Thursday, April 14, 2005

Viva La Raza!

I just found out Denver civil rights activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales died Tuesday. Mr. Gonzales was the son of migrant farm workers and as a young man he had been a Colorado Sports Hall of Fame boxer, a bar owner, and a bail bondsman. He was also a poet and his poem, I Am Joaquin, is considered by some to be the starting point of the Chicano Literary Renaissance of the 1960's.

He was the founder of The Crusade For Justice. Ernesto Vigil, a member of the group, has said, "The Crusade for Justice, for a span of 15 years, was the most powerful and effective organization to fight for the rights of people of Mexican descent in the state of Colorado in this century." He is right.

After growing up in Denver with a politically involved mother in the 1960'-1970's, reading of Mr. Gonzales' death brought back many memories for me. I used to walk past the Crusade For Justice building on the corner of Sixteenth Avenue and Downing Street many times. The building was a community center for Mexican-Americans and had a daycare center, a school, a gym, a library, and a dining room. You could also find legal aid and health and housing information there. I never went in because as a "gringa" I wasn't sure I would be welcome.

Then, as now, any group criticizing "the powers that be" is considered dangerous. On the night of March 17, 1973 the police arrested a man for jaywalking in front of Downing Terrace (The Terrace was an apartment building south of the Crusade headquarters which housed Crusade members) causing a crowd to gathered in protest. Things quickly got out of hand. A gunfight stared between Crusade members and 200 Denver police officers. Then an explosion tore apart Downing Terrace killing one man. The Crusade people said the police had lobbed a grenade into the building while the police said the explosion was caused by the weapons stored there by Crusade members. The next day the Denver papers showed a photo of a young women spray painting words onto one of the remaining walls. The message read, "We are not beaten and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such...what has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed".

What I found interesting about the passing of Mr. Gonzales is the fact that The Denver Post noted it on the editorial page. For awhile now the deaths of many former Denver leaders have gone pretty much unnoticed by the paper. Maybe the Post is finally understanding that old news at some point becomes history.

For a very short history of "Corky" Gonzales and the Crusade For Justice go here.

For a deeper understand of the poem I Am Joaquin go here.

For information on Ernesto Vigil's book, The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government's War on Dissent go here. (There is a photo on the upper right side of this webpage showing Denver police struggling with protesters. The man grappling with the police officer on the far right is Corky Gonzales.)

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