by Marc Rome / May 2005
Urban civil rights and Chicano cultural movement leader Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez died from complications of congestive heart failure at the age of 76 on April 12, 2005, at his home in Denver.
Many know Gonzalez best as the author of the 1965 epic poem about the Mexican and Chicano struggle, “I am Joaquin / Yo soy Joaquin.” In 1966, he founded Denver’s Crusade for Justice (CFJ), a Chicano nationalist organization whose political lessons point the way forward for the struggle for justice and freedom today.
Gonzalez’ fighting spirit was nurtured at an early age by his father, who related personal stories of serving in Pancho Villa’s army during the 1910 Mexican Revolution. In 1947 he began a successful boxing career.
After hanging up his gloves in 1957, Gonzalez continued work in the political arena that he had begun in the late 1940s. A quick rise within Denver Democratic Party campaigns led to the top spot in the national party’s 1960 “Viva Kennedy” campaign.
While administrator of the Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC), a jobs program for Denver youth, the Rocky Mountain News attacked him for saying that lower-income Chicano youth should have first priority for jobs. The next day, Gonzalez called for a boycott and picketed the paper. That crossed the line of acceptable behavior within mainstream politics, and Mayor Currigan fired Gonzalez from his NYC post in April 1966.
Neither a 1200-person rally outside Denver’s Civic Center protesting Gonzalez’ firing nor a year-long debate with Democratic city officials had the effect Gonzalez was expecting—to pull the Democrats to the left so that they would truly represent the interests of Denver’s poor and oppressed. His ties to the Democrats and twin-party politics were not completely severed until about 1967, though his actions the year before signaled that break.
One indication of his changed political outlook took place on Aug. 6, 1966, at a Vietnam antiwar rally in Denver. According to the records of the FBI, which had begun to keep tabs on Gonzalez, he railed against “ruthless financial lords of Wall Street,” who, Gonzalez said, “are the only real recipients of the tremendous profits to be made by the conduct of wanton, ruthless war.”
Crusade for Justice was an expression of Chicano self-determination and radical nationalism during the relatively favorable climate for social and political militancy of the late 1960s. It was inspired by other struggles of the era, including the antiwar movement and the emergence of the Black Panther Party. Though primarily focused on the Chicano community in Denver, it supported struggles of Chicanos, Latinos, and Puerto Ricans throughout the country and internationally.
CFJ championed the struggle of Chicanos who were demanding control of land within the southwestern United States, an area historically a part of Mexico. Thus, they gave backing to Reies Lopez Tijerina’s 1966-67 Land Grant Movement in New Mexico, which claimed that the U.S. government had broken the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in denying property to the Mexican inhabitants of the region.
In Denver, CFJ played a leading role in the early 1970s in organizing Chicano community members to take control of two parks that had become popular centers for cultural and political events. CFJ, Brown Berets, and Black Berets worked together to push back police repression in the parks.
When local Chicano high school students demanded an end to faculty racism and genuine teaching of Mexican history, CFJ helped them mobilize thousands for a “blowout” in March 1969. The event involved more than 20 schools, community members, various Chicano groups from local universities, and other groups. The effect of the “blowout” awakened the consciousness of Chicano youth, and suddenly CFJ’s ranks filled with this new
generation of activists.
With the momentum of the “blowout,” the first ever Chicano Youth Liberation Conference the same month was a major success, with over 1500 Chicano, Latino, Puerto Rican and even Black youths attending. The following year another youth conference adopted a proposal to launch La Raza Unida Party—an independent Chicano political party—as a national party.
Though a LRUP National Convention was held in 1972, national unification was never achieved among relatively isolated chapters throughout California, Colorado, and Texas.
Should a mass, independent national Chicano political party become a reality in the future, the dynamics would dramatically shake twin-party capitalist politics and give a strong political voice to Chicanos as both an oppressed nationality and a large component of the working class.
“The truth is that both parties, the Elite Republicans and the party of promises, the Democrats, … are ruled and controlled by money and racism,” said Gonzalez in 1970. “The two-party system is one animal with two heads eating out of the same trough. … Look around at our politicos today and ask them … if they have done away with unemployment, racism, discrimination, irrelevant education, police brutality, political corruption, organized crime, do-nothing service agencies, bad housing, high interest rates, and WAR.”
A memorial for Gonzalez took place on April 17, with 2000 friends, family, and activists marching from Escuela Tlatelolco (an all-Chicano school started by CFJ in the early 1970s) to downtown Denver.