Bronx poet uses storytelling to educate others about their history

Bobby Gonzalez (Photo/George Malave)

Bobby Gonzalez has had practically every job you could think of — from a medical records clerk in a hospital to customer service at a utility company. However, he says it was at age 40 that he discovered his life’s calling and passion – storytelling. His favorite topic is his Puerto Rican and Taino heritage, which in turn, challenges his listeners to get curious about their own roots.

Ever since that moment of enlightenment, storytelling is what Gonzalez devotes his life to. At 65, he still resides in his native Bronx, NY, with his wife Maria, but sometimes he doesn’t even know where he’ll end up the next day giving a workshop or lecture. So far, he’s spoken in 42 states — in the past two weeks alone, he’s been at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Davidson College in North Carolina speaking about the racial and cultural diversity of Latinos. Next week, he’ll host his monthly spoken word event in Queens, NY.

“When people ask me, ‘What do you do?’ I say, I’m an educator through lectures and poetry,” says Gonzalez, who has also authored two books, “The Last Puerto Rican,” and “Taino Zen.”  “I don’t know what’s going to happen the next minute. Occasionally, I get a phone call asking me, ‘Can you do this?’ and I do it. I’m not afraid to fail.”

His second favorite job in life, he says, was working at his family’s bodega, which they owned for more than 30 years.

“That’s where I really polished my speaking skills, and I heard a lot of great stories,” says Gonzalez, about the place which birthed his purpose. “It was quite an experience.”

He says his parents also played an important role.

“We were very fortunate, my brothers and I, to have had two Puerto Rican parents who always made the point to tell us where we came from and instilled in us a great pride of who we were,” says Gonzalez. “That inspired me to embark on a lifetime of personal research. I got my information from books and oral traditions – here and in Puerto Rico. When I was a little boy, my parents would take me to Puerto Rico, and I would sit at the feet of my great grandfather. He would tell me the stories of the old days, and I would roll my eyes, but I wish I listened more carefully.”

Gonzalez can see clearly now that his ancestors grew up in a different world, and that gives him the incentive to tell their stories. One story in particular which has marked him is one of his mother’s arrival to New York from Puerto Rico via a train from Miami in the 1940’s.

“She was very light-skinned, and when she got to Miami, the conductor told my dark-skinned grandmother to sit in another car,” recalls Gonzalez. “I have to remind young people they take a lot for granted – even the right to vote.”

Gonzalez remembers the exact date he began documenting his family roots by writing poetry.

“It was February 9, 1964,” he says without hesitation. “The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the day after, millions of kids around the world bought their own guitars and started to write their own music.”

Storytelling came very naturally to him, he further explains.

“Every day, I would go to the library, get some books, and then go down my block and tell stories,” says Gonzalez, who still has the same almost involuntary instinct years later. “I spend a lot of time in the Manhattan and the Bronx libraries,” where he sometimes also hosts spoken word nights for teens.

He says one of his biggest career challenges also took place in a library while he was telling stories of his ancestors, the Taino people, who are an indigenous people of the Caribbean.

“Once I was speaking in a library in Queens, and a man told me, ‘There are no Tainos left. I don’t know why you’re doing this.’ At the end, he came up to me and said, ‘I’m proud to be a Taino.’ I was taught by my parents never to say ‘You are wrong.’ We were all raised differently, so it’s important to dialogue in a civilized manner. We are all one.”

Gonzalez says he used this parental wisdom when speaking at the University of Mississippi last year, as well.

“We can’t have the same perspectives, and that’s okay, as long we listen to each other with respect,” he adds. “I meet students from Latin countries, and they don’t know about their indigenous heritage, and people who lived here their whole life don’t know American history. My favorite moment is always when people say, ‘I didn’t know that.’”

Education is primordial for Gonzalez, even though his father only finished 2nd grade and his mom, 6th grade. He admits he never finished his bachelor’s degree in marketing, but he believes through his natural curiosity, he has learned so much more by devouring books on his own. And now he loves to share that knowledge with kids as young as pre-k, all the way to seniors.

“I don’t have the sense of fear,” says Gonzalez about what has helped him the most in life. “The times now are nothing compared to what my parents went through. Police brutality was a lot more common back then, there were no bilingual services, and immigrant groups lived in one neighborhood. My brothers, and I went to college. We didn’t finish, but we did it, because my parents sacrificed for us.”

What is the one piece of life advice he wishes he could tell his younger self today?

“It gets better every day if you make the conscious effort to improve yourself passionately and persistently.”