Mr. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (1928-2005), poet, activist and amateur boxer, was one of the national leaders of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Gonzales and his wife, Geraldine Gonzales, created the Denver-based “Crusade for Justice.” During the 1960s, they worked with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America and with SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign, constantly developing linkages among various movements for social justice. The Gonzales family also founded Escuela Tlatelolco, an independent school for Chicano and Native American youth in Denver, which is currently directed by a daughter, Nita Gonzales.
To many people, justice is no more than an abstract concept. For others, it becomes a passionate commitment. And for a very few, it becomes a life-long crusade. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales belongs to that rare third group, and as the leader of the Crusade for Justice, that ignited the Chicano community in Denver and across the nation in the 1960s, his life and legacy embody the essence of that rare dedication.
Gonzales’ long career of fighting for justice began with fighting of a different sort as a young man. He was born in Denver in 1928, the son of migrant sugar beet farmers, and lost his mother at age two. He worked in the sugar beet fields throughout his schooling but still graduated from high school and enrolled in the University of Denver with plans to become an engineer. The financial costs soon became too high and he left college to begin what would become a very successful boxing career. He became an amateur national champion, and was eventually considered one of the best featherweight champions in the world.
By the late 1950s, Gonzales had hung up his gloves and entered a different arena — that of civil rights work. Inspired by stories from his Mexican-born father of the Mexican revolution, Mexican history, and the proud culture from which he came, Gonzales worked as a Democratic party organizer and precinct captain, and by the mid 1960s was appointed to become Denver’s director of the War on Poverty program. He focused much of his energy and attention on youth, ensuring that they understood the traditions of their past and the possibilities of their future.
In 1966, Gonzales wrote his epic poem “I am Joaquin/Yo soy Joaquin,” in which he expressed the tension many Chicanos felt in seeing their once-proud culture “disappear behind the shroud of mediocrity” in the hands of unjust social institutions. In that same year, the Crusade for Justice was born as a means of tearing down that shroud, and as a major catalyst in the launch of the Chicano movement. Gonzales became a central figure in that movement, organizing student walkouts in schools to protest the low expectations set for Chicano students and the lack of cultural appreciation reflected in the curriculum. The Crusade also took to the streets to protest a wide range of injustices, including police brutality and the Vietnam War, and convened national youth conferences to promote a stronger Chicano cultural identity. In 1970, as a result of the second such conference, the Colorado Raza Unida Party was born.
Gonzales’ leadership helped launch efforts around the country, including a successful Chicano student movement on college campuses. But he continued to work for justice on the local level as well, and, with his family, founded an independent Chicano school in Denver — Escuela Tlatelolco — that is still in operation today. His legacy lives on through his children, who currently serve as directors and teachers in the school, as well as through several generations of educators, students, artists, writers, and community organizers who are inspired by his life and work. His passionate dedication to justice still serves as a model of hope for all who are working to make our society more responsive to and respectful of the rich and diverse ethnic heritage of our nation’s people.
Staff Writer, The Veterans of Hope Project
Escuela Tlatelolco Centro de Estudios (Denver, CO)
Escuela Tlatelolco developed from a “freedom school” organized in the summer of 1969 for Chicano and Mexicano youth in Denver. Founded by Corky Gonzales and the Crusade for Justice, the independent K-12 school seeks to liberate the mind, heart, and spirit of students, through the knowledge of their cultural expression, moral courage, and honorable behavior. link
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales branch of the Denver Public Library. In 2015, a new branch of the Denver Public Library was built for the benefit of residents of West Denver and dedicated in honor of Gonzales. Read about the grand opening here. link