Gonzalez makes Cuban good eats

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He heard it in high school. He hears it now in college. But Ohio State wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez isn't any more accepting of it.

The scene usually goes like this: Gonzalez is walking down the street or eating dinner in a restaurant or roaming through a sporting goods store, when somebody he's walking with, somebody who has no clue he's half Cuban, makes a remark about Hispanics.

The comment is usually a stereotype about appearance or intelligence. As Gonzalez's fair-skinned face transforms to Buckeye scarlet, he will turn to the offender and tell them he's Cuban.

And watch their jaw drop.

"I guess I look more white than Hispanic, so people automatically relate to me from that perspective and don't even think there's another side," Gonzalez said. "It's unfortunate that in the society we live in, stereotypes are based on how you look and not necessarily who you are.

"This has always been a part of me and always will be. It's something I want everyone to know. And something I never want to take for granted."

On the field, Gonzalez is an emerging offensive weapon for No. 1 Ohio State. He has caught 27 passes for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns, including a pair of touchdowns in Ohio State's nationally televised Big Ten showdown against Iowa last month. He has thrived as a compliment to Ted Ginn Jr., even though, as Gonzalez puts it, "I really don't think I'm that good."

Off the field, there's something more, something that only the people close to Gonzalez know much about. An Ohio State junior, Gonzalez is the son of a Cuban immigrant and the grandson of a man who, Gonzalez said, went to school with Fidel Castro and helped overthrow Fulgencio Batista.

Gonzalez grew up in suburban Cleveland immersed in Cuban culture. He referred to his grandmother as "Wella" and his grandfather as "Papi." When relatives came over, Spanish was the language of the house. After his grandfather filled a photo album with Cuban baseball cards, Gonzalez chose countryman Jose Canseco as his favorite professional athlete.

"Even when the ball bounced off his head, I loved the guy," Gonzalez said. "And that was a direct result of my grandfather and what Cuba and baseball meant to him."

Gonzalez's grandfather moved from Spain to Cuba in the 1930s, Gonzalez said, and attended the same school as Castro and eventually became a university professor. As a professor, he taught the wife of Raul Castro, Fidel's brother who now is acting president of Cuba. Gonzalez said his grandfather was later part of a group that stormed the presidential palace and helped overthrow Batista, as highlighted in the 2005 Andy Garcia film, "The Lost City."

"I'm sitting there watching that movie and my father tells me, 'That's the one that Papi was involved in. That's Papi's group,'" Gonzalez said. "It's surreal."

Shortly after Castro took over in 1959, Gonzalez's grandparents, like so many other Cubans, fled to the U.S. They stayed in Miami before eventually moving to Cincinnati, where Anthony's parents met. From there, they settled in suburban Cleveland and held fast to their Cuban roots.

"It's something that just sort of happened," said Jenna Gonzalez, Anthony's mother. "A lot of the traditions we kept because my husband's parents lived close by, we visited them often and they were just different. They had very heavy accents, broken English. A lot of our relatives didn't speak English at all. We had different food, different music, we celebrated holidays differently. It's just the way things were for our family."

Though Jenna Gonzalez was of German descent, she loved Cuban food and learned from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law how to cook the meals for her family. Little Tony, as the family called him, would sit in the kitchen and watch. Today, Anthony, the name his grandmother requested he use since, she said, "there's already a Tony Gonzalez in football," uses a Cuban cookbook to recreate some of those same dishes in his college apartment.

"If somebody said, 'You're on death row, what's the last meal you want to eat?'" Gonzalez said, "that'd be easy. Something Cuban that my mom would cook. It's just the taste. I can't describe what it is. It just tastes better to me."

Gonzalez said he keeps a close eye on relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and his family is hopeful that the Castro regime ends soon so his grandmother can visit her homeland before she dies. He also plans to move to a Spanish-speaking country eventually so he can learn the language.

It's all part of balancing life as a starting receiver for the No. 1 team in the country and a proud Cuban-American.

"People look at me on the street or on television and they don't see a Hispanic. They don't see a Cuban," Gonzalez said. "But I want people to know this side of my life. I don't want what my grandparents went through to go away. I want that always to be a part of me. And I want people to learn -- looks can be deceiving."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.