find the world in our city. I mean I can point out parts of the city where the Cambodians live, where Canadians live, where the Ecuadorians are. I’m saying, Latino reporters, diverse reporters, because it is not just about being Latino … You know, diversity means a lot more than having people of a particular ethnic descendencia, porque tú y yo sabemos que hay gente que tiene el nombre y tiene el apellido pero no tienen el sabor… (laughs)

SNO: What do you consider yourself, your identity?

DG: I identify as being from the Bronx, South Bronx to be precise. That’s where I was born. I live in the Bronx still. Yo soy boricua aunque sé que hay gente en Puerto Rico que no me consideran puertorriqueño… porque me crié aquí... I have been called Spick enough to know that other people look at me as Puerto Rican, but not (meaning) to put in negative terms. I know because… you just know it. I want to be honest, we didn’t have enough money, and my parents did not have the inclination to go back to Puerto Rico when they were raising us. My mother had a very difficult childhood, very difficult, and my father … he was terrified of flying, so we didn’t go to Puerto Rico for a lot of reasons. I first went to Puerto Rico on assignment to cover the Dupont Plaza Hotel fire in 1986. That was my first trip. Imagine going to cover a tragedy of that magnitude. But emotionally I knew where I was from. I knew this is where my parents come from. I felt comfortable. I heard Spanish that sounded very familiar. And then I would start to go back a little bit. I have cousins in Isabela. I go visit them, my cousin Charlie… tengo otra familia por Caguas, y tengo amigos ahí. Pero I am Puerto Rican, and I know this is controversial, but I am a Nuyorican, and you know, I can be from two places at once. And I used it as a word proudly, and I know that was a word that was an insult originally, that the Nuyorican was not a real Puerto Rican; “He was one of those Ricans”… the Nuyoricans were not real Puerto Ricans, they were someone corrupted by New York. But I am Nuyorican, I’ll say it proudly because it’s one of the things I am proud of. I am proud of being from the Bronx, and I even say sometimes I am Bronxrican—a Rican from the Bronx. Y eso para mí no es algo de bochorno, eso para mí es algo de orgullo y principalmente de amor. I feel very proud of that, porque somos una gente, la generación mía, los boricuas del sur del Bronx, fuimos parte de un grupo despreciado, were people that would be put down by many, blamed for many things, and I know a lot of Puerto Ricans who are from the Bronx who have achieved many great things. 

SNO: Where does Puerto Rican resilience come from?  

DG: Our parents gave it to us. I was raised hearing this, often: “Nosotros nos sacrificamos para que ustedes puedan aprovechar, para que tú puedas aprovechar.” You know, our parents gave us a lot, a lot. It wasn’t as easy being a Puerto Rican in New York in the 1940 s as I would suspect, I know that. I’ve read the works of Jesús Colón, you know, and it’s not easy. But they left. My mother talked about  it: “Cuando yo era niña me dijeron, no, que en las calles de Nueva York se pueden recoger billetes como lechugas en la calle.” It’s like yeah right? Eso no es cierto. Lo que sí es cierto es que ellos sacrificaron todo, todo, todo para que nosotros pudiéramos aprovechar. And in one generation I’ve gone from being the son of two people who had very little education, who grew poor in Puerto Rico and now I’m at The New York Times¡**ño! How that happened?”

SNO: How did you get there?

DG: First, I went to Catholic schools, las escuelas católicas. Which are different from Puerto Rico, because en Puerto Rico las escuelas católicas son para la gente que vienen de clase media y clase alta, y si tú vas a San Ignacio, they come from a certain part of the island, or they went to Robinson School or Saint John, whatever. In New York, the Catholic schools were the schools that the Puerto Rican parents of my generation sent their kids to because they trust them, they trusted the values of the school and also era un ambiente más seguro que las escuelas públicas en algunos barrios. In those Catholic schools I was taught by people who did not look down upon me for being poor, Puerto Rican or from the Bronx. It was the opposite, they held me to very high standards, they didn’t let me get away with… para ellos no existe el “Ay, bendito”, there was no poor you… “You are gonna do this and you’re gonna do well.” So they give you confidence in a way your parents couldn’t, because my parents didn’t have education. They had good intentions but the people who pushed us ahead were the priests and the nuns. Those teachers helped me to get from the South Bronx to Yale. I had a scholarship to go to Yale, and then from there I eventually went to Columbia to get my master’s degree. That’s how I moved forward from those roots, but I think it was the sacrifice of  parents who did not know much, but they knew one thing, that I was gonna work with my mind.

SNO: And what took you to The Times?

DG: Por mi amigo Angel Franco, el fotógrafo. Yo empecé como fotógrafo, no empecé como escritor. Yo estaba enamora’o con to’ la obra de Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, eso era para mi the holy trinity, los three guys… And I met Franco when I was a young photographer. He was the guy that we all looked up to, and he was not that much older than us, but he was ahead of us. El es puertorriqueño… en el New York Times, uno de los gigantes, tremendísimo fotógrafo. Angel empezó en los ‘80s. Lo conocí cuando me gradué de Yale empecé a dar clases de fotografía en el sur del Bronx para un grupo de fotógrafos latinos que se llamaba En Foco, que todavía existe…. And Angel was involved with the group. Then we stayed in touch and we used to meet at every NAHJ [National Association of Hispanic Journalists] convention all the time. And that’s how I got my job at The New York Times in 1990, where he told the editors, “This is a Puerto Rican from the Bronx who went to Yale and he works for Newsweek and you might want to talk with him.” Y así fué

SNO: Is there something you have wanted to say to Puerto Ricans?

DG: Tenemos que apoyarnos unos a los otros. Off the record, I think you know what I mean, by the way. (He laughs) I mean, como boricua si estamos en Nueva York o si estamos en Puerto Rico, o como dijo Corretjer si estamos en la luna, hasta en la luna. To quote somebody: Somos boricuas donde quiera y ser boricua es tener un deber el uno al otro, porque si nosotros no ayudamos a los otros ¿Quién nos va a ayudar? Y si alguno de nosotros llegamos a un punto de éxito qué vale ese premio sino lo podemos compartir con un grupo de gente de nosotros, con el resto de los boricuas. Ser Nuyorican es saber una cosa muy importante. There is no struggle  to know what it is like to be devalued just on  the basis of where are you from, before anybody talks to you sometimes… I’m  not saying that it  happens to me now, but as a kid, yes. And being a Nuyorican I know there are  two communities, the people like myself who have been done very well professionally, very, very well, and there are others who haven’t, who have done very badly and are stuck. We have to get that message up to them, that this is what we can accomplish… We have to recognize that those who have achieved, there or here, we have to help the generation behind this. We have to encourage them too, and we have to help them go farther than we did. That’s very easy in my case, because I saw it in my life. I’ve gone much farther than my parents ever did, only because my parents sacrificed for me. I want my children to go farther than I did. But importantly, I want people to recognize that as Puerto Ricans we can go very far...If I have success I want people to know I am Puerto Rican, deal with it porque a veces te encuentras con americanos que dicen “Oh! You don’t look Puerto Rican”. ¡**ño! How do you expect me to look? Oye, yo tengo primos que son trigueñitos y tengo primos con ojos azules. Tenemos de todo en mi familia. “You don’t look Puerto Rican, you don’t sound Puerto Rican…” What they mean is you don’t look dangerous or poor. You don’t speak “Yeah man, what’s happenin’, bro.” I also say I’m from the Bronx because of that, because they have the same image of people from the Bronx… que somos títeres, que somos gente violenta y to’ esa vaina. You put it out there; it’s an affirmation for me, but it’s also a challenge to them… Deal with it, I’m a Puerto Rican at The New York Times. Hello!


© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published 22 October 2014.