Viva Chicano History

Abelardo Barrientos "Lalo" Delgado died of cancer a couple of weeks ago. His death is a huge casualty to the Chicano community, and not just here in Denver where he lived, but in Texas and New Mexico and California, too -- wherever Chicanos (that unique Hispanic substratum here in the Southwest) have settled. Best known for his work "Stupid America," a classic 1969 diatribe against the kind of racism that senselessly holds down people of color, Lalo was more than a poet. He was a bighearted educator and an activist who linked arms with Corky Gonzalez and Cesar Chavez, as well as a founding member of Denver's Chicano Humanities and Arts Council, a cultural meeting place that still opens its doors to a struggling population 25 years later.

Though Lalo wasn't a fine artist, his spirit will certainly fly through the room Friday when the Old Timers..? Show opens at CHAC, now settled as a gallery on Santa Fe Drive, where it long stood alone, preceding the current influx of art venues in the neighborhood. Featuring works by six original CHAC artists -- Ernie Gallegos, Stevon Lucero, Jerry Jaramillo, Al Sanchez, Carlos Sandoval and the late Fred Sanchez -- who are linked together by their participation in a mural project dubbed "City Walls," Old Timers is an art exhibit on the surface, but a slice of history deep inside. CHAC, originally a multi-arts forum for Chicano literature, theater and fine art, coalesced shortly after these artists' work on the short-lived communal mural project ended, hampered by politics and a lack of funds. Lalo, whose funeral coincided with the interviews for this story, is heavy on the minds of exhibit participants, including muralist Al Sanchez, who came together with CHAC in those early days as a founding father of an earlier group called Incorporated Artes Monumentales, or IAM.

Sanchez's contribution to the show is a collage, two feet by four feet, that chronicles CHAC's 25 years from 1979 to the present. "It starts with a letter from Mexican muralist Jorge Gonzalez Camarena," he says. "That letter was like our birth certificate. We were so inspired by his work that we formed IAM." Then comes an archive of photos, news stories and drawings, the unfolding story of how IAM, fellow artist Stevon Lucero's META Studios, and City Walls evolved into the fine-arts quarter of CHAC. Images of a young Corky Gonzalez "without his mustache" helping original CHAC director Carlos Santistevan open the gallery, pictures of Jerry Jaramillo's van ("It was our identity," Sanchez says of the wildly painted home on wheels), and even the words to "Stupid America," Lalo's spark-plug poem, are all patched into the artful scrapbook. "Since I've been working on it, I've been reliving the whole thing," Sanchez adds. Also well-remembered is ambitious City Walls director Fred Sanchez, who died in 1998 and to whom the show is dedicated.

But some of the reliving also seems dangerous today, notes Stevon Lucero: "Now they use cherry-pickers to do those big murals downtown. But when we were doing it, we just had a scaffolding. In order to get paint up there, you had to dangle with one leg propped against the wall and one arm hanging on to the scaffolding. We were like cavemen learning to paint with sticks. We didn't have enough money to get proper tools; we were risking our lives."

And what became of those City Walls murals? Only those adorning the La Familia Recreation Center at First Avenue and Elati Street still exist. But CHAC goes on.

"CHAC is still here, providing a service," Lucero says. "That's the nature of culture: It always starts on the street with the common people and works its way up." Lalo would have agreed. -- Susan Froyd

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