Lalo Delgado, 73; Poet Was Seminal Figure in Rise of Chicano Literature
By Elaine Woo
Times Staff Writer
Lalo Delgado, an activist and poet who was considered el abuelito, or the granddaddy, of the Chicano literature movement for pioneering writing that reflected a commitment to social justice and illuminated Latino heritage and struggles, died of cancer July 23 in Denver. He was 73.
One of the first writers to emerge from the Chicano movement of the 1960s and '70s, Delgado was the author of 14 books, most of them self-published. Among the best known was "Chicano: 25 Pieces of a Chicano Mind," published in 1969. His poems also were frequently anthologized.
He considered himself a "people's poet," who once said his primary mission was to chronicle Chicano events, victories and defeats from "a poetic perspective absent from newspapers and prose journals."
"His poetry was being taught at the earliest beginnings of Chicano studies. We didn't even have a term for the field then," Luis Torres, chairman of the Chicano studies department at Metropolitan State College in Denver, where Delgado taught for 17 years, told The Times on Friday.
Torres, who recalled using mimeographed copies of some of Delgado's first poems in classes he taught 30 years ago, called his longtime colleague "the dean of Chicano poetry."
Born Abelardo Delgado to a poor family in Chihuahua, Mexico, the writer moved to El Paso with his mother in 1943 when he was 12 and grew up in a tenement packed with 23 families sharing three bathrooms.
Even though he arrived in the United States knowing little English, he was soon making friends by writing religious poems and "love poems for freckle-faced girls."
Vice president of the honor society, he graduated from high school in 1950, when college, for a poor Mexican immigrant, was virtually an impossible dream. Delgado worked for the next several years in construction and in restaurants.
"Going to college, for a Chicano, was unheard of then," he once told an interviewer. "The teachers had no expectation a Chicano could be a writer. No one ever said, 'Delgado, you're good with your words.' Instead, they said, 'Delgado, you're good with your hands.' I believed them. I went to digging holes."
In 1955 he began working with impoverished youths at a community center in El Paso, helping them find jobs and educational opportunities in a system that still kept Latinos in segregated classrooms. His experiences there turned him into an activist.
He found his way to college eight years after finishing high school and earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1962. By the early 1960s he was working with Cesar Chavez in the farmworker movement, and later he was executive director of the Colorado Migrant Council.
He was also writing poems, and by the late 1960s had begun to publish them.
After attending a conference where he listened to white educators blame Chicanos for their failures in school, he poured out his anger — over the inequities facing Chicanos, illegal immigrants and others who were socially disenfranchised — in "stupid america," one of his earliest, and best-known, poems, published in 1969:
stupid america, see that
with a big knife
on his steady hand
he doesn't want to knife you
he wants to sit on a bench
and carve christfigures
but you won't let him.
stupid america, hear that
shouting curses on the street
he is a poet
without paper and pencil
and since he cannot write
he will explode.
stupid america, remember
flunking math and english
he is the picasso
of your western states
but he will die
with one thousand
hanging only from his mind.
"It was perfect. It was an expression from the barrio that captured the emotions of the times," said Estevan Flores, a friend and executive director of the Latino/a Research and Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Delgado was famous among family and friends for special-occasion poems. He presented poems to couples getting married. Every year he composed a new poem for Mother's Day and Father's Day, which he read to fellow worshipers at church. When he was courting his future wife, he sent her a dollar bill every day by special delivery from California, where he was working in a hotel, so she could buy a wedding dress. On each bill, he scrawled a poem.
Described as a man with a wide girth and easy laugh, Delgado read his poems in a booming voice that needed no amplification. He shoved aside microphones even before 2,000 people in a crowded auditorium.
Some noted Chicano writers trace their beginnings as poets to the first time they heard Delgado perform, said Ramon Del Castillo of Denver, who includes himself in that group.
Delgado wrote in Spanish, English and a combination of the two. In so doing, Del Castillo said Friday, he showed that Spanglish, as the hybrid is known, was "a legitimate form of communication."
Delgado's declamatory style and concern with social issues also "connected the Chicano and Chicana poet to the community," Torres said. His influence echoes in the work of such writers as the late Jose Antonio Burciaga of California, Ana Castillo of Illinois and Lorna Dee Cervantes of Colorado.
Delgado is survived by his wife of 51 years, Lola Estrada; eight children;
19 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.