CULLOWHEE – It’s understandable that Ed Gonzalez felt a little
leery about signing up for an English composition course at Western Carolina
University. After all, the Cuban-American spent his early childhood in a south
Florida household where Spanish was the only language spoken.
As it turned out, Gonzalez shouldn’t have been worried, in spite of the fact that English is his second language. The 40-year-old non-traditional student wound up with an "A" in the writing course -- and a book contract to boot.
As an adult, Gonzalez attended community college and worked in construction, became a licensed paramedic, and even obtained a nursing degree in Florida – all without ever taking an English composition course. "I had already spent all those years in the work force and I knew I could write well enough to satisfy any professional requirement," he said.
But heading into his final year in the undergraduate biology program at Western, Gonzalez knew he had to finally face the dreaded "English comp" in order to graduate in May 2003. So he signed up for the course, taught in summer school 2002 by Elisabeth Aiken, visiting instructor in Western’s English department.
Gonzalez said his fears proved to be unfounded. Aiken took the class on a "fantastic voyage" of writing exercises during which he made a surprising discovery – he actually enjoyed the process of writing.
The final course assignment was to write a paper based on a contemporary subject. As a first-generation Cuban-American, Gonzalez is vitally interested in the trade embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States more than 40 years ago, and that became his subject matter.
Gonzalez said he began the writing project with his own opinions about the embargo – it had been a failure that had only served to punish innocent Cubans and further entrench Fidel Castro, the longtime Cuban dictator. Gonzalez found that most of the existing literature about the economic sanctions was limited to discussions about the political, sociological and economic effects. For the purposes of his class project, he wanted to find out what other Cubans thought about the embargo.
Gonzalez sent an e-mail survey to about 15 Cuban exiles and Cuban-Americans, asking them to forward the survey on to others. Several hundred responses came back, and most were from Cuban exiles – people who, like his parents, were forced to flee Cuba for political reasons. "They spoke in very specific terms about how the embargo had affected them, and about how it created a rift between Cubans here, and between those in this country and in Cuba," Gonzalez said.
To enhance his survey responses, Gonzalez conducted an interview with an individual who once held a position equivalent to the U.S. attorney general in Cuba, and with another who was a high-ranking dissident civilian at the Bay of Pigs incident. He collected so much information that Aiken recommended he consider developing the project further – into articles or a book.
With the help of Aiken and other WCU English department faculty, Gonzalez completed four chapters, which he shipped to McFarland & Company Inc., publishers located in Jefferson. The publishers liked what they saw, and now Gonzalez has a signed contract for a book that will probably be titled "Cuba: Profiles of an Embargo." A total of 300 pages are due at the publishing house by next September.
Scheduled to be printed next spring, Gonzalez’s book will be written from a first-person perspective, with the individuals he interviewed and surveyed telling their own stories. Gonzalez said he has not yet heard any respondents say the average Cuban has benefited in any way from the embargo. "If you did away with the embargo overnight, it would just invalidate Castro," he said.
If he can raise the expense money, Gonzalez hopes to travel to Cuba this summer to conduct interviews with Cubans still living in Cuba. Born in Atlanta and raised in south Florida and Costa Rica, Gonzalez has never visited his family’s native country.
Married with four children, Gonzalez expects to receive his bachelor’s degree in biology in May. After graduation, he will begin study in the university’s master’s degree program in project management.
It has been a long and winding road for Gonzalez to get his bachelor’s degree at Western. He first enrolled in the university’s biology program in 1990, but a combination of circumstances, including injuries from a car accident and his single-father situation, resulted in him leaving Cullowhee in 1992.
After 10 years of work as a contractor, paramedic and nurse, Gonzalez came back to Western North Carolina in 2001 to accept a nursing position at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville. Instead of living in Asheville, Gonzalez moved his family to Cullowhee so he could re-enroll at Western and began work anew on his bachelor’s degree.
He is now a nurse in the intensive care unit at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, managing to maintain dean’s list and Honors College status while balancing his regular job, academic studies and, now, his writing duties.
Gonzalez said he doesn’t know where his career will lead him after he earns a master’s degree, but for now he is happy his class project has evolved into a metaphorical "call to arms" to get rid of the Cuban trade embargo.
Gonzalez said he is appreciative of the help he has received from Elisabeth Aiken and other English department faculty members. The interest they demonstrated "exemplifies what Western is all about," he said.
"When I started writing the book, my goal was to, at least, end up with a manuscript on the shelf. Now it’s going to be published, and I’m very grateful for that," Gonzalez said.