CBS News reporter, Charles Gomez earned an Emmy and an Edward R. Murrow award, but growing up gay as the son of immigrants always made him feel like he was an outsider. Fired from CBS for missing an important military maneuver and being discriminated against because of his HIV status also taught Gomez how to be a survivor. The principal lesson of Charles Gomez’s beautiful and moving new memoir Cuban Son Rising is that no matter how many times we fall, we can rise again. We can bounce back stronger. But it isn’t always easy.
After the CBS debacle, Gomez immediately started calling up agents and eventually landed a local television reporter job in the number one market. When Gomez was pulled off a trip to Cuba by a producer, because she worried he could become sick with AIDS, he started a new chapter: writing plays, including Bang Bang Blues and Adios, Tropicana which were the US entries in Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre Festival Latino.
I spoke to Charles Gomez via zoom about riding the roller-coaster of life’s experiences, and I started by asking him how he came to write Cuban Son Rising.
CG: I survived HIV/AIDS because I held on to hope instead of fear. I “hoped” the new anti-retrovirals would keep me alive. I “hoped” my parents would accept me for being gay and having AIDS (they did). And I “hoped” I would have a productive life after retiring from TV news. (I did).
When I almost died from a heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass surgery (after taking steroids and showing off to friends as a ” bodybuilder”) I could have just sat at home, staring at the telly. Instead a week after my hospital stint, I traveled with friends to Fire Island waving my arms in the air at the “tea dance” to Donna Summer. I could still help others. I turned all the time I used to spend on narcissistic pursuits into volunteering to help the homeless. I survived because I changed my priorities, I changed my outlook on life. I didn’t stick to old habits. I was no longer trying to be better than I was.
Change is one of the most important lessons of survival. It’s an occasion to rise to new challenges and tap once again into our greatest sources of strength—our spiritual reservoir.
After my heart attack , I dedicated myself to writing my book, sitting at a typewriter for hours at a time, day in and day out. Finally I achieved my dream: “Cuban Son Rising” was published. While I was facing a myriad of health challenges, I didn’t panic. I stayed calm and reasonable. To be a survivor you must stay rational—even in the most hopeless of situations.
RB: What do you believe has been the secret to your survival?
CG: When I came down with AIDS, I hid it as best I could—fearful it could lead to my being fired. I lived with stigma and shame. I was in the closet and I paid the price—regret and self-loathing.
But one critical lesson of survival is to never allow oneself to become e a victim. During the AIDS crisis, I felt that to survive, I couldn’t allow myself get stuck in the quicksand of pity and shame. I had to be optimistic, not resigned to my fate. In order to survive it’s important to believe that, against all odds, a better day is coming. “Tenga Fe,” my mother would always say. Have faith. That faith has always been the fuel to keep me going. It makes me want to live. It’s my compass for survival. As Nelson Mandela said: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
RB: How did you feel about being fired by CBS
CG: It was in Honduras when I missed U.S. troops arriving at the Honduran airport to engage in Operation Big Pine. The manouevres of Operation Big Pine were intended to demonstrate the ability of U.S. military forces to operate in the region and persuade the Nicaraguan Sandinista Government to desist from provoking insurrection in the area. I was blamed by CBS News for being “scooped” by the other networks. I was let go. And the dismissal plunged me into depression.
For the first time I blamed my homosexuality and perceived weakness for my failings. I also believed it meant my father was right—I was the weak son who couldn’t get anything right. But I turned things around. I got an agent and began looking for jobs and finally got one for WWOR-TV in New York City. I was strong enough to overcome the obstacles that led to being fired from CBS News.
RB: Having seen your hard veneer as a news reporter, I was so moved by your vulnerability in your book.
CG: I’m vulnerable because I decided that if I was going to write a memoir I had to be brutally honest and reveal the most intimate details of my life. There was no other way. But while I was living through these events—I was not always truthful even to myself. I beat myself up for what I believed to be faults in my personality. I wasn’t a proud gay man. I cowered in the closet.
It certainly resonates for me personally that vulnerability is not weakness. But you have to realize that such an adage did not apply in a Cuban household, Vulnerability was seen weakness. In the Cuban macho world of my father being vulnerable made you less than a man. Not doing “manly” things was suspect, and being afraid to engage in certain manly pursuits was not considered to be a strength—inner or otherwise. I think throughout my life I tried to show I wasn’t weak—despite the fact that I was gay, and not as macho as the other boys. This was behind my need to show bravery at all costs—especially during my days as a war correspondent in Central America. I was extremely sensitive to all that was going around me, the plight of the oppressed villagers, the mothers wailing for their sons and daughters who had been killed by government troops.
RB: But that didn’t stop you from rushing into gunfire
I wanted to show I was strong. I wanted to show I was not afraid. The camera and microphone were my shield. Without them I sometimes felt I would revert to that gay 11-year old who couldn’t screw the garden hose to the faucet. Time and again I tried to dispel my father’s notion that I was the weak son. When ABC Newsman Bill Stewart was executed on camera by government troop, and all network personnel pulled out of Nicaragua, I was the only newsman who stayed. Publicly I stated that it was important to stay behind to report the the news, but privately I wanted to show everyone I could handle it. I wanted to be perceived as “strong.”
RB: Cuban Son Rising, is perhaps ultimately the story of a man still trying to win the acceptance of his father.
I believe successes and failures are all about “us”—what we did to cause them, what we did to overcome them. I was success-driven from a very young age and I believe that it was a way of winning my father’s love and acceptance. I became so successful in school that I gained his begrudging respect. But throughout my life I always believed he loved my athletic brother more. And I always attempted to overcompensate for being gay, by being “better” than others in my profession. I was the first Cuban-American reporter hired by CBS News. I was the first Hispanic to be named Latin American Correspondent for CBS News. I was one of the youngest reporters hired by the networks. But decades later I was still attempting to earn my father’s acceptance.
Cuban Son Rising is published by Koehler Books