Here Lies Lalo by Abelardo Delgado Arte PúblicoPress, 2011 Reviewed by Diego Báez In 1799, eleven years before belligerent clergyman Don Miguel Gregorio Antonio Ignacio Hidalgo-Costilla y Gallaga Mandarte Villaseño hollered his Grito in the sleepy town of Dolores, an enterprising cabal of poor clockmakers and plaza guards convened to plot an uprising against Spanish colonists in what remained of Tenochtitlán, by then renamed Ciudad de México. Though energized and resourceful, after only their second meeting, the conspirators were ratted out by a fellow criollo, the one among them still loyal to the Crown of Castile overseas. The men were jailed and tried and some of them sentenced, with most dying slowly of sickness or starvation or, more immediately, by firing squad. But the fighting spirit of this small group lived on, growing in fellowship, strengthening in resolve, culminating finally in the Mexican War of Independence, ten years of bloody guerilla war, and independence for the so-called First Mexican Empire. One especially contentious province of the new empire came to be called, in hindsight by scholars, Mexican Texas. (We’re getting to the bit about poetry, I promise.) A defining feature of this particular little province was the persistence with which residents declined to obey Mexico’s nationwide abolition of slavery in 1829. Ways around this law included bribery and blackmail, contractual finagling (indentured servitude experienced a resurgence), and of course the illegal importation of West Indian slaves into Mexico. So, just to be clear, Texans smuggled undocumented workers across national borders in order to exploit cheap labor.
This went on until 1835, when Tejanos took up arms, fought for self-governance, and won. The newly liberated Republic of Texas, complete with Congress and standing army, operated for another ten years (seems like things happen neatly, in decades, in Texas) under strained relations with Mexico, obviously, but also with bands of native Comanche, as well as between competing political factions within the new republic. This all proved a bit overwhelming for the ambitious militants and politicians. In 1845, the pioneering U.S. annexed Texas, from which followed border disputes and the Mexican-American War (only a two-year ordeal), which the States won, the Mexican Cession and, two years later, the Compromise of 1850. For anyone keeping track, we’ve covered, albeit cursorily, just over one half century of Mexican-American history.
Fast-forward almost a full hundred years: In Mendez v. Westminster, the U.S. Supreme finds segregation of Mexican-American schoolchildren unconstitutional. Seven years later, the Court decides in favor of equal protection for Mexican-Americans under the 14th Amendment. In the 1960s, the Chicano Movement swept the southwest and Rocky Mountains as one manifestation of the larger move toward Civil Rights in the U.S. By the 1970s, writers like Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gloria Anzaldúa, and José Burciaga had published poems, fiction, memoirs, and essays, lending the movement cultural and ethnic credibility, and bolstering more overtly sociopolitical acts of protest and demonstration.
I submit that everything supra is more than introductorily or tangentially relevant, since it’s impossible to appreciate the impact of Abelardo Delgado’s contributions to Chicano poetics without considering also the historical and political climate of his times. Perhaps less well-known than Corky Gonzales or César Chávez, Delgado dedicated his life to “la raza,” as an activist, educator, and community organizer. As founder of Barrio Publications, which Delgado ran out of his home in Denver, he printed broadsides and pamphlets, Chicano collections, and editions of his own work. His reason for publishing independently is clear: he’s quoted in Publishers’ Weekly as claiming that “among the institutions in this country that have either purposely or unintentionally damaged and obliterated our culture is book publishing.”
For this reason, it’s been difficult to locate more than Delgado’s most famous poems, “stupid america” and “The Chicano Manifesto” among these. Both of which, among many less readily available poems, Here Lies Lalo consolidates. Editor Jarica Linn Watts has selected five of Delgado’s most-cited books of poetry that span his 30-year career. These include: Chicano: 25 Pieces of a Chicano Mind (1969), Bajo el Sol de Aztlán (1973), Under the Skirt of Lady Justice: 43 Skirts of Abelardo (1978), La Llorona: An Epic Poem (1980), and Living Life on His Own Terms (2001). As far as I know, it’s the only place to find all these works together, outside archives at the Universities of Texas, Colorado, and Arizona.
As for the work itself, the jaded cynic inside me is tempted to agree with Gary Soto’s assessment of Delgado’s work, which he called “stylistically archaic.” Referring to other poets of Delgado’s era, Soto goes on: “I really didn't think they knew what they were doing….Now, the poems, what can you say? They were not very well written.” But as one who appreciates the historical intersections of politics and art (and here’s where I hope all that stuff earlier relates), one might argue it’s not the most terribly useful designation to label a poet’s style “archaic,” when anything even a decade, or a year, can sound outdated. And sure, Delgado’s guilty of goofy, inverted syntax in service of end rhymes, he invokes what must have been cliché even at the time (“go fly a kite”), and drops several seemingly non-ironic lines of head-scratching platitude (“there is harmony in diversity / and not any controversy”).
And yet, Delgado’s at his greatest at other points, in verses arguably profound in their apparent simplicity (“my integration and segregation are one and the same”), powerful in linguistic precision (“es la causa, hermano, raping apathy with flair”), and impactful in memorable imagery (“you married / a paper sack / with lots of holes / containing faith”). Perhaps most impressive is Delgado’s unprecedented ability to negotiate multiple registers, code-switch, and combine English and Spanish. Many poems collected in Here Lies Lalo are in English, many are in Spanish, some alternate between English and Spanish stanzas, others combine languages into various permutations of Spanglish. The lyrics impress at least one casual reader of bilingual literature as much for what Delgado leaves untranslated (“leche humana de unos pechos negros”) as for what he chooses to translate (“issue me a new ángel de la guardia / which in english means bodyguard”).
Then again, perhaps the question of translation loses relevance when both the poet’s artistic and political work refuses to accept inherited conventions. And Here Lies Lalo presents a strong case that someone who invested himself in a movement that precipitated writers like Rigoberto González, Eduardo Corral, and Gabriela Jauregui, and who possessed a name as remarkable for its resonance in the memories of La Causa as for its melodic sonority, Don Abelardo “Lalo” Delgado deserves continued respect and attention.
Abelardo Delgado was known as the "poet laureate de Aztlan" and called "the grandfather of Chicano literature" in his 2004 obituary in The New York Times. Delgado fought for the rights of people of Mexican descent living in the United States. Delgado was a twelve-year-old when he emigrated from northern Mexico to El Paso, Texas. His poetry was largely influenced by the Chicano Civil Rights movement, and his poems both examine injustice and suffering are a call to action.
Diego Báez writes for Whole Beast Rag and Booklist. Other work has appeared most recently in Hobart, The Review of Higher Education, and Rain Taxi. He lives and teaches in Chicago.