from Here Lies Lalo: The Collected Poems of Abelardo Delgado, edited by Jarica Linn Watts
Abelardo "Lalo" Delgado was twelve years old when he emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. He was alone with his mother, and the year was 1943. As a Mexican student in an American school system that forbade him to speak the only language he knew, Delgado launched his first organized protest: he refused to stand for the singing of America's national anthem, insisting, instead, that his classmates join him in singing the Himno Nacional Mexicano. One week later, his sixth-grade class was singing vivas to Mexico. His mother raised him in a public housing complex with 23 other families, and he stayed put just long enough to graduate from Bowie High School as Vice President of the Honor Society. He then worked with troubled and impoverished youth, and eventually found his way to the University of Texas at El Paso in 1962.
From there, his story is legendary. There's the part where, during his engagement, he sent his wife a poem—accompanied by a dollar bill—every day, for a few months: "with this, you buy a wedding dress," (1) the inscription read every time. Or the part where he was recruited—by an Irishman, no less!—to lobby on behalf of Mexican migrant farm workers. The part where he gave Cesar Chavez some unsolicited advice and later, after seeing Chavez lose forty-thousand dollars because of that very advice, recanted his recommendation: "Don't listen to me anymore, Chavez. I'm crazy."(2) But, for the story the history books will later tell, these small details matter not. For Lalo Delgado was decidedly important. After all, there is the part where he picked up a pen and began to write about the plight of Mexican Americans—and, in so doing, set the foundation for Chicano letters and literature. He wanted, he said, to use his words "as a platform to identify the hurt." He wanted to "preserve [his] culture."(3) He wanted to inspire the movement—as he called it, "the vast movement for total change." And in this regard, he was successful: upon his death in 2004, The New York Times characterized him as el abuelito, "one of the grandfathers of the Chicano literary renaissance/' and one of the most "vivid poets of the Chicano literary revival."(4)
Delgado's vibrancy grew out of his repeated call for revolution. Above all, he believed that his Chicano brothers and sisters had experienced the most extreme of life's injustices, and he wrote to urge them toward peaceful protest. In his poem "La Revolucion," Delgado writes of those who:
because in their desire to right wrongs there are no illusions,
it is a real manly christian honest desire
to put injustices here on earth to temporary fire.
Like the revolutionaries he marched beside and admired, Delgado's poetry seeks to extinguish the myriad injustices he watched Mexican Americans endure. He infuses his writing with the same political perspective he brought to Congressional meetings and union rallies for migrant workers; and it is this impassioned voice that urges Chicanos to look beyond poverty, law-enforcement abuse, political oppression and drug-infested streets.
Because he used his poetry to inspire positive change, he maintained that anyone desiring access to his poetry should be able to find it—and to not only find it, but to read it. And to not only read it, but to own it. Thus, he self-published 14 books of poetry under the rubric of Barrio Books, the first of which, Chicano: 25 Pieces of a Chicano Mind, sold for $1.50. Yet, there were always some who were unable to pay. Delgado told Lisa Olken of Rocky Mountain PBS Television about a particular gentleman who approached him following a public poetry reading. The man said, "Ay, amigo, I want to read your book, but I don't have $2.00. Will you accept two food stamps?" Delgado laughingly recalls how he then framed those two food stamps and hung them on the wall in his office—underneath a handwritten sign that read, "Poetry is Food."(5) Certainly he wanted his books to be available to anyone willing to read them. And Barrio Books made that possible.
Delgado's poetry offers a unique blend of harsh criticism and gentle humor, which is a duality that parallels his own hybridized, Chicano-American identity. In "Happy 200th Anniversary," Delgado reminds America that "you are my country by choice and not by chance," yet he remains stalwart in his belief that this land of his choosing is capable of:
errors, premeditated genocides
robberies, broken treaties, double talk
and abuses, oppression, imperialistic deeds
and attitudes, acts of arrogance, racism.
He recalls his own struggle "to understand an anglo's / colorless mind" in "Metamorphosis," and poignantly depicts the emotions at:
having felt my gut
hurt as if full of urine
when I saw an anglo looking down at me.
It is such experiences—in the golden land of opportunity—that led Delgado to conclude that "my integration and segregation are one and the same."(6) Even his own literary being reflects the sad reality of being, at once, an insider and an outsider: for while he remains el abuelito to those involved with the Chicano movement, his name is hardly recognized in the dominant white culture. Here we see the effect of the distinct but parallel cultures that exist within the United States; here we see the ways in which Delgado's "integration" and "segregation" necessarily converge.
And fittingly, while Delgado uses his own hybridity to tell of the need for visibility, justice and equality, the English-language typewriter upon which he composes his poems does nothing but help erase the very Spanish voice he seeks to validate. Delgado began his literary career at age twelve, although the initial reception to his work was harsh and censuring. When he handed his sixth-grade teacher his first written poem, she refused to read it, telling him that the rudimentaries of English—namely spelling and proper punctuation—must come before one can write poetry. Undeterred, the young Delgado eventually found himself a job at the local bowling alley, and used his first paycheck to purchase an Underwood typewriter. In the introduction to his work Living Life on His Own Terms, Delgado thoughtfully considers the years he spent with that Underwood:
Time has caught up with me and I see the golden years engulf me and it makes me very sad that I am not the fifteen-year-old boy in South El Paso, the first one in the barrio to buy an Underwood typewriter, en abonos, to type my first poems and cuentos.
This machine enabled Delgado to both write poetry and to learn the intricate and underlying structures of the English language. He would type his verses on any material available to a poor child living in the projects. Indeed, Delgado would later choose to publish his poems with the letterhead upon which they were first written superimposed upon the final printed page. Upon finishing his project, Delgado would painstakingly read through his completed draft, handwriting the appropriate diacritical marks and accents, distinguishing the demonstrative pronouns from the demonstrative adjectives, and inverting the necessary punctuation marks.
Despite the tedium involved in having to make visible his own Spanish language, Delgado continued to write his poetry in a blend of Spanish and English, believing that he could not accurately depict his Mexican roots by writing only in English. He contends that "culture is siphoned through language,"(7) and that if one loses his language, he also loses his culture. His words stress his belief that language can be a useful political tool for resisting oppressive power. In "The Chicano Manifesto," he writes:
we want to let america know that she
belongs to us as much as we belong in turn to her
by now we have learned to talk
and want to be in good speaking terms
with all that is america.
And because he has "learned to talk," Delgado also uses his language to reject traditionally derogatory English terms, such as "illegal alien." In "The I.A." one can see the ways in which language is used as a means of manipulation and control on the part of ruling entities. Here, Delgado asks "the honorable chairman" of a Congressional proceeding to yield "the floor to a Chicano for a minute." He then asks,
why, what be more unamerican than to have the highest rate of unemployment and play deaf and blind to these "illegal aliens"?
Speaking with Olken, he elaborates on his usage of this term:
We part company with the term "illegal alien." "Undocumented worker" is our preferred term; for, "illegal" implies that you broke a law. But you break a law to do something more meaningful, which is to subside, to live. It's not a crime to try to live ... Anything is bad when you use it with the [intent of] being derogatory.(8)
In this way, "The I.A." offers a glimpse of what the embrace of racism might look like if allowed to proceed without restraint:
occupy mexico. send gavachos to look for work in mexico.
declare all i.a.s. a communist threat.
make it all an international harvest game.
marry them off to every available u.s. dame—
What these examples demonstrate is that Delgado had a keen awareness of the ways in which language can be manipulated or redefined to deny individuals equal rights, and he feared the lasting effects that the integration and continual usage of terms like "illegal alien" would have on undocumented populations. Delgado sensed that power is maintained through language, and thus, in an attempt to subvert the dominant structures at work in the United States, he refused to title this poem with the "derogatory" term he explains in detail above. Rather, he chooses as its title "The I.A."—an acronym for "illegal alien"—to demonstrate that he will in no way dignify the latter usage by giving it any critical weight.
Delgado's poetry primarily reflects a deep concern regarding the cultural forces that privilege English over Spanish ("we who speak [two languages] sometimes become victims of the American way of life"), white skin over brown. His poetry speaks of the hegemonic processes at work in the United States and laments that second-generation Chicanos resolve to identify most with white, American culture rather than with their Mexican roots. According to Delgado, "it [assimilation] goes beyond appearance; the way you think is Anglo, and this is because we are indoctrinated by the cultural forces that surround us ... We are under the influence of the educational system and the media." In his lifetime, Delgado saw this process with his own children and grandchildren. He tells Olken:
Look what happened to my eight kids. I sent them all to school, and the first thing they did was lose their name: Ana became Anne, Alicia became Alice, Arturo became Art, Alfredo became Freddie, Angelica became Angie, Amelia became Mellie and [Andrea became Andie]. Today we know them that way ... We can try to hang on to our culture, but with time you will become an Anglo with brown skin (emphasis added).(9)
In this telling statement, Delgado's use of the word "with" seems to articulate his greatest concern. For, while he is aware that cultural assimilation is, on some level, possible for the Chicano, he is quick to take his discussion back to the body, back to skin color, back to the "Anglo with brown skin." Here, we are back to brownness. And this is where, according to Delgado, the Chicano's complete cultural assimilation is doomed to failure. When questioned as to whether it is difficult to exist in a world where one must struggle to either assimilate or to keep one's own culture, Delgado remarks,
You are talking to a man who stopped fighting this battle long ago ... There's no way that I can assimilate because every morning I look in the mirror and I see a ... Mexican face staring back at me. There's no way that I'm going to be a blonde, blue-eyed Anglo ... Because of our skin, our desire to assimilate is stopped.(10)
Here, Delgado is aware that he simultaneously identifies with—and is alienated from and rejected by—the idealized aspects of dominant white culture; as Homi Bhabha puts it, "not quite/not white." (11) Delgado's writing reflects this reality, speaking to the hearts of Mexican Americans who can see, mapped onto the pages of his poetry, their own struggle for acceptance, for assimilation, in America's racially bifurcated society. Much like Gloria Anzaldua's new mestiza consciousness, Delgado surmises that the Mexican-American subjectivity develops in response to class, gender, religion, region and, above all, race and ethnicity differences. His poetry depicts the vast chasm that exists for Chicanas/Chicanos between physical appearance and the cultural processes that determine the way one thinks. According to Delgado, the former is Mexican; the latter is Anglo.
It is also clear that Delgado writes much as he speaks—with the voice of one manipulating an imported tongue, a borrowed language. Yet, as he acknowledges in "De Corpus a San Antonio," this is a tongue that he has worked to make his own: "what good is my poetic license," he asks, "if i never get to use it?" He goes on,
because english is my second language
the endings of english words
keep throwing me off ... way off.
i rhyme love with job
and orange would rhyme with change or ranch
or even range.
they all sound the same to my chicano ear.
Indeed, even the first line of the first poem in Delgado's first published collection shows the subtleties of this dance. In "La Raza," Delgado begins his literary career by writing:
no longer content with merely shouting vivas
or wearing bright sarape and big sombrero,
we are coming in if the world will receive us.
In this line, he identifies the Mexican American's utter refusal to be silent in the face of language barriers and cultural limitations. Or, to quote from Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera, "until I am free to write bilingually [ ... ] while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as I long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate."(12)
In poems like "Temporary Labor Camp Blues," Delgado writes of the injustices that continue when those affected are not given the opportunity to speak:
to hear growers through their organization
oops, i mean testify before osha (13), without guitar or violin,
the sadness of their song brings sudden tears.
According to the poetic voice Delgado gives these representatives, the conditions in the field are adequate:
the flies are adequate.
the non-existent toilets are adequate.
the lack of privacy is adequate.
but who defines "adequate"?
where, pray tell, are the affected parties?
they are in the fields, working, of course.
What we see, in particular, is that it is the plight of the farmworker that moved Delgado's heart. In "The Poor Now Have a Voice," he speaks on behalf of the "skinny malnutritioned bunch" who "migrate in the summers to pick crops of sorts." Much like the seasonal travels of those to whom he dedicates much of his poetry—and his entire professional career—a great deal of his writing is also filled with movement, travel and land.
In "La Tierra," Delgado composes a work to show the "unison" between Chicanos and the land; he articulates the ways in which the very essence of the Chicano body is something claimed by the land:
a chicano's skin is adobe vented,
his wrinkles are surcos that time itself planted,
the mud that in his veins passionately boils,
and his soul something that la tierra invented.
Perhaps, then, it is the yearnings of Delgado's soul, created by "la tierra," that usher his movements from place to place. Many of his poems, such as "From Los to Reno," "From Garden City to Hays," "De Corpus a San Antonio" and "De Frisco a Boise," depict his travels, and are titled not according to the cities from which he will either be departing or arriving, but rather within the "from," the "to," the "a," the nebulous place that exists in the movement between destinations.
Delgado wrote "Snow in Albuquerque" while sitting in an airport terminal ("Snow in Albuquerque this late in March caused a bit of pandemonium at the airport"). He opens "Three Margaritas Later" by describing an airport scene:
i already went through the weapon check
at concourse d but my head must be back
at the bar
where mario and i shared three drinks.
And "Friday 12-16-77" begins with the line: "from one airplane to another. I am now on my way to El Paso." This continual travel proved important for Delgado's work, as it led to his belief that multicultural societies would eventually be instrumental in combating racially and culturally motivated oppression.
In this way, Delgado's poetry aligns with the claims James Clifford advances in "Traveling Cultures." Clifford argues that travel is a useful metaphor to describe the borderland, the place of inbetweeness that exists when one is able to view the world outside of a Eurocentric perspective. According to Clifford, the theorist—like the traveler—eventually recognizes that mobility and fluidity express the vision of culture far better than fixed notions of culture as essence. We can thus read the movement in Delgado's poetry as a familiar metaphor for travel, for home and displacement, for borders and crossings, for multiculturalism and change. In Clifford's words, "travel, in this view, denotes a range of material spatial practices that produce knowledge, stories, traditions, music, books, diaries and other cultural expressions" that can be used to disrupt monolithic representations.(14) Certainly poems like "The I. A." speak to this desired multiculturalism, as Delgado provides a solution to many of the problems plaguing America: "open up the borders," he boldly recommends. Here Delgado is working to destabilize fixed notions of culture, with the ultimate goal of dismantling the supposed superiority of the culture of the West. "To theorize, one leaves home," Clifford writes. (15) And, as the titles of his poetry evidence, Lalo Delgado was rarely at home.
It is only in the stillness of "al desierto" that Delgado registers the motion that punctuates his poetry, indeed his life. Speaking of the "silencio" around him, he writes in "Espinas":
all this was so strange
to one who is usually surrounded
in busy airports
by many many people like espinas.
This frenzied pace is ultimately appropriate, however, because movement—more specifically the "vast movement for total change," as he puts it in "Requiem for An Ex CAP Director"—is what Delgado spent his entire life championing.
It is arguably this continued need for change that makes a collection like this so necessary. And yet, Delgado himself was painfully aware of the risks of any academic "representation." In "The Chicano Manifesto" he writes:
you see, you can afford to sit in libraries
and visit mexico and in a way
learn to understand us much better than we do ourselves
but understanding a thing
and comprehending a thing are two different matters ....
While I do not pretend to "comprehend" the experiences embedded in Delgado's work, I do know that in the years I have spent with his handwritten material on my cluttered desk—and during the evenings I enjoyed in his family home, surrounded by un ambiente muy acogedor de sus hijos y nietos—I could not help but "understand." I found myself moved by the sensitivity and humanity of his portrayals, and I knew that his work should again become available to those desiring to access and to understand the origins of Chicano literature.
Thus, I first approached this project by wondering whether this collection would do something that Delgado was, himself, unable to do. The. answer was no: certainly he had already published, circulated and collected his own work. That work, however, is no longer available to readers. (16) Eventually I questioned whether a project such as this assumes that I—a white, female academic—can speak for a man whose very agenda the white majority culture refused to acknowledge. It was in the midst of this paradox that I found a subtle reconciliation, a quiet urge, propelling me forward. Not only had this project originated because the Delgado family invited and encouraged me to pursue it, but, indeed, Delgado's work showed me that, in some way, all writing seeks to represent other positions in addition to the author's own. Delgado's poetry evokes the voices of racist politicians, white presidents of the United States, Aztec warriors, Mayan goddesses, deceased family members, unborn children, the list could go on. The point, here, is that, as a writer, Delgado recognized the inevitability that someday someone would seek to represent the Chicano voice. As a consequence, he articulates very clearly in "The Chicano Manifesto" the way that that person should proceed:
deal with us as you openly claim you can,
justly ... with love ... with dignity.
It is my hope that this collection has done just that.
1 Delgado, Abelardo. Interview with Lisa Olken of Rocky Mountain PBS Television. "La Raza de Colorado." Rocky Mountain PBS Television, June 2005.
4 Romero, Simon. "Lalo Delgado, 73, Vivid Poet of Chicano Literary Revival." New York Times 30 Ju1 2004, A16.
5 Delgado, Abelardo. Interview with Lisa Olken of Rocky Mountain PBS Television. "La Raza de Colorado." Rocky Mountain PBS Television, June 2005.
11 Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." Oct 28 (Spring 1984) 132.
12 Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.81.
13 The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency of the US government responsible for enforcing safety regulations and protecting the health of America's workers. Delgado testified before OSHA many times in an attempt to pass federal legislation that would improve the standards and working conditions for migrant workers.
14 Clifford, James. "Notes on Travel and Theory." Inscriptions 5 (1989), 108.
15 Ibid, 177
16 For this reason, I have chosen, for this collection, the five volumes (from the fourteen published by Barrio Books) most frequently cited by scholars and used in course syllabi. It should be noted that, aside from the individual works that Delgado self-published, there exists a vast collection of unpublished material at library archives throughout the United States. While the largest, unpublished collection of work still remains with the Delgado family, the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin and the archives at Metropolitan State College, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Arizona also have collections of Delgado's work.
About the Author
Jarica Linn Watts holds a Ph.D. in British and American Literature from the University of Utah, where she also teaches English. She specializes in postcolonial literature and theory, modern literature and minority discourses. Dr. Watts lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and young daughter.
Arte Publico Press
University of Houston