It’s not often that a public agency names a site in honor of a controversial, fiery Chicano activist who challenged the status quo, led protests and was known as “the fist.”
But that’s what the Denver Public Library system did in 2015, naming its west Denver branch library for Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales.
Gonzales beat the odds to become a champion boxer, inspirational poet and leader for Chicano rights throughout the Southwest and for civil rights across the country. For a short time, he was also a University of Denver undergraduate student.
He was born June 18, 1928, in Denver General Hospital, the youngest of eight children.
His mother died two years later. His father reared the children in poverty on Denver’s east side.
Corky helped the family in sugar beet fields in spring and summer, cutting into his attendance at Gilpin and Whittier elementary schools, Lake and Baker middle schools, and West and Manual high schools. Nonetheless, he graduated from Manual High at age 16 in 1944, then headed to DU to pursue an engineering degree. He withdrew when financial concerns made continued study impossible.
Then he “punched his way out of poverty,” notes coloradoencyclopedia.org. He started boxing in 1944 as a 125-pound featherweight, winning key tournaments at the Epworth Boxing Club, where he trained. He racked up more victories and turned pro at age 19.
Gonzales fought 75 bouts and became the World Boxing Conference Champion, achieving a record of 65-9-1. He was ranked the world’s third-best featherweight from 1947 till he retired in 1952.
But his real fight hadn’t yet begun.
First, he opened Denver’s original sports bar, Corky’s Corner, at Walnut Street and 38th Avenue. He later sold it and started Corky’s Bail Bonds.
Work was essential. Like his father, Gonzales and wife Geraldine (Romero) Gonzales would raise eight children.
During the ’60s, he ran for the City Council, state House, state Senate and Denver mayor but lost his bids for public office.
But the first Mexican American district captain for Denver’s Democratic Party did lead John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign in Colorado. Mayor Tom Currigan appointed him director of the local Neighborhood Youth Corps in 1965, and he was made state chairman of the federal War on Poverty.
Currigan fired him in 1966, though, after Gonzales organized a protest outside the Rocky Mountain News for publishing racist statements.
The mayor knew not what he wrought. That year, Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice, a group focused on Chicano nationalism and social change, which quickly gained traction. And he parted ways with the Democratic Party, saying it didn’t do enough for the downtrodden.
Then, in 1967, Gonzales penned the epic poem “Yo Soy Joaquin” (I Am Joaquin), a vivid spark in the heated battle for Chicano rights.
“Here, finally, was our collective song … and it arrived like thunder crashing down from the heavens,” said Juan Felipe Herrera, former poet laureate of California, in an interview with REMEXCLA.
“Every little barrio newspaper from Albuquerque to Berkeley published it. People slapped mimeographed copies up on walls and telephone poles.”
Gonzales marched with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America. He led the Chicano contingent from the Southwest to join in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., in 1968. And he participated in protests and marches against the Vietnam War.
He was known as “the fist” of the Chicano movement, a label he did not deny. “I’m an agitator and a troublemaker—that’s my reputation, and that’s what I’m going to be.” The FBI kept that quote in its files.
When Gonzales convened the National Youth and Liberation Conference in Denver in 1969, it drew about 1,500 Mexican American youths from throughout the U.S.
Also that year, he organized a student walkout at West High, which wouldn’t fire a teacher for routinely using racist language in class. The three-day protest erupted into violence when police with riot gear reportedly attacked students and other protesters. Gonzales and two dozen others were jailed.
Gonzales also started the bilingual Escuela Tlatelolco, which for 46 years imbued Mexican American youths in north Denver with intellectual development, pride in their cultural heritage, love of the arts and the importance of spurring social change. The school closed in 2016.
He helped to create the Ballet Chicano de Atlan and El Teatro Pachuco. And in 1988, Gonzales became the first Chicano athlete inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
His health deteriorating, he was in a hospital bed in 2005 but discharged himself, reportedly saying: “I’m indigenous. I’m going to die at home among my family.”
And so he did, at age 76, on April 12, 2005. Five days later, hundreds of people marched in Denver, celebrating his legacy, leadership of the Chicano movement and fight for social justice.
Photos courtesy of Denver Public Library Special Collections, WH1971.