Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales (1928–2005) was a prominent figure in the Chicano Movement in Denver in the 1960s and 1970s. He also had ties to the greater Civil Rights Movement. In addition to his activist work, Gonzales had multifaceted careers in boxing, politics, and poetry, and left a lasting legacy in the Centennial State.
Gonzales was born on June 18, 1928, at Denver General Hospital, to Federico Gonzales and Indalesia Lucero. Gonzales’s mother was from Colorado, while his father was from Chihuahua, Mexico. His mother died when he was two and he was raised by his father, who never remarried. Corky Gonzales was the youngest of four brothers, three half-sisters, and a half-brother. He and his siblings—Nattie, Beatrice, Tomas, Esperanza, Federico, Severino, and Arturo—grew up on the east side of Denver during the Great Depression.
As a child, Gonzales helped his father, a migrant field worker, in the sugar beet fields during spring and summer. The migration to and from Denver affected Gonzales’s attendance at Gilpin and Whittier Elementary Schools, Lake and Baker Middle Schools, and West High and Manual High Schools. Despite these challenges, he graduated high school with a B average at the age of sixteen in 1944.
Gonzales was a precocious youngster whose uncle told him he was “always popping, off like a cork,” so he received the nickname Corky. After graduating high school, Gonzales briefly attended the University of Denver. He was interested in studying engineering, but after his first quarter he was forced to withdraw because of the prohibitive cost.
Gonzales punched his way out of poverty as an amateur and professional boxer. Beginning in 1944 as a 125-pound featherweight, he trained with the Epworth Boxing Club in Denver. There he won the Diamond and Golden Gloves Tournaments. Gonzales also won the Colorado Regional Amateur Flyweight and the National Amateur Athletic Union Bantamweight Championships in 1946 and 1947.
At nineteen, Gonzales turned pro and fought seventy-five times in his career. He was the World Boxing Conference Champion, retiring with a record of 65-9-1. The National Boxing Association and Ring Magazine ranked him as the third-best featherweight in the world from 1947 until he retired in 1952. In 1988 Corky Gonzales became the first Chicano athlete inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
Business, Politics, and Poetry
In 1949 Gonzales married Geraldine Romero from Brighton. They had eight children: Nita, Charlotte, Gina, Gail, Cindy, Rudy, Joaquín, and Valerie. In 1953 he opened a neighborhood tavern, “Corky’s Corner,” at Walnut Street and 38th Avenue. It was considered Denver’s first sports bar. He later sold Corky’s Corner and began another business, Corky’s Bail Bonds. In 1963 he became a general agent for the Summit Fidelity and Surety Company of Colorado.
While working as a bondsman, Gonzales became the first Mexican American district captain for the Denver Democratic Party in the late 1950s. During the 1960 presidential election, he was the Colorado coordinator of the Viva Kennedy campaign to elect John F. Kennedy. Because of his work, his district polled the highest in Denver. In 1965 the mayor of Denver appointed him as director of the local Neighborhood Youth Corps. He also served as the Colorado state chairman for the War on Poverty program.
Gonzales ran for Denver City Council in 1955, representing the community of Five Points. He ran on the platform of improving social and community problems, but did not win the election. He also ran unsuccessful campaigns for the Colorado legislature in 1960 and for Colorado State Senator in 1964. His last attempt to attain public office came in 1967, when he was defeated in the Denver mayoral race. Finally, during the mid-1960s, Gonzales broke with the Democratic Party and mainstream politics. He had become disenchanted with the party, charging it with not doing enough for the Chicano community despite wanting its vote. After he was fired from his position with the Youth Corps, Gonzales also resigned from his place in the War on Poverty program.
Throughout his life, Gonzales channeled his activism and dissent through poetry and the printed word. In 1967 he published the epic poem Yo Soy Joaquín (I am Joaquin). The poem tells the story of Joaquin, who travels through history, beginning as an Aztec, then as a Mexican, and finally as a Chicano in the United States. Gonzales was one of “la generación de Aztlán.” He was one of the activist poets who invoked Aztec myth to promote self-determination among Mexican Americans.
Civil Rights Leader, 1966–1970
In 1966 Corky Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice, a grassroots cultural center and civil rights organization that also hosted conferences for youth across the country. In 1969 the Crusade for Justice summer freedom school became Escuela Tlatelolco, a bilingual school fostering empowerment and cultural pride. At the First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference hosted by Escuela Tlatelolco, Gonzales’s text the “Spiritual Plan of Aztlán” (El Plan de Aztlán) was produced and adopted as the manifesto of the Chicano Movement. This document presented a clear ideology of Chicano self-determination and cultural liberation, encouraging Chicanos to better their communities by “controlling and developing [their] own talents, sweat, and resources” and by embracing “values which ignore materialism and embrace humanism.”
During the 1960s, Corky Gonzales worked and marched with César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Gonzales led the Southwestern Contingent of the Poor People’s Campaign. This campaign addressed economic justice, and organized the Poor People’s March in Washington, DC. Joining a group of American Indians led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, Gonzales helped lead 1,000 Chicano and Native American activists in the march.
In 1969 Gonzales helped organize the student walkout at Denver’s West High School that sought to hold school administrators accountable for not firing a teacher who used racist language in a class discussion. During the three-day walkout, a protest rally became a violent battle between students and police armed with riot equipment, who reportedly attacked students and protesters. Twenty-five people were jailed, including Gonzales and twelve juveniles, and many were injured. Gonzales was later acquitted of all charges.
Death and Legacy
In 1978 Gonzales was involved in a car accident, after which his health declined. He was hospitalized prior to his death, but the ever-independent Gonzales chose to leave, saying, “I’m indigenous. I’m going to die at home among my family.” He died at the age of seventy-six, on April 12, 2005, at his home in Denver. On April 17, hundreds of people in Denver marched to commemorate Gonzales, and celebrated his legacy and impact on the Chicano Movement and the struggle for social justice. His bilingual school, Escuela Tlatelolco, is still operational, and the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales branch of the Denver Public Library opened on West Colfax in early 2015. Corky Gonzales is remembered as a hall-of-fame athlete, as a founder of Chicano literature, as “the fist” of the Chicano Movement, and as a voice against all forms of social injustice.