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A Chicano voice against oppression

April 29, 2005 | Page 12

ON APRIL 12, the civil rights movement lost one of its fiercest prizefighters, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales. The son of migrant farmworkers, Gonzales became a leading voice and organizer of the Chicano movement--the mass struggles of Mexican-American peoples that ultimately toppled Jim Crow-like conditions across the Southwest in the 1960s and '70s.

Gonzales had the skill and determination to rise in a society where Mexican-Americans aspirations were typically crushed under the heels of racism and segregation. After first making a name for himself as professional boxer and businessman, his attention was constantly pulled back to his community, and the contradictions of a "great American society" that seemed only to take, and not give.

Like so many other Mexican-Americans who served in the military during the war in Korea, Gonzales felt that fighting for "freedom and democracy" rang hollow when these ideals failed to reach his own barrio.

As a popular community leader back in Denver, he was recruited by the Democratic Party to head up the "Viva Kennedy" campaign to inspire Mexican-Americans to vote for Kennedy. This really amounted to a cynical ploy to secure votes and co-opt young leaders at a time when the civil rights movement was beginning to make noise. Gonzales saw firsthand how the Democrats abandoned Mexican-Americans after the elections and, once in power, preserved the same institutions.

He was further radicalized through his opposition to the Vietnam War and the degrading institutional racism he witnessed that made victims of Mexican-American children from a very young age. He broke from the Democratic Party and launched the Crusade for Justice, an organization that sought to give expression to the aspirations of a people ready to confront the barriers of racism. The Crusade challenged police brutality and racism in education, and mobilized the community to address their needs through mass action.

Perhaps Gonzales' best-known legacy is his epic poem "Yo Soy Joaquin" (I am Joaquin), a lyrical celebration of Mexican identity and heritage and a forceful rejection of the stultifying racism of "Anglo" assimilation foisted on Mexican-Americans in schools.

Gonzales was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1988, and he will be immortalized for the punches he landed against his numerous opponents in the ring. But we should also celebrate the punishing blows he landed against racism and segregation in the Southwest.
Justin Akers, San Diego

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