By David Montero
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, diagnosed with coronary and renal distress last week, looked his cardiologist squarely in the eye and simply said he was going home. Not that the decision came as a shock to his family.
“I think he surprised the cardiologist,” Gina Gonzales said. “He told him, ‘It’s not in your hands or in mine.’”
Gina Gonzales is Rodolfo’s 51-year-old daughter. She was there when he was released from St. Anthony’s Central Hospital in Denver on Thursday after he agreed to discontinue any further medical treatment for a severe coronary and renal distress disorder. By that evening, the human rights advocate and Chicano activist was resting at home surrounded by his family.
At 76, Gonzales is considered by many in the Hispanic community as a legend. Aside from being an accomplished boxer early in his career, he made a name for himself by challenging governmental institutions he saw as being unfair to the Chicano movement in the 1960s and 1970s as well as those within his own community whom he saw as torchbearers for the culture’s identity.
Antonio Esquibel, professor emeritus at Metropolitan State College of Denver and director of the Rocky Mountain SER Denver Head Start Program, said Gonzales was a firebrand who he first met in 1967 at a Catholic church on the Auraria Campus.
Esquibel, who was a practicing Catholic, was invited to the church by a priest who was concerned about a speaker criticizing Catholicism. When Esquibel went to hear the speaker, he said he underwent a different kind of conversion.
“I remember he said that the Catholic Church was the richest institution in the world and it had the poorest members,” Esquibel said. “He said instead of teaching people to stand on their own feet, it asked them to turn the other cheek. I thought, this guy makes a lot of sense.”
Esquibel was hooked.
By that point, however, Gonzales was already a fixture in the Chicano movement. In the late 1950s, he became the first Mexican-American district captain for the Democratic Party in Denver. Around that time, he financed Viva, the first barrio newspaper in Denver.
Rudy Gonzales, Corky Gonzales’ 46-year-old son, said his father was already known for his boxing career, which gave him a lot of credibility and made him a celebrity in Mexico.
Boxing, his son said, was always a passion with his father, who, up until a heart attack and a car accident in 1988, managed to do his road work - training with a bag and doing daily runs.
But the heart attack and accident had long-term effects on the activist. His son said he spent 77 days in the hospital and that the doctors said if he hadn’t been in such good shape, he likely wouldn’t have made it.
“It hasn’t been an easy 17 years,” Rudy Gonzales said. “He lost a certain quality of life, and we lost a part of our father. But it has taught us patience, empathy and compassion.”
Charlotte Gonzales, 54, said her father suffered from short-term memory lapses and wasn’t able to do the kind of rigorous workouts he’d been accustomed to his whole life.
But she said he remained engaged with issues - including educational issues related to public schools today.
She said his views haven’t changed much since he authored a poem in 1967 entitled “I am Joaquin.”
In it the poem’s character struggles between his culture or forgetting his culture to achieve economic stability in the United States.
At the root of his convictions, however, she said, was family and education.
“We always sat down at dinner together and he would ask us about what we learned,” Charlotte Gonzales said. “He asked pointed questions and was interested in having dialogue with us.”
Gathered together at the Escuela Tlatelolco in Denver Monday afternoon with her brothers and sisters - Corky Gonzales has six daughters and two sons - they all agreed that their father was demanding and that their mother was also instrumental in their growing up. The school was founded in 1970 by Corky Gonzales and offers education in grades pre-kindergarten through 12.
“The biggest lesson we learned growing up was to share,” Rudy Gonzales said at the table inside a room at the school named for his father. “We had to share him with others.”
Since his leaving the hospital Thursday, however, the family admits they’ve had more of him to themselves - even as friends continue to visit.
And Rudy Gonzales is quick to point out that his father still has a lot of fight in him and isn’t dead yet. It’s the boxer in him, he said.
“I remember one time a sportswriter asked him a question before a fight,” he said as the table of siblings grew quiet.
“Like many Catholics, he would do the sign of the cross before the bell rang. Anyway, the sportswriter asked, ‘Does the sign of the cross help you?’ He told him, ‘Only if you know how to fight.’ “
“He does,” Gonzales said.
• Professional boxer in the 1940s and ’50s and won the National Amateur Athletic Union bantamweight title in 1946. Also named to the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
• Founded the Crusade for Justice in Denver in 1966. The cultural center attempted to get the city to eradicate poverty and deal with racial injustice.
• Founded Escuela Tlatelolco in 1970.
• Wrote his epic poem titled I Am Joaquin in 1970. His son, Joaquin, however, said it wasn’t named for him.
• Led a contingent of the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., in 1968.
• Father of eight children: two boys and six girls.
Originally published in the Rocky Mountain News. Reprinted from LatinoLA (www.latinola.com)