Nita Gonzales

All in the Familia

"It absolutely had to be done," she says. "As long as we fritter around and don't do anything, our kids will continue to be pushed out."

Nita is most proud of Escuela Tlatelolco, a private alternative high school in northwest Denver started by her father in 1970. It welcomes students--Latinos mostly--who have dropped out of public schools or don't fit in.

There students learn the standard reading and math curricula, with multicultural history, work-study and community-service programs added in. About 65 students attend the school, which operates on a $700,000 annual budget raised from grants and private donations.

"We've taken kids everyone else has given up on and found incredible heart and spirit," says Nita, the principal. "I had a father and mother and a grandmother who believed in me no matter what, and I want these kids to feel the same way."

At a time when Latinos have the highest dropout rates in public school and the lowest test scores among ethnic groups, Gonzales tallies the school's successes: 97 percent of its students have graduated from the high-school program; 70 percent have completed undergraduate degrees; 30 percent have completed graduate degrees; 25 percent own their own businesses.

But there's another side to the legacy. Mention Nita Gonzales in certain circles and you'll hear comments like "hungry for power and recognition," "claiming credit for things she never did," "riding the coattails of her father" and "getting rich off the blood and sweat of other people."

Her public and private lives are riddled with contradictions, critics say. Whereas Corky abhorred partisan politics, Nita works the system like a pro, cutting deals with the mayor and others. And although she enjoys a reputation as a champion of public-school reform, she and her son graduated from private schools.

She also ran twice for the school board and lost, "failing to get elected by her own people," says one Latino critic, in campaigns where she was accused of harassment and intimidation.

Then there's the lingering allegation that she and her family sold Crusade holdings to build a family empire.

Juan Haro, Crusade vice chairman from 1968 to 1976, has written a book due out this summer, The Ultimate Betrayal, which, he says, will show "corruption, intimidation and hypocrisy" within the Gonzales family.

"What's my opinion of Nita?" Haro asks. "Spend your money and have a good time, but don't try to be a spokesman for the Chicano people, because you're not sincere. Our people should not be fooled again."

Nita dismisses it all.
"There's nothing to it," she says. "Nothing. I don't have time to deal with it, and I won't. Listen--I wouldn't be sitting here if the FBI or the DA found something wrong. I don't have millions of dollars to buy people off."

Her loudest critics, she says, are mostly "disgruntled, unhappy old men" who have nothing better to do than feed off old grudges.

"If I was someone people didn't trust, I wouldn't be here. Either the community is going to respect me for what I do or they won't. I'll stand on my history."

At age 48, the mother of a 21-month-old girl named Gabriela, Nita finds herself focused and content, less interested in running for office or flinging herself at every issue that crosses her desk. She would rather pick her battles, bide her time and concentrate her energies.

For the moment, that means working with kids at the Escuela, being a good wife and mom (she also has a 25-year-old son, Estanislado Gonzales), and taking care of her father, who faded from the public eye after suffering a stroke and severe head injuries in a 1987 car wreck.

Though comparisons are inevitable, Nita says she and her father are two different people with different personalities, different strengths and different political climates. He is a leader who inspired thousands through passion and confrontation; she is more of an organizer seeking consensus.

Differences aside, she says, she is completely committed to his legacy. And popular or not, she's not about to keep her mouth shut.

"I'm sure some people would like me to go away," she says, "but I'm not planning to settle back and sail into the sunset. I can't see myself retiring. I've got another twenty years.

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