Street-Beat Confidential

Journalist Juan González has been writing about wrongs for thirty-five years. What's he got today?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2013
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Photograph by Ashok Sinha ’99SEAS

The charter-school story comes out Friday, and that morning González drives from his home in Inwood, where he lives with his wife and teenage daughter, to the Chelsea set of Democracy Now! Having started as a radio program on the five-station Pacifica network, Democracy Now! is currently broadcast over more than 1,100 media outlets worldwide.

González, in a gray suit, takes the elevator and exits into a spotless, sunny office that wraps around the entire floor, with the TV studio in the middle. The walls and shelves flash with plaques and trophies, including González’s Polk Awards.

The show starts at 8:00 a.m. Amy Goodman delivers the headlines (in Boston, one suspect in the marathon bombing is dead and another is at large; thirty-two people are dead in a suicide bombing in a Baghdad café; Venezuela is auditing votes in its election after calls for a recount). González then presents a segment on the trial in Guatemala of the former US-backed dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who is being tried for crimes against humanity for the slaughter of Mayans during the military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas in 1982 and 1983. “Ríos Montt,” González tells the audience, “is the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide.”

With all eyes on Boston, an in-depth report on the trial of an ex-dictator in a small Latin American country might seem extraneous to a US audience. But as González has shown, foreign involvement can yield all sorts of unintended harvests.

When Frances Negrón-Muntaner arrived at Columbia in 2003, one of her tasks was to develop Latino Studies, including the Introduction to Latino Studies course. She had read González’s book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, which appeared in 2000, and felt it would give students a complex, accessible synthesis of the history behind Latino immigration and settlement.

“González came up with a gripping metaphor,” Negrón-Muntaner says. “When you use ‘harvest of empire’ to understand the Latino presence in the US, it provides an explanation to all who ask, ‘Why are there so many Latinos here?’ Harvest of Empire shows that this process has taken a very long time, and doesn’t fit the American-dream narrative of upward-mobility immigration. Though many of those who are immigrants come here for a better life, the larger social forces propelling this movement of people are part and parcel of American expansionism and intervention in those very countries that become producers of immigrants. People say, ‘They are aliens. They are foreigners. What are they doing here?’ But when you look at the conditions of the US state-and nation-building process, you realize they’re not foreign. They’re not alien.”

Harvest of Empire is required reading in nearly two hundred colleges in the United States. The revised 2011 edition covers the current immigration debate and was made into a documentary that has played in a dozen US cities since February.

After fifteen years in Philadelphia, González returned to New York in 1987. He had a job waiting at the Village Voice, but when the Daily News offered him a column, with better pay, González grabbed it.

These were grim years for race relations. González covered the Crown Heights riots, the LA riots, the Washington Heights riots. He emerged as the leader of the 1991 Daily News strike, chronicled the Giuliani years, won the Polk in 1998 for his “street-savvy, unflinching columns,” and, a decade later, uncovered the largest fraud against government in New York City history: a taxpayer boondoggle in the Bloomberg administration’s CityTime project to computerize the municipal payroll, in which CityTime consultants ripped off the city for $740 million. The stories led to indictments of consultants and the resignation of the city’s payroll director — and earned González his second Polk.


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