Reviewed by Daphnee McMaster
Gerardo M. Gonzalez’s debut memoir, A Cuban Refugee’s Journey to the American Dream: The Power of Education (Indiana University Press, August 2019), is a heart-warming and resilient story about an educator’s commitment to bettering the world around him. The 127-page memoir follows a young Gerardo after his family’s escape from Cuba under the Castro regime into adulthood, through the lens of his lifelong relationships with the American education system. This memoir is the story of how we are never truly sure of our paths, but our access to education often plays the largest part in our fates.
Gerardo Gonzalez is a professor and dean Emeritus for Indiana University: Bloomington with a passion for policy and education. He is the co-creator of the nationwide BACCHUS program on college campuses, a Cuban immigrant, the Indiana University Ambassador to Cuba, and a slew of other honorable notorieties. Gonzalez pens each of his achievements in this memoir from a place of humility and determination, with an awareness of the world around him and the role many others played in helping him on his journey.
Gonzalez’s work takes the reader through the bastion of authoritarian policies and ideas. He recounts Cuban scare tactics that pushed his family further from his homeland into the scare tactics of his vice principal who was hell-bent on “good conduct.” The text is acutely aware of the frequency with which Gonzalez is forced to question whether he will stand up to authority or, as he says, “to keep [his] mouth shut.” Each account—though at times terribly sad yet always authentically human—gives a small vignette into the development of Gonzalez’s own drives and passions.
While reading this memoir, it is quite easy to find oneself saying, “I know someone with this very experience.” In essence, that seems to be the goal of Gonzalez’s work. It wants us to humanize each other at all points. As you read along, he inserts full Spanish sentences—translations immediately follow—in his use of quotation. The beauty in this action shows the literal manifestation of his dual identity as both a Cuban and an American, and also, as a man who struggles through much of the early chapters with the Spanish and English language.
Through this work, we follow Gonzalez from Cuba, to Miami, to Pittsburgh, to New Jersey, and back to Miami, and each time we find ourselves growing with and rooting for him. Gonzalez continuously laces the text with anecdotes about how he came to appreciate education through the struggles and support of his family and friends. His continued focus on positive reinforcement for himself and others never comes from an obscure place in the text. At several points in the memoir, Gonzalez reveals his strong beliefs in karma and how the good others put out into the world played a part in his own ability to do good.
For every moment of strife or success this memoir provides, readers are forced to ask “what-if” in the clear pictures Gonzalez paints of his life. That question is the simple beauty of the work’s main goal. It pushes the narrative of whether one knows their path or not, and all decisions must come from a place of courage and knowledge.
This memoir is a powerful but sometimes poignant reflection on how the American Dream is still vital to so many people today. Although it can sometimes find itself a bit pushy on a narrative for a better tomorrow, it remains consistent to Gonzalez’s core: focusing on acts of service, listening to others, and never accepting the harm in the status quo. For readers looking to explore how we stumble upon our destiny and find ourselves in life’s obtained knowledge, A Cuban Refugee’s Journey will more than satisfy.