Nita Gonzales

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?"

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.

"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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Harrison Fletcher