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Chicano Leader Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales 1929-2005: "He Was the Fist. He Stood For Defiance, Resistance"

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Chicano political and civil rights activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales died Tuesday at his home in Denver, Colorado. He was 76 years old. We speak with his friend, columnist Roberto Rodriguez. [includes rush transcript]

Chicano political and civil rights activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales died this past Tuesday at his home in Denver, Colorado. He was 76 years old.

Gonzales was an iconic leader in the movement for justice and equality for Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and he is credited with raising the nation’s awareness of the plight of urban Chicanos.

In the mid-1960"s he founded an urban civil rights and cultural movement called the Crusade for Justice which advocated Chicano nationalism. During the late sixties and early seventies, he organized walkouts, demonstrations against police brutality and marches against the Vietnam War.

In 1968, Gonzales led a Chicano contingent to the Poor People’s March on Washington D.C and issued a "plan of the Barrio" which demanded better housing, education and restitution of pueblo lands. Gonzales was also an organizer of the Annual Chicano Youth Liberation Conference which sought to create unity among Chicano youth.

Gonzales also advocated for increased political representation for Chicanos. In 1972 he was the keynote speaker at the newly formed La Raza Unida Party national convention in El Paso Texas. The party fielded political candidates to run for office in the state.

But perhaps Corky Gonzales is best known for his poem "I am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin." He wrote the epic poem in 1965 and it is one of the most important literary works to emerge from the Chicano movement.

In the poem Gonzales tells of the historic struggles faced by Mexican Americans in the United States.

  • Roberto Rodriguez, friend of Corky Gonzales. Along with his wife, Patrisia Gonzales, he writes the syndicated Column of the Americas, distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us on the phone right now from Minnesota to talk about the life and legacy of Corky Gonzales, is writer and columnist, Roberto Rodriguez. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Yes. Good morning, Amy and Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about your friend, colleague, Corky Gonzales?

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Yes. Like any mythic hero, it’s kind of hard, initially, because we’re still in the shock and the mourning. I don’t think he is buried until Sunday. So, I mean, keeping that in mind, you know, as I think about Corky, you know, it’s — I guess there’s words that swirl around the "I am Joaquin." You know, I think for a lot of us, we look at it probably as a manifesto, you know, because, I mean, you could also look at it as a poem or something literary, but at the same time it was also a manifesto, but not like political only, but almost a spiritual manifesto, because I think that that poem that Juan mentioned, you know, it talked about how, you know, all — we all used to call each other different names, like Mexicano, Latino, Chicano, all these different names. And everybody would be fighting about it. And I think that poem was an attempt to unify a people. Now, you know, the unity maybe was more an illusion perhaps, but at another level, you know, I think people felt unified and felt good about that poem. It was no longer, you know, in the streets. It was like people called each other "wetbacks" and "mojados" and "ocho." You know, that was derisiveness, and this was the opposite. It was an attempt to say, you know, "We are one people." There’s another thing that I should mention, too, about who he was, because I think civil rights would probably not be sufficient, in terms of a leader. I think he — and I think Juan, of course — would know this firsthand. You know, I think it was the language of liberation. So, when people spoke of movement in those days, you know, that we were talking about movements around the world, you know, liberation movements, and he was critical in principle in that idea of, in this instance, Aztlan, you know, as something to liberate. Through the years, of course, that has become something different, more, of course, civil rights or human rights, but at the time it was like, you know, hey, you know, why are we being chased out of our ancestral homes? That was the language of the time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you talk a little bit about the Crusade for Justice and its impact on Chicano youth and youth all around the country at that time, and then the rise of Raza Unida and Corky’s role in that?

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Sure, I think, you know, the Crusade for Justice, when I was thinking about it, I was saying, you know, I think I had talked earlier about, like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huertas, they represented something very special for us as a people, and we could probably see them as perhaps the heart, you know? He was the fist. That is the Crusade for Justice. It stood for defiance, resistance, and that — so, in other words, rather than get into specificities of the role, the specific role, of the Crusade, I think that in a bigger sense we can look at it like that’s what the Crusade was. That’s what it meant to us as a people, that we were no longer going to, you know, sit or stand or kneel with our heads bowed, and, you know, "si, padron," or "si, senor." I think the Crusade gave us that impetus that, you know, again hey, we’re not going to take it. And I think that’s what I think we can learn or remember the Crusade for. You know, the Crusade evolved later into Escuela Tlatelolco. But the earlier era that you are referring to also is the Raza Unida Party, You know, again, very turbulent era, but again it was also in that context of things — liberatory things, ideas, and I think the Raza Unida Party at that time meant a breaking from the democratic stranglehold of, you know — the Republicans had wanted nothing to do with us, and the Democrats took us for granted. And so, La Raza Unida Party was supposed to be that alternative. Now again, as you well know, you had these intelligence operations that were heavy-duty, you know, fighting, pitting people against each other, etc., etc., and I think it effectively destroyed not just La Raza Unida Party but many movements throughout the world, in this country, in particular. That’s why, again, we can look at his biography and his obituary and see all the accomplishments and controversies and all these things, but in the end, I think he will be seen as a mythic hero, you know, somebody who stood up and, you know, when I say "fist," I mean, in a sense it’s literal. He was a boxer. And I think the idea was like, yes, we can fight back.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What had he been doing in his later years? Clearly, after the high tide of the movement in the 1970s began to ebb, what was he involved in in his later years?

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Well, one thing that is really important to note is that at that time and a little later, also critical work was the relations between the Crusade and the Chicano Movement with the American Indian Movement. That’s something that many peoples don’t know. You know, and you well know, of course, the relations between Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and other peoples. One thing that people didn’t know perhaps is the relation between Chicanos and AIM, which I think at the time the F.B.I. considered that the greatest threat to national security, the whole idea that Chicanos might one day see themselves as being native. One thing — you know, his history has got — it’s too long to detail, except that something that many people should know perhaps, because in the last, I would say, God, 15 years or so, he had a heart attack, and he crashed, and he was never the same. I remember my wife and I, you know, Patrisia, we went to Tlatelolco, presented and we saw him and met him again. He was no longer the same person from an earlier era. And so, what I want to mention is because this generation probably will only remember, you know, a senor, you know, as a great man who, you know, barely was able to move around, so to speak, and not know the impact he had, you know, in the 1950s as a boxer, as a leader in, you know, the 1960s, 1970s. He was an incredible man. In the last 15 years, he was slowed, so to speak, by those injuries. But I mean, so powerful was his effect from that early era, that I mean, he, I think, will live on always as, you know, Cesar Chavez will live on, and you know, the people remain alive, because their ideas will remain alive.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Roberto Rodriguez. What about Corky Gonzalez suing the Rocky Mountain News in February of 1974, a $30 million libel suit, because of what he felt was their inaccurate representation of people in Crusade?

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. Well, I could only characterize that as part of the same era where — and I’m almost hesitating to laugh, because you probably know full well to this day, I mean, that is the principle battle of not simply Chicano movements, but people of color, as well, indigenous movements. Every single day we are mischaracterized. We are censored, you know, and on a good day, you know, we’re misrepresented. And that was part of that era. You know, part of the same era, of course, is the whole struggle with Coors. That was — again, this is another generation, but the struggle with media is, God, it’s really tragic, maybe tragicomic, but it’s never-ending. It’s not limited. That’s why when people look at Corky, you’re not looking at Corky in Denver or Corky in the Crusade, but this is emblematic of the entire nation. I mean, you know, as you’re colleagues of ours, whenever we go anywhere, that’s probably the number one complaint that the media is misrepresenting us. They’re forcing an identity upon us. They’re commercializing us. In his case, of course, you are dealing with other matters and other factors, you know, obviously, all of the intelligence stuff. God, I mean, I don’t know. It’s almost like I’m looking into a mirror into the future. You know, now, we have the government buying media, manufacturing stories. It’s — I don’t know, it’s kind of weird. You know, that media always seems to be the spear, you know, of anti-progressive movements, anti-indigenous, anti-Chicano, Puerto Rican, all of these movements, the media is always there at the forefront. I don’t know what ever happened to the lawsuit, if he won. You may have. I remember Burt Corona in L.A. won a lawsuit. There was always lawsuits everywhere. There would probably be too many, if people really — I don’t know, I think people sometimes get cynical about the media and just give up on it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Roberto Rodriguez, we want to thank you very much for being with us as we remember Corky Gonzales, who died at his home in Denver, Colorado, this week. Thank you.

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