LOOK: Corky Gonzales’ archive at Denver Public Library preserves a record of resistance

A search for information about historic Cinco de Mayo celebrations led instead to the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers.

Chicano movement buttons. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers)

denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
Chicano movement buttons. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
Chicano movement buttons. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)

Yesterday I dove into the Denver Public Library’s Western History archives hoping I’d find information about Cinco De Mayo celebrations on Santa Fe Avenue before the neighborhood became a trendy arts district. Instead my query led me to the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers.

The ex-boxer, poet and Chicano leader who is the namesake of a West Colfax library branch came to prominence during a complicated moment in the 1960s in politics, policing and race relations. Even a short visit into his papers shows how Gonzales became a controversial figure who envisioned a future revolution.

The police slaying of an activist made national headlines.

In 1973 20-year old Luis Martinez Jr. was killed in a police raid at a Crusade for Justice-owned apartment building. During a shootout between Crusade members and police, the building mysteriously exploded. Police said the gunfire caused a cache of explosives in the building to go off, while Crusade members said police fired an explosive into the building.

Martinez, “choreographer for the Crusade’s Ballet Chicano dance group,” was the only fatality. Police arrested 36 people.

The episode made The New York Times. A Rocky Mountain News investigation found the police were justified in their use of force and “exercised restraint.”

A Rocky Mountain News clipping from March 1973 after activist Luis Martinez Jr. was killed in a police shootout. (Rocky Mountain News/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
A Rocky Mountain News clipping from March 1973 after activist Luis Martinez Jr. was killed in a police shootout. (Rocky Mountain News/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)

This view of the shootout between police and activists was echoed in public resistance to the West Colfax library name. One critic wrote in the Denver Post that Gonzales “chose to support violence to reach his goals.”

But activists felt they were resisting a long history of police violence directed at the Chicano community.

One response to the Post article pointed to a 1969 West High School protest at Sunken Gardens Park when police “started beating high school girls with their batons during a demonstration.”

The cover page of an FBI report on clashes between Mexican-American activists and Denver police at West High School in 1969. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
The cover page of an FBI report on clashes between Mexican-American activists and Denver police at West High School in 1969. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)

Gonzales’ file contains an FBI report on the incident and is full of testimony and reporting from similar moments during that era. The file contains a many-paged collection of eyewitness reports of a police raid on La Raza Park (and/or Columbus Park on 38th Ave) one summer night.

It’s perhaps appropriate that he was known as “‘the fist‘ of the Chicano Movement.” It’s a name that conjures images of both resistance and violence, a duality that seems to define his memory.

Gonzales predicted a revolution.

On Cinco De Mayo, 1989, Gonzales had not made many public appearances for some time. But he made an exception that day and spoke at a University of Colorado event that was covered by the Boulder Daily Camera.

While the photo shows Denver Mayor Federico Peña playfully smacking a piñata, the story centers around Gonzales’ solemn address. “The Chicano movement, the revolutionary movement of this country, is coming back to life,” he said.

A Boulder Daily Camera article from Cinco De Mayo, 1989, recording one of "Corky" Gonzales's later public appearances. (Boulder Daily Camera/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
A Boulder Daily Camera article from Cinco De Mayo, 1989, recording one of “Corky” Gonzales’s later public appearances. (Boulder Daily Camera/Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)

“I do not say this to put fear in your hearts,” he continued. “I say this to encourage you and you and every one of us who waited for this time when Indian people will be free, when Mexican people will be free, when black people will be free. The time will come when the fire will burn in your hearts, and you will know what you have to do.”

Gonzales died of heart failure in 2005 at the age of 76. His widow, Geraldine Romero Gonzales, donated his collection in 2007 and 2008.

"Tierra-O Muerte." (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
“Tierra-O Muerte.” (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)
"Terrorismo Federal." (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
“Terrorismo Federal.” (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)
denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
“Stop the Violence.” (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)
A Chicano movement button. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales Papers) denver public library; dpl; cinco de mayo; chicano; denverite; denver; colorado; archive;
A Chicano movement button. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Papers)

Kevin Beaty

Author: Kevin Beaty

Kevin Beaty is a media producer with experience in a variety of settings spanning Hollywood film sets to international backpack journalism expeditions. He is on a never-ending quest to meld artful imagery, functional design and intimate storytelling. His biggest struggle in any given moment is whether to shoot stills or video. Find him on Twitter and Instagram at @kevinjbeaty.