Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Was a Legend In the Boxing Ring, and an Activist Hero Outside It

Photo: Denver Public Library

June 3, 2017 marks the one-year anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s death. Rightfully, when sports fans talk about boxers fighting for civil rights, his name is the first that comes to mind, for a variety of reasons. Among them: Ali’s success, weight-class, charisma, and the Civil Rights Movement becoming almost synonymous with African American’s struggle for equality. But various minority groups, across multiple fronts, also fought in these struggles; in fact, Muhammad Ali was not even the only boxer involved. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales –a former boxer by the time of the 1960s Civil Rights era–was an arguably more impactful figure to his own respective movement: the Chicano Movement.

Born on June 18, 1928 in an east-side barrio of Denver, Colorado (“in the slums,” as he put it), Gonzales was raised by a single father after his mother died when he was three years old. As an intelligent child with a penchant for always popping off, like a cork,” Gonzales earned the nickname “Corky” early on. After graduating high school at sixteen—a remarkable feat considering the inferior, segregated education in the barrios of the American Southwest, barrios that prejudiced outsiders often called “spik-towns” and “Little Mexicos,”—Gonzales attended the University of Denver, lasting a semester before realizing he could not afford the tuition.

By that time, Gonzales had been boxing for two years, and with college no longer a choice, he competed in tournaments where he recognized his advantage in skill over the other local fighters. Further, life experiences—even at such an early age—fueled his desire to fight. In an interview with the Chicano newspaper La Cucaracha, Gonzales explained, “I had already recognized the humility of a beating on the streets; of being insulted by redneck farmers where my father had to accept low wages and we lived in shacks.” By comparison, boxing was just another form of everyday survival. “You never find out you’re a fighter. When you’re growing up, you just kinda survive. You learn how to handle yourself.”   

Photo: Denver Post Archive
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Gonzales turned professional in 1947, after an outstanding amateur career that included a national championship. He would go on to credit boxing with taking him out of the barrios of his childhood. And still, despite not having a formal higher education, Gonzales made it a point to read and educate himself during his professional career. His son, Rudolph “Rudy” Gonzales—executive director of Servicios de La Razarecalls his father even reading for inspiration before bouts. “In the dressing room, before the fights, he used to read from Garcia Lorca or he would read the ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ to get inspiration, go into battle,” Rudolph recounts.

At his peak, Gonzales ranked as high as the third-best featherweight in the world. In an era when there were only eight divisional titles—unlike the seventeen weight divisions that now exist, each with several sanctioning bodies awarding a belt—Gonzales was a world-class boxer who never fought for a world title. Gonzales’ son attributes his father not getting a title fight, in part, to the racism of Colorado’s boxing commissioner Eddie Bohn—who in 1977, per the Rocky Mountain News, was “under attack for not sanctioning enough fights involving Hispanics.” So, when promoters proposed a title fight for Gonzales in Denver, Rudolph Gonzales says Eddie Bohn told his father, “no n*ggers or spiks will ever fight for a title in my state.”

Printed “Jim Crow” sign from the Lonestar Restaurant Association, Dallas, Texas. (Photo: Library of Congress)
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Despite not fighting for the top title, Gonzales had a large following in his local Denver community. “He was the Golden Boy of Denver in the Mexican-American community,” his son explains. “He owned the town…he was the number one athletic drawing card in Denver in ’49, ’50, ’51.” Gonzales fought 74 fights in his almost 9-year professional career—sometimes headlining events twice a month.

Understanding he would likely not receive a title fight, Gonzales retired in 1955—aged twenty-seven—with an impressive professional record of 62 wins against 11 losses and 1 draw. Pridefully, he claimed that, unlike other boxers, he never left his brains on the boxing canvas. His boxing prowess eventually made Gonzales the first Chicano inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1988.

Gonzalez himself was representative of the Chicano: a “Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.”

Despite his athletic achievements, Gonzales is best remembered for his impact outside of the ring, becoming not only an activist but a leading figure in the Chicano Movement. Rodolfo Acuña, in Occupied America, described Gonzales as someone who represented the “[v]ato and the barrio youth” in understanding “the loss of identity when an Anglo teacher changes one’s name from Rodolfo to Rudolph, when one is punished for speaking Spanish.” Gonzalez himself was representative of the Chicano: a “Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself,” according to Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar—who, coincidentally, was killed by a law enforcement officer under suspicious circumstances in 1970, during an anti-war Chicano Moratorium.

Formerly used as a disparaging description of lower-class Mexican Americans, the term, under the Chicano Movement, became a political identifier. Created, according to Hunter S. Thompson, “as a necessary identity for the people of Aztlán—neither Mexicans or Americans, but a conquered Indian/Mestizo nation sold out like slaves by its leaders, and treated like indentured servants by its conquerors. Not even their language was definable, much less their identity.”

“No longer will we beg,” the Dallas Morning News quotes Gonzales in a November 4, 1967 edition. “We will demand as a right. Here we issue a declaration of rights for the Southwest, for people who shed blood and sweat to become a part of this poverty area of the Southwest. The leadership of the Mexican-Americans of the Southwest wants to stop talking about false promises and to start talking about new philosophies—things we can feel and touch. The revolution is here…”

The ideology behind this revolution was Chicanismo. In the first National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference—organized by Gonzales in 1969—the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán forged Chicanismo’s goals of cultural nationalism. “With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil,” the document read, “we declare the independence of our mestizo nation. We are a bronze people with a bronze culture. Before the world, before all of North America, before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán.”

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Besides Chicanismo, Aztlán was the other major idea born out of the Chicano Movement. Chicanos considered Aztlán—the mythical homeland of Aztecs in the United States’ Southwest—to be occupied territory and their spiritual homeland. The Southwest, including the area that became Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Nevada and Utah, belonged to Mexico before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo concluded the U.S.-Mexican War. Thus, the core of the Chicano Movement occurred in the Southwest.

At its most militant, its goal was to reclaim this area. In the El Chicano newspaper, Gonzales explained that Aztlán would be a nation where Chicanos would have their own art, government, and security. Answering his critics, Gonzales added, “When someone calls this separatism, I say we are already separate.”

As part of his activism, Gonzales founded the Crusade for Justice, described in his book of selected writings, Message to Aztlán, as “a full-fledged, multi-purpose, Chicano-oriented, activist organization.” The organization provided community services in employment, education, legal defense, civil rights, and political action. He also marched with Cesar Chavez, met with Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., and other African American leaders, spending “hours educating them as to who we are as Chicanos.” Presumably, he also showed these leaders instances where similar discrimination affected both of their people.

“I’m an agitator and a troublemaker–that’s my reputation and that’s what I’m going to be.”

Gonzales became a part of the King-organized Poor People’s March on Washington, DC, where he issued El Plan del Barrio, demanding reforms in housing, education, job development, law enforcement, economic opportunities, agriculture, land, and wealth redistribution. Each of these reforms were deemed necessary since Anglos robbed Chicanos of their land—Aztlán—and drove them to “migrant labor fields and the cities” where they lived in poverty, and in an Anglo colonial system that “castrated [the] people’s culture, consciousness of our heritage, and language.”

With the Vietnam War serving as the backdrop, Ali famously stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.” Gonzales echoed the sentiment in his 1970 Arizona State University speech, stating that for Chicanos, “the war is not in Vietnam. It’s not in Korea. It’s not in Cambodia. It’s right here in these barrios. It’s right here in our community.” Such militant talk aroused the FBI’s attention, and the bureau began tracking Gonzales, like it did with many of the other Civil Rights leaders. In one of their files, the FBI quotes Gonzales as saying, “I’m an agitator and a troublemaker — that’s my reputation and that’s what I’m going to be.” True to his word, Gonzales agitated for Civil Rights while also producing a seminal work of the Chicano Movement, “Yo Soy Joaquin.”

English cover of ‘Yo Soy Joaquin’ by Rodolfo Gonzales. (Photo: Denver Public Library)
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The epic poem speaks of a Chicano’s painful search for self-identity. Joaquin, the narrator, poignantly details feeling “[l]ost in a world of confusion” as someone whose heritage made him “both tyrant and slave.” Joaquin is of the same blood as those who rebelled for independence against Spaniards and who rode with Pancho Villa in the revolution, but he also descends from despots.

Showing his confusion, Joaquin is culturally prideful and yet, part of him, “rejects [his] father and…mother and dissolves into the melting pot to disappear in shame.” Joaquin is a fighter, whether in war–where Mexican Americans, like many other minorities, died in disproportionate numbers–or in the boxing ring–where he fought his way “from stinking barrios to the glamour of the ring and lights of fame or mutilated sorrow.”

“Yo soy Joaquin,” just like the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, became a pivotal document of the Chicano Movement. Juan Felipe Herrera, Professor Emeritus at UC Riverside, says of the poem’s importance: “[H]ere, finally, was our collective song…and it arrived like thunder crashing down from the heavens…Every little barrio newspaper from Albuquerque to Berkeley published it. People slapped mimeographed copies up on walls and telephone poles.”

Escuela Tlatelolco (Photo: Denver Post)
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Gonzales’ work as an activist also led him to create the Escuela Tlatelolco in 1970. The Denver pre-K-through-12 school, still in operation, came from Gonzales’ adamant belief that education was the great social equalizer, especially for Chicanos and Latinos. Gonzales and his organization made it a point to award scholarships to barrio youth. Escuela Tlatelolco included 24 classrooms, art studios, print shops, a bookstore, a lunchroom, an auditorium, and—since boxing was always a part of Gonzales’ life, included alongside philosophy in dinner table discussions—a boxing gym that hosted club fights. In fact, lessons he learned in boxing helped guide his activism. His son, Rudolph Gonzales, explains: “his fearlessness…his work ethic, his discipline…his critical thinking…those all…led him to…excel in whatever endeavor he found himself in.”

On April 12, 2005, surrounded by his large family, Gonzales passed away, aged 76. “He went to sleep and never woke up,” his son remembers, adding, “it was a great loss.”

Two days after his death, over 5,000 people from all over the country arrived in Denver, marching from Escuela Tlatelolco through downtown and to Mestizo-Curtis Park—a distance of over 4 miles. Throughout the event, many marchers sang and waved Mexican and Chicano Movement flags. The eight-hour service, which included art and theater performances, showed the deep appreciation and admiration many had for Gonzales.

Thousands marched in honor of “Corky” after his death. (Photo: Denver Public Library)
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Herman Baca, a Chicano Movement participant, said Gonzales would be remembered as “a leader, organizer, fighter, warrior, and poet, who fought a life-long militant struggle for self determination, respect, dignity, freedom, justice, and the human/civil rights of this nation’s 30 million Chicanos/Mexicanos/Latinos.”

Inherently, those who fight for Civil Rights are controversial figures in their attempts to disrupt the status quo. Gonzales was a Chicano nationalist who his critics labeled as part of the communist threat, and even some of the other Mexican-American activists were uncomfortable with the radical demands he made. And yet, in 2015, despite controversy from opponents claiming Gonzales was too controversial and volatile, the Denver Public Library named a new branch after him.

As Gonzales explained in the Arkansas Gazette, “The Mexican-American is no longer willing to stand in the church with his hat in his hand, awaiting for a priest to bless him and God to save him. They want us to believe power doesn’t grow out of a barrel of a gun. Well, we’re giving them a chance to change things—peacefully.”

“The Mexican-American is no longer willing to stand in the church with his hat in his hand, awaiting for a priest to bless him and God to save him”

Of course, the struggle for Civil Rights is rarely peaceful. Death threats and police harassment became a constant, along with a mysterious bombing of a Crusade for Justice member’s apartment. While Gonzales advocated for anti-violence, he also said he and his people “believe[d] in self-defense”—the type that felt logical after centuries of oppression.

Outside of a small percentage of the population—students of Chicano history, participants of the Chicano Movement, old-time boxing fans, etc.—Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales is largely forgotten, especially when compared to Muhammad Ali. But in the 1960s and 1970s, “Corky” Gonzales was the “other” boxer who fought for Civil Rights. More than that, Gonzales was a leader for the Chicano Movement that demanded cultural independence. “While my Father never attained the fistic stature of Ali,” his son explains, “I believe he significantly surpassed Muhammad in the political arena and the struggle for Justice, Equity and Peace.”

The current political climate highlights many of the issues the Chicano Movement fought for, while also showing the work that remains. Questions remain today about the status of the Chicano Movement, with some saying that, if it “is not already dead, it has certainly lost enough blood to be rendered unconscious.” Undoubtedly, as the more mainstream realm of Latinx politics has absorbed—even co-opted—aspects of the Chicano Movement, its radical elements have diminished.

Anyone who fights for Civil Rights must essentially be deeply optimistic, and Gonzales was no different. His son, Rudolph Gonzales states that when people asked his father if the Chicano Movement was dead, he always responded, “‘No. It is just sleeping…it will come back and people will come together when there are emergencies.’ And boy, if this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. And I’ll tell you where my dad would be; he’d be right in the front, on that street, in the lead.”