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Rodolfo ”Corky” Gonzales was an activist and spokesperson for the Chicano movement in the United States. Because of its social impact, his only published work, the epic poem I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin (1967), is often considered more of a social commentary than a literary work of art.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in Denver and the Depression
Gonzales was born on June 18, 1928, in Denver, Colorado, to a family of migrant workers. He was the youngest of five brothers and three sisters. Gonzales’s mother died when he was two, and his father never remarried. The children grew up in a barrio of Denver during the Great Depression. By the age often, Gonzales was working in the sugar-beet fields in the spring and summer. Because of his job, he attended a number of schools inside and outside of Colorado, and graduated from Manual High School at the age of sixteen in 1944. In his youth, Gonzales had a quick temper, which sparked his uncle to describe him as ”always popping off like a cork.” This behavior earned him the nickname ”Corky,” which remained throughout his life.
Boxing as a Teenager
With the money he got working in the sugar-beet fields, Gonzales saved enough money to attend college. He enrolled in the University of Denver, but his education cost more than he had saved, so he was forced to drop out. However, as a teenager, Gonzales had cultivated a passion for boxing, and in 1947 he began his professional boxing career. He became the third-rank contender in the World Featherweight category of the National Boxing Association and was considered one of the best featherweight fighters in the world. Gonzales’s success in boxing earned him a spot in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and earned him the public recognition that he would later use during his political career.
Civil Rights Leader
In 1955, Gonzales left boxing to get involved in business and politics and Chicano civil rights. His father had emigrated from Mexico to Colorado and often told him about the Mexican Revolution, Mexico’s history, and the pride of the Mexican people. These stories inspired Gonzales to become active in his community. In 1960, on behalf of John F. Kennedy, he organized the Viva Kennedy presidential campaign in Colorado, which was intended to appeal to Latino voters. He was also appointed chairman of the Denver National Youth Corps, an antipoverty program. In 1963, he founded ”Los Voluntarios” (The Volunteers), a grassroots organization dedicated to Chicano youth. ”Los Voluntarios” was also the forerunner of the organization Crusade for Justice, an urban civil rights and cultural movement, also founded by Gonzales. The Crusade for Justice raised political awareness through political action and education. In 1966, Gonzales became the chairman of another organization, The War on Poverty. However, he soon resigned from his leadership positions in these organizations to focus his attention on championing solely Chicano causes. To rally the community behind Chicano nationalism, Gonzales organized public demonstrations, from high-school walkouts to protests against police brutality.
I Am Joaquin
It was around this time that Gonzales published I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin. The epic poem reflects Gonzales’s passionate efforts to promote Chicano nationalism. Gonzales has said of the work:
Writing I Am Joaquin was a journey back through history, a painful self-evaluation, a wandering search for my peoples, and most of all, for my own identity. The totality of all social inequities and injustices had to come to the surface. All the while, the truth about our own flaws—the villains and the heroes had to ride together—in order to draw an honest, clear conclusion of who we were, who we are, and where we are going.
In the poem, Gonzales shares his vision of the ”Chicano,” who is neither Indian nor European, neither Mexican nor American, but rather a blend of conflicting identities.
Efforts in Activism
A year later, Gonzales led a Chicano contingent in the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., a march that began in Mississippi and ended in the nation’s capital. It was intended to stress the need for economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States. It was during this event where Gonzales issued his ”Plan of the Barrio.” The plan outlined ways to improve housing and education in poor Chicano communities, as well as to encourage the support, growth, and success of barrio-owned businesses. It also called for the restitution of Pueblo lands. Gonzales suggested forming a Congress of Aztlan to successfully achieve these goals.
To generate unity and support among Chicano youth, in 1969 Gonzales organized the first Annual Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. This conference attracted Chicano youth from across the United States, as it was an event to address historical injustice toward Mexican-Americans and to strategize for a better future for them in society. Through these and other sociopolitical activities, Chicano youth were encouraged to vocalize their opinions about their unequal position in American society and to publicly show how Mexican-Americans contributed to the American experience. During this time, Gonzales sought alternatives to what he saw as ”gringo” (white) social institutions and founded a private school exclusively for Chicano students that was intended to build their self-esteem and cultural pride. The school was named after Tlatelolco, an area of Mexico City that was once an autonomous city-state under the Aztec empire. Tlatelolco became the site for student activism, and today, the school symbolizes the complicated history of identity and social progress for indigenous and Mestizo people.
Withdrawing from Public Life
In 1973, Gonzales’s career trajectory was drastically changed when a man was arrested for jaywalking in front of the Crusade for Justice headquarters. Public protests against the persecution led to confrontations between demonstrators and police. A gun battle ensued, and a bomb exploded in the Downing Terrace apartments, which were owned by the Crusade. One man was killed and seventeen were injured, including twelve police officers. Gonzales blamed the Denver police department for the bombing and suggested they used grenades on the building. However, a detective reported the scene of the explosion was a ”veritable arsenal.” Though Gonzales’s involvement in the incident was eventually disproven, his connection to the organizations on trial forced him to retreat from the public eye. He remained active in the Chicano movement, but kept a much lower profile.
In 1987, Gonzales was in a car accident that left him in significantly poor health. In 1995, he was hospitalized with acute liver disease. A decade later, he experienced renal and coronary distress. Despite his condition, he checked out of the hospital and proclaimed to his doctors, ”I’m indigenous. I’m going to die at home among my family.” Gonzales died in Denver in 2005, and was survived by his wife, Geraldine Romero Gonzales, and their six daughters and two sons.
Works in Literary Context
Though Gonzales did write a few unpublished plays, he is best known for his epic poem, I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin. The poem was hugely popular within the Chicano movement, which used it as a touchstone for the cause. It was transformed from poem to stage play, and eventually to a film produced by the Teatro Campesino.
The Social and Spiritual Context of I Am Joaquin/ Yo Soy Joaquin
Gonzales framed the contemporary realities of Chicano identity and conflict of I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin in metaphysical and spiritual dimensions. The protagonist, Joaquin, travels to the past to personify famous figures of the Aztec world, the Spanish colonial period, the Mexican independence movement, nineteenth-century Mexico, and the Mexican revolution in 1910. The poem also turns to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, and Tonantzin, her pre-Mexican counterpart, to explore the role of women throughout the times. In the end, the poem arrives back in the present and addresses the negative situation of the contemporary Chicano before leaving an optimistic note about the future for the reader.
Epic Heroes as Role Models
l Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin brings to life the epic heroes of Mexican and Chicano history to generate a cultural pride and grow a collective sense of self-determination among these peoples. The protagonist personifies each cultural hero during important historical moments that illustrate personal acts of sacrifice for Mexican-Chicano freedoms and identity. For example, the poem’s first major event is marked by Aztec ruler Cuauhtemoc’s final rebellion against the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan, followed by an incident in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) in which “nirSos heroes/(young heroes)”—Mexican military cadets— choose to die rather than surrender to American forces invading Mexico City. Gonzales has his protagonist move on from there to World War II and finally to Vietnam. These and other events chronicled in the poem reflect Gonzales’s interest and belief in Chicano history, freedom, identity, and self-pride.
Works in Critical Context
At the time of its publication, IAmJoaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin was a mimeographed leaflet, widely circulated in order to be read during various protest activities organized by the Chicano movement. The poem can also be seen as the inspiration for the Chicano Literary Renaissance, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Although the word Chicano was a vulgar, class-based term used in Mexico to classify people of dubious character, I Am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin inspired a new, positive use of the term.
I am Joaquin/Yo Soy Joaquin Since the publication of Gonzales’s epic poem, critics have commented on the work’s marriage of social activist intent and artistic merit. Catharine Wall wrote that
Gonzales combines the poetic sensibilities of Walt Whitman’s ”Song of Myself’ (1855) and Allen Ginsberg”s ”Howl” (1956) as Joaquin, a Chicano Everyman, explores himself and the history of the Chicano people—from the pre-Columbian and colonial periods, through independence and revolution up to the present day.
David Conde also remarked on the social and literary impact of the poem:
There is little doubt that I Am Joaquin was written as a social document that sought to instill Chicano pride and identity as well as encourage community activism. . . . The literary merit of the work comes from the manner in which the poem is constructed and how theme and structure come together to produce a superior artistic experience. Its epic quality comes from the depiction of a dual journey into the postclassic world of pre-Columbian meso-America as well as into the contradictions of the Chicano heritage.
- Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
- Conde, David. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Second Series. Edited by Francisco A. Lomeli. Detroit: Gale Group, 1992, pp.111-114.
- Marin, Christine. A Spokesman of the Mexican American Movement: Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and the Fight for Chicano Liberation, 1966-1972. San Francisco: R. and E. Research Associates, 1977.
- Munoz, Carlos. Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement. New York: Verso, 1989.
- Wall, Catharine. ”Latino Poetry.” Notable Latino Writers. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2006, pp. 800-815.
- Bruce-Novoa, Juan. ”The Space of Chicano Literature.” Colores. 1:4 (October 1975): 30-33.
- ”Rodolfo Gonzales.” Biographicon. 10 Nov. 2008 http://http://126.96.36.199/view/gqhh7.
- Hartley, George. ”I am Joaquin: Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzales and the Retroactive Construction of Chicanismo.” Ohio University. 10 Nov. 2008 http:// http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/hartley/ pubs/corky.html.
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