Ozzie González: Staging a race

The Portland actor, architect, and government veteran steps up to a bigger stage as a serious candidate for the city's mayoral seat

The relationship between politics and theater dates back at least to the ancient Egyptians and probably further, and has rarely been more apparent than in America today. Certainly the current presidential regime has more than its share of theatricality, though it is doubtful that even its staunchest supporters would call it “art.” Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that some practitioners of the artistic disciplines might decide to take the skills and the talent used in making art into the field of public governance. There is even a certain logic to it. 

But for Osvaldo “Ozzie” González, an actor who has starred in some of Portland’s most ambitious productions over the past several years (Milagro’s Oedipus El Rey and American Night: The Ballad of Juan José and last year’s Antony and Cleopatra at Salt and Sage, to name just a few), the transition from theater and art to politics was not so much a natural extension of his career as it seemed a necessary one. It was time, he felt, to get things right. To that end, he finds himself in the midst of the race to be mayor of Portland.  

González, as pictured on his campaign web site.

Tall, handsome, bright, charismatic, in a lot of ways González would seem to be straight out of central casting. He comes across as a renaissance man who defies easy categorization or pigeon-holing. “I am a Latino, I am a male, and above all of that I consider myself a human being,” he says. “I have all these other labels you can layer in; I’m a first generation immigrant, I’m an architecture professional, I am trained in environmental science.” And he has experience in public service: He has written policy for Tri-Met, and has been vice chair for the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC).

González is part of a very crowded field. The ballot includes 18 candidates vying to replace Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is running for re-election and is considered so far the front-runner. As of April 27 Wheeler had raised $231,000 this year and last for his re-election campaign, according to a report in The Oregonian/Oregon Live. Challenger Sarah Iannarone, who also ran in the 2016 election and placed third in the primary, had raised $291,000; Gonzalez, with $92,000 reported, was among the leading fund-raisers. Bruce Broussard, who placed fourth in the 2016 mayoral primary, is also among this year’s candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of votes in the primary election, the top two finishers will compete in November’s general election.

It is perhaps his breadth of experience in city governance that makes Gonzalez reluctant to access the more presentational aspects of theater in his campaign: “I wish politics was more about governing and less about campaigning,” he says. When we talked, the pressure of the campaign was building. “Things are intense and getting crazier. The pace is really starting to roll like the toilet paper towards the end, faster and faster.” This can be frustrating, even for someone like Gonzáles who holds a generally positive outlook. “The campaigning world is really about who can leverage those short sixty-second moments to garner support enough to get ahead of the competition,” he says. “It leads to a politics of ‘Well, this is my base and that is your base and this is my position and that is your position and when I’m in, I’m going to bring those positions with me and your positions are going to have to wait.’” 

Which is why González chose to run for mayor now. “I got so frustrated not feeling represented in this city and watching government really fall into sandbox politics. I thought we deserve better.”

González, 39, was born in Los Angeles, relocated to the Pacific Northwest in 1995, and moved to Portland in 2008 because of what it had to offer a family. “I came to Portland to raise my kids because I didn’t want them to have asthma like I did when I was a kid and experience that hard concrete jungle,” he says. “This was a city that was a much better place to grow up in.”

González, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, grew up in a very different environment. “I was raised in a working class family that moved to this country not speaking the language, looking for new opportunities,” he says. “I was the first one in the family to speak English, knowing that my parents could only get me so far. They didn’t even really understand report cards at first when I was going through school. It was really this uncharted place of, ‘I’ve gotta figure out how to make something out of this.’ Resourcefulness has always been a key to my life and my upbringing. I made my first dollar and I bought my first bicycle with money I made recycling cans and bottles out of trash cans. Any time I played in the park, on my way home from school, I’d go behind any apartment building or I’d cross along the route that had trash cans and I’d always find something; I’d always come home with a bag full of something. By the time I got to high school that had shown me that there was all this value in what other people considered waste.”

It was around that time that González discovered the power of art. “It was on a dare my sophomore year because the high school drama teacher was smoking hot and my very immature friend was saying, ‘Let’s go check out the auditions that are happening’. Lo and behold I got on the cast list and ended up playing Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, my very first production, and it changed my life. I ended up doing theater throughout high school.” 

González continued to pursue theater, focusing on it for a while in college before environmental science took over. “Theater became my release,” he says. “I continued to do it until I got married, had children, started to pursue architecture. I put it down for ten years. In 2008 I picked it up again here in Portland, Oregon, once my children were a little bit older and life was a little more stable. I started doing it off and on. I was always fortunate to have collaborations with people who were wanting to work with me and we would find a good project to collaborate on. Theater would naturally find me.”

Gonzalez (left), with fellow actors Shelley B. Shelley and Joe Gibson, starred in the title role as the immigrant hero in Milagro Theatre’s Spring 2015 production of Richard Montoya’s play “American Night: The Ballad of Juan José.” Photo: Russell J Young

How might his theater background play a role in his political career? Actors learn to be adept at rhetoric, commitment to text, projection – not just of their voice but of their persona. Any number of talents and skills required of an actor are also useful in public office, and González is proficient at all of them. However, he is less concerned with his own art manifesting in his role as politician. He has in mind an even larger role in mind for the arts: He sees them informing and even shaping the future of Portland. 

“We need to stop seeing art as a ‘nice to have’ distraction from the real problems like homelessness and affordable housing, and start seeing it as an essential tool in our arsenal of community engagement and community awareness, so that we can start utilizing our artists and our arts community in a deliberate and intentional way,” he says. 

González sees “opportunities where the city can clearly articulate some clear problem statements” that can be presented in turn to the arts community “so that the arts community can say, ‘This is how I would approach that problem statement with my medium of art.’ They would know going in that there was money for that specifically and there are some parameters that they are looking for. There are some deliverables. Now it’s a relationship of activating our artists to actually become part of what the city is trying to accomplish.”

González is talking not just about theater but about all of the arts. “There is no better tool, in my opinion, than art to cultivate the sense of empathy,” he says. “First of all, because it opens you outside of yourself. It holds a mirror to you. It holds a mirror to your society. It puts a mirror to societies of the past. It gives us a frame of cultural reference. Storytelling is the original vehicle for disseminating culture. We still depend on that to this day.”

Further, Gonzalez sees art as a means of making conversations about public policy more palatable, streamlined, and effective. “If I wanted to really get out there and get into a community process to look at what we’re going to do about, say, homelessness – instead of sending out flyers and putting out emails about, you know, 5 o’clock at the community center you can come and sign up at the front door and have your two minutes on the microphone and there are going to be people at the other end of the room sitting at the table listening and then it’ll all be over and you might see a report, you might never get a response to the question you asked in your two minutes – that’s very dissatisfying, that’s not community engagement.”

González has a very different idea of how such a process might go. “What if we commissioned some work about homelessness that is centered around stories of human beings that are experiencing it,” he asks, “or might have come through it, so that we can start understanding some human stories here that are representative of a broader set of issues. And we bring that poetry reading, or that short film, or that gallery of photography and we bring communities to it. We curate as a city. We work with the artist to curate the work, we have it out on exhibit throughout the community, and then we sit down and we have a conversation or we engage them in a feedback mechanism like a survey or a video testimonial to capture their reactions so that we can start deepening our relationships and our conversations. But art becomes the vehicle that softens us to understand that here, this is the context, this is the way to get you some information. Now let’s get some information from you. We couldn’t do it in any better way that I can think of.”

According to González’s vision, a given community’s relationship to the art it produces is a profound one. And in the recovery period that (hopefully) is coming after COVID-19 that relationship is going to need to be something that Portland relies on not simply as entertainment but also as a means of redefining our civic character in a post-coronavirus age. 

“Beauty is something that comes from intentionality and having a clear thought,” says González. “We owe our identity to art. So much of the legacy of Portland is built on the creative, unafraid, unabashed willingness to find the edge, define the edge and live on the edge. I think we owe our identity to that in a big way.” 

González (right) and Allison Andersen, with director Asae Dean in background, rehearsing for Dean’s double-bill productions of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” and “Antony and Cleopatra” in 2019. Photo: Heath Hyun Houghton

González believes this intentional defining of our city’s identity is essential. “At a time when our societies and our communities from around the world have mixed more than ever before, at this time that our ideas are more easily connected through digital means, we’re having to quickly get up to speed on what our identity is — as a Portlander vs. someone from anywhere else. There’s a lot of fear around how the future might be changing. What’s going to happen to Portland? There’s a culture of, ‘Portland’s dying.’ Well, who’s killing it? Is it the Californians? Is it the midwesterners that are moving here? Is it our own inability to hang on to what makes Portland special or to communicate it through story to those that come to this city? What is it that’s not keeping that which we consider Portland alive? That is what artists can do. That is what murals, images, film, poetry, music, story can do so much faster, so much more effectively than any sort of government policy. This is about elevating civic pride.” 

Another necessary function of art that Gonzalez sees in these days of crisis is that of chronicler of the moment. Simply put, someone will have to tell the story of what happened here, of what pitfalls were overcome, of what heroes rose to the challenge. Who else is more equipped to shoulder that burden than the artist? “There is a need to capture this moment,” González says. “A lot of important things are happening right now. Not just to humans but to plants and animals. There is power to capturing that right now. There’s an obligation to the bigger storyline of people. Even if it’s helping elevate the stories of a few heroes, a few bright sparks of innovation here in our city, we can multiply the effect of those stories. There are many people out there doing the work that is amazing that aren’t taking the time to tweet about it or post about it; those are the things that our storytellers can do that our heroes aren’t necessarily suited to do for themselves. These are opportunities to help elevate our sense of pride and identity and inspire what we need to be doing more of, which is working together, crossing party lines, crossing racial lines and doing the hard work of getting stuff done.” 

It’s heady stuff: González ascribes to art a potent, essential place not just in the city’s character but also in its political mechanics. His vision delineates an artistic intention specifically concerned with Portland itself. Further, he feels there are some things that, really, only art can do. 

However González’ campaign works out, it’s difficult not to wonder at a time when governmental support of art at any level is being severely questioned: Where would the world be during the pandemic without it? Can you imagine being quarantined and not having television, movies, books, or music to fall back on? Art might be the only thing that makes quarantine even possible on a citywide or nationwide scale. Yet, the very accessibility of such art forms somehow obscures their indispensability. If anything, the current crisis underscores the essentialness of art more than ever. In due time, another crisis will come along. And in that time, all of the other arts that we think are expendable will prove, once again, that they are anything but. 

And of course, art is essential to everyone on a personal level. For González it is no different. If things go as planned, acting onstage is not in the cards for him for the next however many years. He has other means, though. “I will say to this day that I rely on music as a vehicle to express and to relieve myself. I still see art as a healing thing for me. My wife and I are both avid dancers. We consider it our therapy, as part of our health plan. If you’re going to fight the good fight to make change in this world, you have to be able to charge your battery. Your soul battery has to be filled and you have to live a life that you feel is worth fighting to sustain. Filling my battery is what I do through art and through dance and through music. It’s just part of who I am.” 

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.