Our American Dream: West Point's First Cuban Refugee Grad, a Life of Science and Beyond

Across the United States, in all fields of endeavor, Latinos are working to uphold their place in American society. Fox News Latino is proud to present "Our American Dream" – a series of snapshots and profiles of Latino success stories. 

In the way that one thing leads to another so that, looking back, “another” seems inevitable, Manuel Gonzales found himself standing at a podium in Orlando, Florida, last month, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Great Minds in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] Organization.

Sure, years later, with a backward glance or two, anyone could connect the dots and see them leading to that podium, to that award. But who could have imagined it, back in 1961, when the sole imperative was to get out of Castro’s Cuba and to get out fast.

Manuel Gonzalez – “Manny” now to his family and friends and colleagues – was just a boy then, just nine years old, young enough that, when the Cuban revolutionary G2 guards took him and his parents into custody at the airport, he thought it was all part of the normal departure rigmarole.

The three of them were taken to another building, where they were isolated and searched. Only confusion, in the person of Che Guevara, spared them.

Guevara’s plane had just landed, and the guards hastened off to see their Marxist hero, leaving just a secretary in charge.

Manny’s father told her they were done, retrieved the family’s documents and hustled his wife and son onto a waiting Pan American plane. The G2 pursued them, of course, halted the taxi-ing plane and demanded they be handed over. But the Pan Am pilot prevailed, telling the soldiers they’d have the U.S. government to deal with.

“This plane is American property,” Manny remembers him saying.

“My dad had fought against the Castro regime,” Gonzalez says, in a telephone interview from Houston, where he now lives. “He knew Castro was a Communist before Castro took over Cuba, so he knew what was coming. He was involved with the underground to help the [Bay of Pigs] invasion succeed. I think they cut the line of communications and that sort of thing. He did not talk about it much. I do know that once the invasion failed, he had to get us out of the country.”

The family settled in Miami. Manny’s father, also named Manuel, had been a military man and a police officer in Cuba, but, like so many newly arrived refugees, he accepted the work he could get: in a gas station and, later, as a watchman for Sunniland Shopping Center.

The family lived in Miami’s Little Havana, where young Manny resolved to follow his father’s footsteps into the military.

That would be one of the dots to connect.

After graduating from Coral Park High School, Gonzalez entered Dade Community Junior College (now Miami Dade College), determined to do well enough to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Along the way, Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

When astronaut Neil Armstrong took those first history-making steps, Manny Gonzalez was watching – and decided that his future would involve studying science and technology, math and engineering. Another dot to connect.

(Years later, as a manager with Chevron’s Energy Technology Company, Gonzalez was quoted in a corporate newsletter, recalling the moment that so inspired him: “When Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon, we leaped into the vastness of the cosmos and touched another planet," he said in a corporate newsletter. "It was a time when people took chances, despite the known risks to their own personal safety, because they recognized that sometimes brave individuals can advance the understanding of science for the good of all humanity.”)

In college, and by now a U.S. citizen, Manny Gonzalez took his own giant leap: He applied to West Point.

No luck.

The next year, he applied again.
Better luck: He was chosen as one of 10 alternates.

Another year, a third application. It was 1971, and he had raised his SAT score and, by then, he says, he was a familiar presence to all the state congressmen, each of whom could nominate a selection of qualified candidates, though only one slot was allotted each senator and representative.

Best of luck: He was the choice of then-Rep. Dante Fascell.

It took more than luck, of course, to reach his goal – and beyond.

After four years of academic study and physical training, Manny Gonzalez became the first Cuban refugee to graduate from West Point.

“It wasn’t an option to fail,” he says, and laughs. “It took me too long to get in. If you want something in the U.S. bad enough and you set your mind to it, you can do whatever you want.”

And he was never looking for the easy way.

“It was all difficult,” he says, “but it was all great. From reveille to the time you go to bed at night, you’re always doing something. It teaches you that when you think you can’t do any more, you can.”

Another dot connected: His gratitude to his adopted homeland.

Gonzalez wanted to give back to the country that had taken in his family as refugees.

That payback, he decided, would be achievement.

Following his West Point graduation, he spent six years on Army active duty; then, when Exxon offered him a job as a drilling engineer, he accepted and moved to Texas.

In 1992, he says, he and two friends formed their own company, Isotag (later renamed Authentix), which made brand-protection molecular tags that could be placed in liquids – everything from perfume to liquor to gasoline and oil – to determine if the product is authentic or counterfeit.

That led, after another six years, to a job with Texaco’s technology organization. In 2001, Texaco merged with Chevron, and Gonzalez has, since then, worked for Chevron, as manager of the Chevron Alliance with the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A busy and eventful stretch of time.

In its letter nominating him for the HENAAC (Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award Conference) Lifetime Achievement Award from the Great Minds in STEM Organization, Chevron cited Manny Gonzalez’s 37-year career achievements to date.

The 18 U.S. and international patents he has been granted. The 16 professional papers he has published. His appearance, as “a world class authority” in articles by the Wall Street Journal, CNN worldwide, Business Week and other publications. An award in 2012 for Excellence in Technology Transfer by the Federal Laboratory Consortium. His selection, along with his partners, by R&D Magazine for having developed “one of the 100 most significant technological advances introduced into the marketplace in 2011.”

And from Los Alamos National Laboratory came a three-page nominating letter from Duncan McBranch, the laboratory’s Decision Executive.

One example of, as he wrote, “Manny’s unparalleled ability to see the application of basic science,” he cited the development of a  communications technology known as Inficomm.

Thanks to Manny Gonzalez, he wrote, a scientific concept has the potential to increase wellbore (i.e., a hole drilled to explore or extract oil, gas or water) data-transmission rates and enable “real-time monitoring of pressure, temperature, fluid levels, steam quality and many other parameters.”

McBranch also praised Manny Gonzalez’s role in helping to establish a Math and Science Academy to provide training for teachers who work with K-through-12 students in rural New Mexico, primarily Hispanic and Native American communities.

“Manny told me about his award after work and seemed genuinely surprised to receive it,” his wife Rosemarie wrote in an email. “I researched STEM and HENAAC and realized what a great honor it was to receive this award.”

“Manny also won ‘The Chairman's Award’ this year at Chevron. This award is given by the CEO of Chevron for outstanding achievements. This year was the first time in company history it was given to an individual instead of group. As you can see, I’m very proud of my husband.”

Rosemarie Gonzalez was at Disney’s Coronado Resort last month to hear the applause that greeted her husband’s acceptance speech.
And she was there to meet the young West Point cadet who received a HENAAC science achievement award.

“The cadet’s mother is Cuban,” she wrote, “and made me feel proud that Manny was the first Cuban refugee to graduate from West Point and open the door for others. I am so proud of how he came to this country with so little and achieved so much.”

When Manny Gonzalez stood at the podium to accept his accolades, he recounted the story that inspired his championship of, and belief in, young minority students, a belief that extends far beyond his own experience.

Years ago – he can’t recall precisely when – he learned the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan and Dr. G.H. Hardy.

Ramanujan was born in 1887, in India. His family was poor and he had no formal math training but, on his own, the boy mastered trigonometry by the time he was 12.

In 1912, he met Hardy, an English mathematician who invited him to work at Cambridge. Ramanujan’s work – Hardy called him a natural genius – became the foundation of the turn-of-the-century’s revolution in physics.

“Imagine how many potential Ramanujan’s there are in the world that will never get the opportunity to change humanity,” Gonzalez said in his acceptance speech. “That is why I support a Los Alamos Math and Science Academy Foundation, co-funded by Chevron. The foundation trains teachers to identify, tutor and train disadvantaged minority students in STEM.”

Gonzalez’s fellow engineer Cesar Ovalles, a technical team leader for Chevron’s Energy Technology Company, received the organization’s Luminary Honoree Award.

STEM programs have become a national priority in recent years, largely because the U.S. Department of Labor anticipates that, by 2018, there will be some 1.2 million job openings in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – but not enough qualified graduates to fill those jobs.

In May of 2010, President Obama noted in a speech in El Paso, Tex., that the United States owed its position as a leader in the high-tech world to immigrants, those who had founded such companies as Google and Yahoo, eBay and Intel.

“We should make it easier for the best and the brightest to not only stay here, but also to start businesses and create jobs here,” the president said in that speech. “In recent years, a full 25 percent of high-tech startups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants. That led to 200,000 jobs here in America. I’m glad those jobs are here. I want to see more of them created in this country. We need to provide them the chance.”

Manny Gonzalez had a chance and took full advantage of it.

The boy whose family had fled Cuba, who sought to emulate his father’s military service, who took inspiration from a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind and who felt the need to share opportunity with others, that boy became the man who did all those things.