“Our indigenous history, we go back 20,000 to 25,000 years. We’ve been here forever. This is our historic homeland. We’re over 70 percent indigenous blood, whether that blood be Pueblo Apache, Navajo, that blood courses through our veins. We don’t come across the Atlantic or Pacific to be here.”
My father was born in Denver in 1928. Mom was born in 1931 in Brighton. My maternal grandmother was born in San Luis, Colorado, in 1885. My mother’s dad was born in Mexico in the 1880s. On my father’s side, his mother was born in San Luis, dad’s dad came from Chihuahua. They married in 1918, and settled in Denver. That’s our European history. Our indigenous history, we go back 20,000 to 25,000 years. We’ve been here forever. This is our historic homeland. We’re over 70 percent indigenous blood, whether that blood be Pueblo Apache, Navajo, that blood courses through our veins. I used to teach class in ethnic studies. I’d take a five-gallon can of red paint and I’d take an eye dropper and put in 25 generations – 25 drops – of white paint, and I’d put that in the red paint, and you mix it. And I‘d tell the kids, “Now what color is that?” Well, it’s still red. Exactly. So we are an indigenous people. We don’t come across the Atlantic or Pacific to be here.Hispanic, Chicano, Latino, whatever we call ourselves. My father stated it so eloquently in his poem, “I Am Joaquin: ‘We are the same people.’”
My father grew up on the east side of Denver, in Curtis Park and Five Points. That was overwhelmingly Mexican at that point. In ‘30s, east Denver was the cheapest place to live. My dad was a self-made man. He literally fought his way out of abject poverty. He fought his way out of the barrio. He became Denver’s No. 1 sports draw. He opened a lot of the venues, like the Denver Coliseum, like Bears Stadium, the precursor to Mile High. After his boxing career ended, he bought many properties throughout Denver, including many apartment buildings. He did quite well financially.
When I was born we lived at 34th and Vine, second house in. Then we moved to 23rd and Leyden, sometime around 1963 or 1964. We were the second family of color in Park Hill. The other family was black. We were the first Chicano family there. I don’t use ‘Hispanic’ because it denies our indigenous heritage and our part and parcel to this hemisphere. Hispanic means Spanish and we’re not a Spanish people. Spanish is European. Then my dad started the “Crusade for Justice,” a Hispanic activist group.
He was his own man. The first time he took a job was with the mayor, Tom Currigan. He was fired for leading demonstrations. He even said in the paper, “I’m still a man of my people.” He started the crusade in earnest. The Crusade for Justice headquarters was at 16th and Downing. That was the epicenter of our universe as a family. We were five blocks from the crusade. It wasn’t just an organization, it was a family. We’d be there in the morning – my dad founded Escuela in 1970 (Escuela Tlatelolco is a Denver charter school now run by Rudy’s sister, Nita Gonzales). We’d be there in the morning at school, and we wouldn’t be home until 10 or 11 at night with meetings, practice. We danced, we started a theater group, art, we sang, we played guitar. It was just an incredible childhood. My four older sisters got more of the family life. When I came along, I’m the oldest of the second four, we got more of the familia life, the movement life, because the crusade was going full swing at the time.
I often think that my father would have been a very rich man if he had not started the Crusade for Justice. He retired from boxing in 1955. He opened a sports bar, probably Denver’s first sports bar, called Corky’s Corner. He became a bail bondsman and then he also became a surety bonds salesman. … He was very popular. People trusted him. Huge charisma. Huge magnetic personality. He was Denver’s golden boy. But he gave all his business up, he gave everything else up, and he started the Crusade for Justice. He committed his life, and our lives as a family, not to poverty, although he came from abject poverty to probably lower middle class, to a vulnerable level.
I fought against doing what I’m doing now. I thought I wanted the material life. I thought that’s where it’s at. You’re conditioned that way in this country. You’re conditioned through the media. You’re conditioned through peers to be the consumer and to seek materialism. His teachings and his raising, and the way he raised us, his mentorship and his coaching and his parenting brought me back home. I’m immensely happy doing what I’m doing and it’s what I was meant to do, to be of service to others, giving back to the community. To fight the good fight. I’m a fighter. I’m going to fight against injustice.
That these gaps are wider now than they were during the civil rights movement, it’s pretty depressing.