On a recent visit to Denver, Colorado (my hometown), after reacquainting myself with the city and visiting family and friends, I made it a point to visit the library. As a child, I grew up in libraries, thanks to my mom, so I am no stranger to the Denver Public Library system. They gave me a love for the pursuit of knowledge and of books. Going to the library is like going home but I didn’t just visit any branch, I went to see the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales Branch Library in West Denver. This was a big deal to me.
The library, which is located at 1498 Irving St in West Denver, opened on February 28, 2015. It is 27,000 square feet and provides a resource the neighborhood has lacked forever. The naming of the library was heavily contested and saw many people voice their opinions about why it should or should not be named after Corky Gonzales. I was one of them.
Last year, in May, I wrote an “open letter” to the Denver Public Library Commission, arguing in favor of why this library needed to be named after Corky Gonzales. I did this because the opposition’s voice was LOUD and being amplified by newspapers and pundits. I wrote to The Denver Post and asked if they would publish my letter but they refused. Instead, they published angry, hate-mail letters from ex-Denver cops and created a laundry list of reasons about why the library should not be named after a “terrorist.”
So, I published my letter on Pocho.com and the response was tremendous. The letter was read far and wide and reached even members of Congress. I know this because I was privy to the stats of the site at the time. After writing it, I heard from politicians and activists, as well as members of the Gonzales family. I also received hateful comments on the story itself, including some from cops…but I won’t say how I know that. But I do. My letter touched a nerve.
As many a Chicano will tell you, whenever we assert ourselves, nerves are touched, far and wide. Dare to name a public library after a Chicano hero and watch the hate mail pour in.
In the end, the library was approved and the Commission decided to name it after Corky after all. I was elated. I told myself that I would make it a point to visit the library in person and see for myself what many of us fought for. Putting words to action is something far too few people practice these days. There should be more action beyond the hashtag, but I digress.
I was surprised to discover that the library is only a couple of blocks from where my uncle and cousins grew up, in the projects off of West Colfax. I spent a lot of time there as a kid, playing with my cousins in the barrios of West Denver, completely aloof to the fact that a library was not something we had easy access to.
Interestingly enough, my other cousin happens to be the grandson of Corky Gonzales. So this crusade was personal to me in more ways than one. Little did any of us know back then that a library would be named after his grandfather, right around the corner from the projects where we played, nor that we would have to fight so hard for such a thing to occur.
As Chicanos we are always fighting for things which are considered a given for others. Fast forward several lifetimes (and facelifts for the city of Denver) and here we are.
My first impression of the library was not one of overwhelming pride but of disappointment. And I say that despite there being several positive reviews for the library, but people don’t always look at things through the same lens. The library’s opening, and even the reviews, reminded me of a Trader Joe’s grand opening…naming this library after Corky was no small feat nor was it meant to be a simple ribbon cutting ceremony. The history is much deeper than that and I expected that to be reflected.
You cannot see the name of the library from the street, only “Library.” This bothered me. I drove around the building looking for a sign but only discovered the parking lot, which was around the back of the building and cramped. I parked my car and walked up to the building and finally saw the name “Corky Gonzales” displayed in small block letter above the entrance in the back.
I then walked around the side of the building and towards the front, expecting to see something exclaiming that this was in fact the Corky branch but didn’t see anything else. The only indication from the outside is the block letters over the rear entrance. That’s it. In my opinion the letters were not done well.
It was disappointing not to see the name prominently displayed from the street and raised a red flag with me. There are a few small brick pavers outside with people’s names and dedications on them. Servicios de La Raza has one that exclaims: ¡Que Viva Corky Gonzales! Another one has a quote from Corky exclaiming, “I shall endure!” Others quoted Kirk Vonnegut. And one even says, “Can’t we just read?” I frowned at that one.
The truth of the matter is I don’t know what I expected; a statue maybe? A plaque? A bust of the man? I was underwhelmed. I remember hearing people talk about a statue but money was an issue. Clearly, it was not a priority.
In my opinion, the name should be proudly and prominently displayed, either on the building itself or on a sign. Snazzy as it is with its modern design; passersby would have no clue what this building is at first glance. And those in the know know! But if you were just some person driving by you’d have no clue. And it bothered me that that might be the point.
Okay, so I chalked it up to compromise and headed inside. Surely there would be more indication of Corky inside, right? As I wrote earlier, to be Chicano is to continually fight and face compromise where others would take it for granted. It’s 2015 and naming a library after a legendary Denver icon was hugely contested and now I’m afraid it was in vain.
Once inside I was surprised to find…a library. I realize that sounds dumb but again, I had high expectations coming to this branch. Cops wrote me hate mail over this library, after all!
I visit a lot of libraries across the U.S. and from what I could tell, this one was not much different than many of the other ones I’ve been to, with one notable exception; a lack of Corky.
So I walked around a bit, determined to discover something, anything, honoring the man they named the library after. Otherwise, why name it after him..?
Bookshelves? Check. Books? Check. Desks? Check. Computers? Check. Restrooms? Check. Reference desk? Check. Study areas? Check. Media rooms? Check. Coffee shop?? Check.
Corky Gonzales display? ERROR – MISSING – NOT FOUND.
It wasn’t until I went upstairs and creeped around a bit did I find a couple of digital photo frames that were displaying about 40 or so photographs and ONE of them was of Corky. I wanted to get a picture but I had to wait for the thing to cycle through all the other photos to get one because they only stay on a photo for about five seconds or so. One of the other pictures was of former mayor Federico Peña and I thought it odd that they would lump the two men together.
It turns out the pictures were honoring the “Cesar Chavez Leadership Hall of Fame” inductees. Corky is one of them. This annoyed me! Why? Imagine visiting the Cesar Chavez Library (and there are several) and discovering that there’s no trace of Cesar, except for a digital photo that honors him as a “Corky Gonzales Hall of Fame” inductee… not that such a thing exists but you get the gist.
That, dear reader, was the extent of “Corky-ness” inside the library.
So let’s review, shall we? Other than the tiny block letters, which cannot be seen from the street, a couple of brick pavers outside, and a digital photo which displays his image for five seconds, there’s no other dedication, history or legacy about the man the library is named after.
“Take that, Chicanos!”
I smell politics.
I did however find a huge display honoring “Denver’s Jewish Pioneers.” In fact, it was three huge panels with tons of info and photos on them…in the Corky Gonzales library, which has no info on display about Corky Gonzales. You do the math. I have no idea if the Jewish Pioneers display was permanent but I found it odd, all things considered.
Now let me tell you what I liked about the library: the kids and the community there.
Everywhere I looked (and I looked all over) there were little Brown faces enjoying their neighborhood library. The place was packed! Just about every desk seat was filled with people reading or studying and all of the computer stations were filled. This, I thought, was awesome.
The neighborhood has not changed much since when I was a kid. The projects are still there and so this barrio was in desperate need of the resources the library provides. This is a good thing! They could have built the library twice as big and it would still be packed.
So, the purpose of the library is being met with open arms from the community. That is a victory and one that should have been achieved decades ago, in my opinion. But the politics surrounding the absence of Corky Gonzales from his own library is a failure, but one that can be easily remedied. Will it? I won’t hold my breath.
As I mentioned before, a statue would be nice and so would the name being more prominently displayed. But as for the inside, I wanted to see a section focused on the man with books, newspaper articles and photographs. Hell, a TV showing the documentaries about him and The Chicano Movement would be great. His speeches! His poetry on the wall would be a nice touch. And it would behoove the library to include some artwork and or murals about the man and his achievements in Denver, which are many! If memory serves correctly, the main branch has a whole online section in their archives dedicated to him. So why not put that in his own library…?
I guess after traveling as much as I have and seeing what is possible with libraries, I expected much more. Would a Chicano Studies section in the man’s own library be so farfetched? I guess it would…here in 2015.
Politicians will cite budget as a reason for not implementing a stronger Corky presence but if you ask the community to help out, my guess is that budget would not be a concern. At the bare bones minimum, how difficult is it to put up a photograph of the man with a dedication underneath? The family would gladly help out there. Or a collage of newspaper clips in a display case? Paintings? Anything…I wondered if they even had a copy of his book on hand, his poems or any Chicano Studies material at all.
Surely, if we can achieve three large and colorful displays for Denver’s Jewish Pioneers, than we can do the same for the man the library is named after..?
But I digress. For all the Hell that was raised fighting for and against naming the library after him (and there was much), you’d never know it actually was. And that leaves a sour taste in my mouth to think that maybe that was the point.
The library serves its purpose, yes, but don’t you dare tell this community who that man was or what he did! To do so would be so very Chicano, and as we all know that is often something which is banned, hushed or denigrated, even in 2015.
Que viva Corky…indeed, for you are unsung by far too many and co-opted by many more for all the wrong reasons. I’m not sure if Corky would care that he is not more prominent in his own library but I do know that he would be happy to see that there’s now a resource in the barrio that will help Chicanos seek the path to self-determination…even if they have to read between the lines to see it.
— by Santino J. Rivera