Monday, March 27, 2017

“Corky” Gonzáles and the first National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference

On this date in 1969, the first national Chicano youth conference was held in Denver, Colorado by Crusade for Justice, the civil rights organization founded by former boxer Corky Gonzáles. “Rodolfo ’Corky’ Gonzáles (June 18, 1928 – April 12, 2005) was a Mexican American boxer, poet, and political activist. He convened the first-ever Chicano youth conference in March 1969, which was attended by many future Chicano activists and artists. The conference also promulgated the Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, a manifesto demanding self-determination for Chicanos. As an early figure of the movement for the equal rights of Mexican Americans, he is often considered one of the founders of the Chicano Movement.” 

According to Carlos Muñoz, Jr.,   

“[The conference] brought together for the first time activists from all over the country who were involved in both campus and community politics. The conference was also significant because it brought together young people of all types—students, non-students, militant youth from the street gangs (vatos locos), and ex-convicts (pintos)—to discuss community issues and politics. The majority in attendance, however, were student activists, and most of them were from California. The conference emphasized themes that related to the quest for identity as popularized by Gonzáles and [Luis] Valdez, which were eagerly received by students searching for an ideology for the emerging student movement. 

Corky Gonzáles and his followers in Denver had developed the image of the Crusade for Justice as ‘the vanguard’ of the rapidly growing Chicano Power Movement. The Crusade, originally a multi-issue, broad-based civil rights organization oriented toward nonviolence, came to symbolize Chicano self-determination and espoused a strong nationalist ideology that militant youth found extremely attractive. [….] 

During the week-long conference, Gonzáles and his followers stressed the need for students and youth to play a revolutionary role in the movement. Conference participants were told that previous generations of students, after completing academic programs and becoming professionals, had abdicated their responsibility to their people, to their familia de La Raza. This abdication of responsibility was attributed to the fact that Mexican American students had been Americanized by the schools, that they had been conditioned to accept the dominant values of American society, particularly individualism, at the expense of their Mexican identity. The result had been the psychological ‘colonization’ of Mexican American youth.”  

A brief biography of Gonzáles: 

[….] “During his final year in high school and the subsequent summer, Corky worked hard to save money for a college education. With a keen interest in engineering, Corky entered the University of Denver, but after the first quarter realized that the financial cost was insurmountable. Rodolfo then pursued a career in Boxing. An outstanding amateur national champion Rodolfo became one of the best featherweight (125 lbs.) fighters in the world. Even though Ring Magazine ranked Corky number three in the world, he never got a justly deserved title shot. 

In the mid-1960’s, Rodolfo Gonzáles founded an urban civil rights and cultural movement called the Crusade for Justice. Soon he became one of the central leaders in the Chicano movement and a strong proponent of Chicano nationalism. In the late sixties and early seventies, Corky Gonzáles organized and supported high school walkouts, demonstrations against police brutality, and legal cases. He also organized mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War. 

In 1968 Gonzáles led a Chicano contingent in the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. While there, he issued his ‘Plan of the Barrio’ which called for better housing, education, barrio-owned businesses, and restitution of pueblo lands. He also proposed forming a ‘Congress of Aztlán’ to achieve these goals. 

One of the most important roles played by Gonzáles was as an organizer of the Annual Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, an ambitious effort to create greater unity among Chicano youth. These Conferences brought together large numbers of Chicano youth from throughout the United States and provided them with opportunities to express their views on self-determination. The first conference in March 1969 produced a document, “Plan Espiritual de Aztlán,” which developed the concept of ethnic nationalism and self-determination in the struggle for Chicano liberation. The second Chicano Youth Conference in 1970 represented a further refinement in Corky Gonzáles’s efforts toward Chicano self-determination, the formation of the Colorado Raza Unida Party. 

During this time Corky and his wife, Geraldine Romero Gonzáles, raised a family of six daughters and two sons…. Corky is proud of his family, especially the twenty-four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Recently celebrating his fifty-sixth wedding anniversary, Corky attributed the closeness and strength of his family to his beloved wife, Geraldine, who has been his most enthusiastic and ardent supporter.

In many ways, Corky Gonzáles has greatly influenced the Chicano movement. His key to liberation for the Chicano community is to develop a strong power base with heavy reliance on nationalism among Chicanos. His contributions as a community organizer, youth leader, political activist, and civil rights advocate have helped to create a new spirit of Chicano unity.” [….]   

An introduction to the Crusade for Justice by James Mejia (for La Voz, October 14, 2015): 

[….] “Emerging from a non-partisan group called Los Voluntarios, the Crusade for Justice was born out of frustration of living in a system that did not serve the residents of Denver equitably. A former Democratic political captain had been fired from his patronage job working with area youth for protesting racist coverage by the Rocky Mountain News. When Denver Mayor, Tom Currigan, handed Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzáles his walking papers from the Neighborhood Youth Corps, he catalyzed the movement toward an independent organization serving the Chicano community and gave the Crusade for Justice its leader, and personification of the entire Chicano movement in Colorado. ‘They didn’t buy me when they gave me this job,’ was Corky’s retort when asked how a City of Denver employee could organize a protest, according to Corky’s son, Rudy Gonzáles.

Corky was the natural chair of the organization given his status as suddenly available, his passion for serving his community, the reflection on the recent death of his father, and his notoriety for athleticism in the boxing ring – once winning the National Amateur Athletic Union bantamweight title in 1946. What César Chávez and Dolores Huerta were to California and Reies Lopez Tijerina was to New Mexico, Corky Gonzáles was to Colorado – the face and leader of the movement – brash, determined, independent, and decidedly moving toward self-determination of the Chicano community.

The founding board of the Crusade for Justice is a ‘Who’s Who’ in early Chicano activism and achievement, all leaders in their own right and all achieving positions of prominence in their fields of interest to give weight, professionalism and political influence to the positions that would be taken by the Crusade. From boxer, Ralph Luna, to entrepreneur, John Haro, and from War on Poverty representative, Charlie Vigil, to Democratic Party captain, Eloy Espinoza, the board was steeped with talented bootstrappers achieving in a system stacked against them. Their individual standing and unity as a board led the Crusade to Justice to almost immediate prominence and provided the ability to meet with local or national politicians and policy makers.

Founding Crusade for Justice board member, Desi DeHerrera, held a position investigating police brutality. Originally from the San Luis Valley, he, like many others came to Denver for work. What he found upon arrival was discouraging, ‘So many places didn’t hire Latinos. Coors, the Post Office, local utilities… When the Crusade started to question these practices, at least some of them started to open up. It took boycotting others to make change.’

The Crusade for Justice would hit their stride in the late 1960s when they protested against the Vietnam War, held demonstrations against racist media and police brutality toward youth of color, organized legal cases in employment discrimination and organized and supported high school walkouts across the state, most notably the Denver West High School walkout. The Crusade had a prominent place in the national movements of the day including the Poor People’s March on Washington, and the United Farm Workers protests and pickets in California. Closer to home, the Crusade produced ‘El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan’ outlining self-determination of the Chicano community and gave birth to the Colorado Raza Unida Party.

At its peak, the Crusade for Justice was a movement but also a substantial holder of property used to provide services for the Chicano community in Denver – job training, a food bank, book store, dance troupe, a Chicano-centric school, and the first Chicano art gallery in Denver founded by renowned artist and sculptor, Carlos Santisteva.

In the mid-1970s the Crusade for Justice disbanded. There are several versions as to why including a standoff with Denver Police over a jaywalking incident in front of Crusade headquarters where injuries on both sides seemed to cool momentum and prosecution of Crusade members on weapons charges took important players off the field. Other versions include Corky’s disagreement with board members on how the physical assets of the organization were to be operated and financed.

For Rudy Gonzáles, now Executive Director of Servicios de la Raza, the Crusade hasn’t ever died, ‘The Crusade for Justice was never about bricks and mortar, it is a movement, a behavior and a belief system. It was ingrained in us to continue the philosophy and the action. If anything, the issues facing our community have become more pronounced and our work continues.

Recommended Reading:

  • Castro, Tony. Chicano Power: The Emergence of Mexican America. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1974. 
  • Chávez, Ernesto. “¡Mi Raza Primero!”— Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Elam, Harry J., Jr. Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Detroit, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001. 
  • Esquibel, Antonio, ed. Message to Aztlán: Selected Writings of Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2001.
  • García, Alma M., ed. Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings. New York: Routledge, 1997. 
  • García, Ignacio M. United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1989.
  • García, Mario T. Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994. 
  • García, Mario T. and Sal Castro. Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
  • Gomez-Quiñones, Juan. Mexican Students por la Raza: The Chicano Student Movement in Southern California, 1967-1977. Santa Barbara, CA: Editorial La Causa, 1978. 
  • Marin, Marguerite V. Social Protest in an Urban Barrio: A Study of the Chicano Movement, 1966-1974. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991. 
  • Mariscal, George. Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965-1975. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005. 
  • Mariscal, George, ed. Aztlán and Vietnam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999. 
  • Muñoz, Carlos, Jr. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. London: Verso, 1989. 
  • Navarro, Armando. Mexican American Youth Organization: Avant-Garde of the Chicano Movement in Texas. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1995. 
  • Navarro, Armando. The Cristal Experiment: A Chicano Struggle for Community Control. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. 
  • Navarro, Armando. La Raza Unida Party: A Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two-Party Dictatorship. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000. 
  • Oropeza, Lorena. ¡Raza Si! ¡Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Viet Nam War Era. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005. 
  • Rendon, Armando B. Chicano Manifesto: The History and Aspirations of the Second Largest Minority in America. New York: Macmillan, 1971. 
  • Rosales, Francisco Arturo. CHICANO! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, University of Houston, 2nd ed., 1997. 
  • Vigil, Ernesto B. The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government’s War on Dissent. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
 I have a separate bibliography for César Chávez & the United Farm Workers.


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