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Ricardo Gonzalez: Ringing in the new
From altar boy to alderman, Ricardo Gonzalez practices the politics of inclusion

This article originally appeared in Isthmus on June 23, 1989.

The Cuban sun had not yet dawned on Camaguey as the altar boy sauntered toward the neighborhood chapel to prepare for 6 a.m. Mass. It was Jan. 1, 1959, the day marking the end of Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship.

"As I left my house, the night watchman, who just happened to be hanging out close to our house, told me that Batista had left the country. 'Se cayo Batista!' -- 'Batista fell!' So here I was. I had just turned 12. I just ran down to the church and went in and just started ringing the bells, just ringing the bells nonstop.... I rang them so much that the rope broke, and then we couldn't ring the bells for Mass later. So I almost feel as though I was the Paul Revere of Camaguey."

This day marked the politicization of Ricardo Alfredo Gonzalez, owner of the Cardinal Bar, 418 E. Wilson St., and now the alderman for Madison's 4th District, which includes most of the downtown.

Since 1974, when he assumed ownership, Gonzalez has used the Cardinal Bar to express independence, politics and sexuality, and as a base from which to build his reputation. He defeated Ellen Robinson in the April election with broad-based support that included parts of the Democratic, Republican and Labor-Farm parties.

Fred Mohs, a lawyer, developer and Republican, says that despite Gonzalez's "more liberal" views, the new alderman's ideas for revitalizing Madison's downtown coincide with his own. Mohs is also Gonzalez's landlord.

"Ricardo is a smart man," Mohs says, "and he continues to learn and mature and develop as a person and as a businessperson."

Attorney Mark Borns, Gonzalez's friend and campaign manager during the election, describes a scene at Gonzalez's victory party in which the new alderman was standing and speaking with an unlikely assortment of Madison personalities. These included 2nd District Republican Party Chairwoman Mary Mohs, convicted Sterling Hall bomber Karl Armstrong, former Dane County Republican Chairman Nick Fuhrman, and Madison's liberal Rep. David Clarenbach.

"He's a very likable fellow," Borns says. "I don't know too many people that get to know him that do not like him."

Gonzalez, a member of the Democratic Party, cannot think of anyone that dislikes him either.

"I'm a person that believes in inclusivity," says Gonzalez. "Just because I don't agree with you does not mean that I do not like you."

Interviewed at the Cardinal and his Wisconsin Avenue apartment, Gonzalez describes his family's exodus from Cuba, his coming out of the closet as a gay man in Madison, his challenges and achievements as a tavern owner, and his political agenda.

Broken dreams, new horizons

The Gonzalez family had been part of the ruling class in Cuba for several generations. Spain promoted Pedro Gonzalez, Ricardo's great-grandfather, to the rank of general for his role in defending the Spanish empire against indigenous revolutionaries during Cuba's struggles for independence.

Gonzalez's mother, Bertha, founded a home economics school. His father, Rinaldo, started an insurance company that Ricardo says would have made him a multimillionaire -- if it hadn't been for the 1959 revolution.

While Gonzalez raised $75 for Cuban agrarian reform and whirled around Camaguey on his bicycle decorated with revolutionary flags, his parents watched the disintegration of their dreams.

"As the revolution began passing laws that confiscated large land holdings and private property and anything that was foreign-owned or foreign-held in Cuba, my father's business, of course, began to suffer," he says. "As soon as the revolutionary government began to show its socialist, communist character, that was it. They turned against it and began the process of getting us kids out of Cuba."

Having sent Ricardo and three of his brothers to Miami in 1960, Gonzalez's parents followed with their two youngest children in April 1961, just days before a CIA-backed brigade of Cuban expatriates that included the eldest Gonzalez son invaded Cuba's Bay of Pigs. (That brother spent 20 months in a Cuban jail and is now a successful accountant in San Antonio, Texas.)

"We were members of the ruling class of Cuba, and were immediately affected by the revolution. My family is to this day very anti-communist and very anti-Castro, and I think they have reason to be. They lost everything they worked for all their lives to the new revolutionary government."

In Miami, the senior Gonzalez started from scratch to provide for his family, then crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. But much of the new burden fell on Ricardo's mother, who had to care for the family without help from servants or Ricardo's brothers.

"The Cuban male is really macho," Gonzalez says. "I mean, he expects the women to do all the house chores. He expects to go home and get taken care of. When we came to this country, I remember seeing my mother work like a beast to feed us and iron our shirts.

"If I had been a heterosexual, my guess is that I would have been more of a traditional Cuban male, whereas I broke away from that real early."

Weary of Miami's Cuban ghetto and anxious to see more of the United States, Gonzalez moved to Oklahoma in 1963 with an elder brother to be with friends there. He finished high school and entered college. His parents moved to Texas, a state that left a bad impression on Ricardo when he visited there that Christmas -- it was the first place he had been where people viewed those named Gonzalez as second-class citizens.

Upon entering college, Gonzalez was a "Goldwater Republican," favoring a U.S. invasion of Cuba. After studying Cuba's history, however, he concluded that the root of Cuba's woes was its domination by the U.S.

"That conclusion was made more real, made even more radicalized, by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, because then the parallels began to take shape -- American imperialism in Vietnam, American imperialism in Cuba, American imperialism in the rest of Latin America."

Gonzalez moved to Ripon in 1968 as a personnel manager for the Green Giant canning company. After an unsuccessful bid for a state Assembly seat in 1972, he took a job as state affirmative action officer and moved to Madison in 1973.

The Cardinal, built in 1912 as a bar-restaurant to the Cardinal Hotel, was up for sale. Gonzalez saw its beauty and potential and took out a lease. The bar would provide him with independence and a means of expression.

Exciting time

When it reopened in December 1974, the Cardinal was briefly a gay bar. Gonzalez's first homosexual experience occurred in Madison, and the bar played a part in his "coming out."

"Being gay, I just thought, 'Well, by doing it this way, I don't have to call a press conference on the steps of the Capitol and announce to the world that I'm gay. I just do it through my bar.' But this bar remained a gay bar for about six months and that was it."

Gonzalez's visibility in the gay community continued. He served on the board of the United, a gay organization, and as a counselor at the now-defunct Gay Center. He's a prominent supporter of organizations involved in gay-related issues, such as the Madison AIDS Support Network.

Politics took deep root in the Cardinal in October 1977 when the bar became a meeting place for organizers and supporters of the strike against Madison Newspapers Inc. Each Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., the bar charged $1 at the door for the strikers' fund. The bar, which still had a restaurant, offered a buffet and 25-cent taps.

Mayor Paul Soglin, whose administration was sympathetic to the strike, was often the disc jockey. "He was quite the Motown music buff," Gonzalez says. "He's got a great record collection and he loves the stuff -- and he could do a pretty good gig."

The Cardinal still hosts fund-raisers on Fridays. Gonzalez says these events have raised as much as $25,000 over the years for organizations and candidates for political office. The peak of the bar's political activity was in the 1970s.

"In the '70s, Madison was truly a beacon of light, of political thinking, of political activity in this country," Gonzalez says. "Everywhere, people talked about Madison as the place that was happening, a place where ideas were being thrown about. It was an exciting time."

It was also an exciting time to be a Cuban, for the city had developed a relationship with the island nation. Soglin visited there twice while he was mayor.

"There was a real good feeling about things Cuban in this town," Gonzalez says. "In fact, in 1977, the Cuban volleyball team came to Madison to play an exhibition game, and they played the American volleyball team or something like that. And one of the American players was quoted in a Chicago paper as having referred to the Madison game and saying that the Cubans had the home-court advantage. They played at the Fieldhouse and there were signs, I mean banners, saying, 'Smash U.S. imperialism,' and the crowd was roaring for the Cubans, and of course the Cubans won the game."

Trial by fire

After the election of MNI-backed mayoral candidate Joel Skornicka in 1979, the city's political tempo slowed dramatically. Attitudes toward Cubans likewise worsened with the arrival of refugees from the Mariel boatlift.

In the summer of 1980, responding to the Carter administration's criticism of human rights and emigration policy in Cuba, Castro released 125,000 Cubans to the U.S., including petty criminals and other undesirables. Fort McCoy, Wis., was among the last military bases to accept the boat people.

"By the time Fort McCoy opened up and began receiving people from this boat lift," says Gonzalez, "the class of people coming out was the worst."

Gonzalez was director of an understaffed, underfinanced organization that tried to teach English to and find jobs for the new arrivals. Gonzalez took 16 of them into his apartment for a few days. The quantity of people needing social services put a strain on the city. Their personal problems compounded the strain.

"They were very unstable," Gonzalez says. "They wouldn't hang on to jobs. They came from a totally different background, and then they became victims of racism, which only aggravated the problem."

The strain on Gonzalez was compounded when some of his guests stole half of his record collection and other possessions. "If I had it to do all over again, I would never have touched it," Gonzalez says.

Things got violent at the bar in 1979 and after. Knives flashed. In a dispute over a woman, a man's face was slit down the middle with a broken bottle. In those days, Gonzalez recalls, police were called in almost nightly.

Another strain on Gonzalez was his second bar, Rick's Havana Club, an unprofitable enterprise that drained his resources. He sold it in 1980.

Then, on Jan. 17, 1981, a guest in one of the building's hotel rooms left a heated hot plate on top of a stack of newspapers. The resulting fire started a flood that caused considerable damage. Gonzalez was ready to get out of the business.

"This neighborhood here was going through some real problems back in '79, '80 and '81," Gonzalez says. "So when the fire happened, I thought, 'This is it.'"

The bar was temporarily closed and put up for sale. But no one bought it, and Gonzalez stayed on. After the reopening, the violent elements did not return; Gonzalez's enthusiasm for his tavern did.

"I love to see the things we can do here at the Cardinal," he says. "I mean, right down to the basic minute detail of serving a martini in the proper fashion, and to know that there is no other bar in this city that can make a martini like we do. To me, that is a source of pride."

After Gonzalez invested $100,000 in remodeling the bar in 1985 and 1986, Wisconsin changed its drinking age to 21, which cost the bar 20% of its business and what Gonzalez felt was its best crowd.

The business is financially secure now, bringing in about $250,000 per year and serving about 1,000 people a week.

Double-edged sword

Foremost on Gonzalez's agenda as alderman is downtown's revitalization. To attract businesses and more people downtown, Gonzalez wants cleaner streets, more housing and the enhancement of Law Park along Lake Monona (through construction of a Frank Lloyd Wright pavilion and the addition of green space).

Common Council President Sue Bauman notes that while other alderpersons have expressed a desire for downtown revitalization, Gonzalez is armed with more than idealism.

"Ricardo, as a successful downtown businessperson, speaks from a framework that can relate to other people engaged in business," says Bauman. "It is easier for a businessperson to relate to another businessperson."

Being Hispanic and openly gay -- reportedly the only such elected official in the country -- has not been a handicap, Gonzalez says. He takes great pride in his Cuban heritage and is used to homophobic remarks.

"Occasionally here at the bar you get somebody who comes in and starts yelling 'faggot' and stuff like that, but I don't pay attention to that because I expect that."

Although Gonzalez has not been held back by his ethnic background and sexual orientation, his role as a tavern owner could be a liability.

"In the minds of a lot of people, a bar is a sleaze spot," says Gonzalez. "And even though that is not necessarily true, anything that happens here will reflect on me now."

Gonzalez views the Cardinal as a double-edged sword: It continues to provide him with a base, but could wound him in the event of a police bust for the presence of minors, or some other embarrassing occurrence. This happened to some extent earlier this year, when Ivan Clontz, proprietor of the Tea Room, was murdered after allegedly snorting cocaine in the Cardinal's men's room with his accused assailant. Gonzalez makes it a rule to throw out drug users, but such problems persist.

"Somewhere along the line," Gonzalez says, "I'm going to have to deal with the bar and either remove myself from it, from the management of it, or get rid of it altogether."

If Gonzalez is outgrowing his bar, will he someday outgrow the Common Council? Though he says seeking higher office is the last thing on his mind, he doesn't deny the ambition.

"I would expect after four or six years as an alderman that I might start itching for a change," Gonzalez says. "But right now, I just want to be the best alderperson I can be."

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