Nita Gonzales

All in the Familia

Nita Gonzales has shot her mouth off so many times--and gotten in trouble for it so many times--that she doesn't know where to start. But there was this one time at Annunciation School when she first got a taste of what lay ahead for her as one of Denver's most visible--and controversial--Latino activists.

She was fourteen, in the tenth grade--this was 1963--and standing in front of her history class reading an essay about Red China joining the United Nations. This was a hot topic back then. Nita thought it was a good idea. Something like a billion people lived in China. Communist or not, they deserved a voice.

So she stood in front of the class and made her case. When she finished, students smirked.

"You sound like a communist," they said.
"Why don't you go live in China?"
"Boo!"

Even her teacher frowned. The report was well-written, he said, but a tad "unpatriotic." He gave her a B.

Nita didn't get it. She had always been told to speak her mind. In fact, each night at dinner, her family gathered around the table and discussed books, politics, world events. Everyone, no matter how young, was encouraged to offer an opinion--as long as he backed it up.

She had done her homework. Why were her classmates so hostile?
Her dad, Chicano activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, put his arm around her. "You were right to stand up for what you believe," he said. "But it's not easy. There will be times when you will stand alone."

Thirty-five years and a thousand confrontations later, Nita has come to know what her father meant. As a political activist, social organizer, high-school principal and public-housing officer, she has made a reputation as someone who stands her ground. Bilingual education. Police brutality. Better housing for the homeless. At one time or another, she has taken a stand on them all, making headlines, political connections and enemies--even within her own community. To her, that just comes with the territory. And the name.

"My father told me that what you gain in terms of your own spirit by speaking out is much greater than standing by and being silent," she says. "I believe that absolutely."

Nita grew up in the barrios of northwest Denver, surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles and friends. To her, it was a time of visiting Grandma, waking to the smell of fresh tortillas, going to the park, sneaking into the garage and watching her father write poems on a manual typewriter.

But it was also a period when Hispanics couldn't eat in certain restaurants or walk safely along certain streets. People were unhappy here, angry and demanding change. At the front of that movement stood Corky.

To Nita, he was just Dad, someone who tied her shoes and took her to the park on Sunday. It wasn't until she was much older that she realized his impact on the Latino civil rights movement.

Corky was the youngest of eight children raised by a father (his mother died when he was two) who emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, and managed to hold his family together on the wages of a fry cook, field worker, miner and railroad man.

Corky literally fought his way from poverty as an amateur boxing champion and later as a pro. He won 66 of his 75 fights as a featherweight and was once ranked sixth in the world.

But it was through his passionate speeches, leadership at demonstrations and poems such as "I Am Joaquin" that he became a national Chicano icon. In 1965 he founded the Crusade for Justice in downtown Denver.

"Five loose fingers by themselves are nothing," he said in 1977. "But bring them together and you have a fist."

From this backdrop emerged Nita, the oldest of eight children, her father's hijita favorita, headstrong and independent, with her father's temper and tenacity. But while in her teens, Nita distanced herself from her father and his work, questioning whether social activism was her true path. After watching a news broadcast of her mother choking on tear gas during a protest in Washington, D.C., she quit her job, bought an airplane ticket and stood at her father's side. She has never left.

"I don't see it so much as accepting his torch as doing what I was trained to do," she says. "Organize and speak out."

During the "West Side Blow-Up," a 1969 protest for more Hispanic teachers, principals and courses at West High School, Nita was among those who stood toe-to-toe with police and got arrested.

A few years later, at a Catholic church in northwest Denver, she was threatened with excommunication after she and other Crusade members disrupted a Socialist meeting. She thought it was unfair for the church to allow a Marxist gathering while excluding the Crusade for Justice.

In September 1994, as co-chair of the Latino Education Organization, she helped organize a walkout of more than 1,000 students, parents and community leaders who wanted faster action on improving standards for Latino students. She also went on a 32-day hunger strike and lost 27 pounds.

Then she took on the mayor for recommending a white woman for education czar. Since the public student population is overwhelmingly Latino, Nita felt the mayor should have appointed a Latino to oversee them.

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