Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, a former boxer whose political activism and outspoken advocacy of Chicano power made him a hero to Mexican American youths in the 1960s, has died. He was 76.
Gonzales, who was diagnosed in late March with renal and coronary distress, died Tuesday evening at his Denver home, his family said.
As unofficial ideologist for the Chicano movement, the dapper, bantam-sized activist led boycotts, student walkouts and demonstrations throughout the Southwest protesting police brutality, inadequate housing, the Vietnam War and what he called the educational neglect of Mexican Americans.
But he may have made his biggest impact as a poet. He was the foremost poet of la generacion de Aztlan, the generation of activists who invoked the mythical Aztec homeland as a symbol of Chicano self-determination and nationalism.
Gonzales' best-known poem, "I Am Joaquin/Yo soy Joaquin," was published in 1967, during a time of urban tumult and youthful idealism. It called on Chicano youths to find strength and pride in their culture and history. It opened with these often-quoted lines:
I am Joaquin
Lost in a world of confusion,
Caught up in a world of a gringo
Confused by the rule,
Scorned by attitudes,
And destroyed by modern
"Here, finally, was our collective song, and it arrived like thunder crashing down from the heavens," said Juan Felipe Herrera, who holds the Tomas Rivera chair in creative writing at UC Riverside. "Every little barrio newspaper from Albuquerque to Berkeley published it. People slapped mimeographed copies up on walls and telephone poles."
For a brief time in the late 1960s, Gonzales attracted national attention for his strident protests against and attacks on "the gringo establishment."
These actions rankled other Mexican American activists who relied on more conciliatory approaches to resolving social issues.
In 1968, Gonzales joined New Mexico's militant land grants fighter Reies Lopez Tejerina to lead a contingent of 1,000 Chicanos and Native Americans in a Poor People's March on Washington.
"Along with others from that era," said Felix Gutierrez, a USC professor of journalism, "Corky gave a vision and voice to those of us who were Mexican Americans and becoming Chicanos: Mexican Americans with a non-Anglo view of who we are and our role in society."
Born in Denver, Gonzales was the youngest of four brothers and three sisters. His mother, Indalesia, died when he was 2. His father, Federico, who emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, never remarried, but kept the family together in a tough east side barrio of the Colorado capital.
Gonzales was a precocious youngster who earned his nickname when an uncle mused that he was "always popping off, like a cork."
Although working in local beet fields left little time for study, Gonzales earned a high school diploma at 16.
He entered the private University of Denver, but left after one quarter because the cost proved prohibitive.
He then literally fought his way out of poverty.
In the ring, he was known for starting fast with sizzling rights driving straight at the heads of his opponents. He won 65 of his 75 fights as a featherweight and was named to the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
He left the ring in 1953 to run a neighborhood tavern, Corky's Corner. Later, he worked as a bail bondsman and Democratic Party organizer.
In 1960, he was coordinator of the Colorado Viva Kennedy campaign and chairman of a regional anti-poverty program.
Frustrated with mainstream politics, he abandoned his Democratic affiliations in the mid-1960s and proclaimed that Chicanos had to fight for their own collective economic, political and social power.
Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice, a grass-roots civil rights organization that hosted "liberation" conferences for youths across the nation; ran its own school in Denver, Escuela Tlatelolco; and gave college scholarships to barrio youths.
Among those was Susanna Rodriguez de Leon, who was awarded $250 when she graduated from high school in 1969.
"I received my scholarship at a dinner held in the Crusade's headquarters in a little church," said DeLeon, a bilingual special education teacher.
"Corky got up and spoke about the importance of student leaders and how proud he was of me," she said. "I'll never forget that night. It set in stone my determination to get a college degree and become a teacher."
In later years, Gonzales was among a handful of Latino leaders who held fast to their ideals but saw their influence wane with changing times.
Since 1988, he had struggled with the long-term effects of a heart attack and an automobile accident. But he remained active in issues related to public education.
"Corky was doing something in a very articulate, unabashed way that few others were doing at that time," said Juan Gomez-Quinones, professor of history at UCLA. "He was reminding the country that there was a Mexican American minority whose needs were being unmet."
He is survived by his wife, Geraldine; six daughters and two sons; 22 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.