The news spread quickly on the Friday morning of July 23, 2004. Chicano teacher, poet and activist Lalo Delgado passed away at age 73, surrounded by his wife Lola, children, grandchildren and closest friends.
Phone calls, emails and letters of sympathy poured in from throughout the Southwest but mostly in Denver and El Paso where Delgado graduated from Bowie High School in El Segundo Barrio and later earned a degree at the University of Texas at El Paso. By 1969, he had published “Chicano: 25 Pieces of the Chicano Mind,” which included “Stupid America,” his best-known poem about society’s misconceptions of Mexican-Americans. Delgado with Ricardo Sanchez, who died in 1995, were Chicano poetry pioneers.
“He would tell us: ‘Don’t dig yourselves into a hole,’” recalled friend Salvador Balcorta in the El Paso Times in 2004.
To keep his legacy alive, Christina Sigala, a professor of Chicano Studies at Metropolitan State College of Denver, the Delgado family and friends have organized the 5th Annual Lalo Delgado Poetry Festival, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m, April 24 at St Cajetan’s Event Center. The event features free poetry workshops in partnership with Café Cultura, a performance-poetry group backed by Delgado’s granddaughter, Vanessa Delgado.
“My academic journey started,” Sigala says, “when my Lalo told me, ‘Christina, you are smart, you will graduate from college.’ I never thought I was smart, and to hear it from a man I trusted was life changing.”
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, he had a unique perspective regarding the immigrant struggle and U.S.-born Chicanos. He helped organize farmworkers for Cesar Chavez and moved to Denver in 1970. He later became director of the Colorado Migrant Council, worked with the Denver Justice Information Center and spent 17 years teaching at Metro State.
“Being a Chicano poet is like being in a constant state of pregnancy,” wrote Delgado, who liked to write in both English and Spanish. Many Chicano poets, novelists and artists were inspired by his writings including the late José Antonio Burciaga and Lorna Dee Cervantes of San Francisco, Ana Castillo of Chicago, Gloria Velasquez of San Luis Obispo, Cali. and many others.
Despite a three-month battle with liver cancer, he still thought of others first, dealing with the illness one day at a time. Researchers say liver cancer afflicts Mexican-Americans more than the general population, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that Latino men and women are twice as likely to have, and to die from, liver cancer.
It should be no surprise that he was an influential teacher and mentor for so many having published more than a dozen books and improvised so many poems at rallies, protests and marches. His compadres in literary and teaching circles all have poignant, funny stories from the ‘60s and ‘70s struggles. Ramon del Castillo once called him a “man of both borders.”
Shortly after passing away, the city of Denver posthumously named him Poet Laureate. For some, it was a politically safe gesture for a ‘60s-era protestor. Ever the optimist, Delgado would probably chuckle and say: “Mejor tarde que nunca.”
“I knew him ... as an activist, entertainer, comedian, philosopher, cultural warrior, and teacher,” wrote Manuel Ramos in the LaBloga’s book review of the 2011 anthology “Here Lies Lalo.”
Personally, I met Delgado in the mid-1990s while working for a magazine that published his poems. Few people ever called him “Mr. Delgado” except maybe his students. He was always humble, gracious and at ease. He was buena gente.