By George P. Hassett
When Jose Gonzalez constructs kites for his grandchildren, plays the bongos in his band or builds furniture, most onlookers focus on something he doesn’t dwell on: he only has one arm.
Gonzalez, a Winter Hill resident, performs a variety of tasks – from shoveling to driving a stick shift vehicle – that wouldn’t seem possible for a man born with one arm. He shrugs off the praise he receives from neighbors and family who tell him he is inspirational.
“My friend used to say, ‘Yo, if you had two arms maybe you could be mayor or president.’ I said, ‘if I had two arms maybe I’d be a lazy bum,” Gonzalez said through an interpreter.
Gonzalez moved to Somerville nine years ago from his hometown Corasol, Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico he said people in the community hired him to construct miniature replicas of local landmarks, including the town’s oldest barbershop, and homes. He said he would like to begin building Somerville landmarks now that he lives here.
Jasen Sousa, a family advocate with the Community Action Agency of Somerville, works with Gonzalez and his family. He said Gonzalez’ artistic drive and creativity are inspiring, especially coming from a man who the world might view as having less.
“Jose doesn’t have all the things many of us were born with but he does more with less,” Sousa said. “To have the inspiration to be motivated and create and not give up on life or be mad at the world. He wants to create and give back with his art and his music, even though he had something taken from him.”
Gonzalez is a skilled bongo player, creating a diverse range of sounds, from African rhythms to rock and roll, and he traveled with a band for years before coming to the United States.
In Gonzalez’ hometown, the mayor and local media recognized him for his art. He said the recognition feels good but he is not conceited about his accomplishments. The work he is most proud of, he said, is the art inspired by the folklores and traditions of Puerto Rico.
His materials can be whatever falls to hand, including wood he finds in the trash. He built a prosthetic arm for himself before he got one from the doctor.
Gonzalez is the father of six – three grown children and three young children. Sousa said he is a devoted father, particularly to his 12-year-old autistic son. Gonzalez cuts his son’s hair and plays the bongos with him but he says he looks forward to the free time he has to craft his creations.
“I work anytime of day, whenever I can find the time,” he said. “It’s just another way to relax, entertain and pass the time.”