Chicana activist Magdalena “Madge” Gallegos remembered as Denver storytelling icon

Chicana activist Magdalena “Madge” Gallegos remembered as Denver storytelling icon
Magdalena Gallegos in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Debra Gallegos)

Magdalena “Madge” Gallegos was like a butterfly, her family says. Her 85 years of life abounded with metamorphoses, from musician to mother to activist to scholar to storyteller, allowing Gallegos to spread her wings and soar through the Denver community, documenting all she saw along the way.

Gallegos died May 12 and a memorial was held for her last week(). As family members recounted Madge Gallegos’ storied days in an interview Friday, a butterfly flitted by, and their eyes brimmed with tears. They watched the winged creature flutter toward the heavens.

Gallegos was born and raised in west Denver in 1935 in what later came to be the Auraria neighborhood.

“She was known for her big hair,” said daughter Bernadine Gant. “She was short — 4-11-and-a-half, she would always say — and everyone knew her behind the wheel of her station wagon because all you could see was her hair coming toward you.”

Gallegos played the organ for her Catholic church as a girl and went on to lead the choir at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where her activism flourished.

Portrait of Magdalena Gallegos as a young woman, the local historian and author poses with her hands on her hips in 1954 in the Auraria neighborhood, Denver, Colorado. (Photo via Auraria Library/Magdalena Gallegos)

She marched with César Chávez in support of the United Farmworkers Union, picketing with her parents in mind. They had moved from New Mexico to northern Colorado to work in the fields. She became politically active, campaigning for Hispanic political leader Sal Carpio when he ran for Denver City Council and then working as Carpio’s council aide after he was elected in 1975.

Pursuing her lifelong dream of a college degree, Gallegos enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver in 1980, majoring in ethnic studies. The opportunities afforded by a higher education were so promising to Gallegos that she became a college counselor, encouraging others to get degrees and become lifelong learners.

During her college career, Gallegos enrolled in an oral history class, choosing to document the voices of the former residents of her Westside neighborhood “whose lives were disrupted so that the Auraria Higher Education Center might be built where their homes once stood,” wrote former Community College of Denver president Bryon McClenney in Gallegos’ heralded project “Auraria Remembered.”

Through that project, the stories of the displaced Denverites — largely members of the Latino community — were told and now remain archived by the Denver Public Library.

“She was the historian for the west side and the Auraria neighborhood,” said Jamie Seemiller, acquisitions archivist in the Western History and Genealogy Department at the Denver Public Library. “‘Auraria Remembered’ is what a lot of librarians use to help with research on the area. She was very important at the library. She knew that history. She lived that history.”

Gallegos advocated for the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, which still covers tuition and fees for the displaced residents, their children and their grandchildren to attend college on the Auraria campus. The scholarship has helped more than 300 scholars through college since 1995 with seven recipients graduating this summer, said Thomas Hernandez, interim executive director of financial aid and scholarships at Auraria’s Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Enraptured by the power of stories, Gallegos became the editor and publish of Southwest Magazine — a quarterly publication telling the stories of Colorado’s people of color.

“Magdalena was born many times,” Anthony J. Garcia, who spoke at Gallegos’ memorial, wrote in a poem. “After she was a housewife, she was reborn an activist / She was reborn a publisher and theatre critic / She was reborn a playwright, a singer and an artist / Magdalena was reborn as a cultural chronicler.”

Gallegos wrote a play, “Sueños,” first performed at Denver’s Su Teatro. She wrote human interest stories and theater reviews, becoming the first Chicana theater critic for the Denver’s Urban Spectrum community newspaper. In 2011, she published her first novel, “Florence and the Butterflies,” which documented the fables her mother, Florence, shared about growing up on a farm.

“She was a little Energizer bunny,” said Debra Gallegos, Madge Gallegos’ sister.

Madge Gallegos’ years of hard work earned her accolades in the community, including the Denver Public Library’s Eleanor Gehres Award in 2019 and the Community College of Denver Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award in 2020.

While Gallegos’ work imprinted on the Denver community, to her family, she was the doting mother, sister and grandmother who valued her loved ones, faith and big hair.

“Other people know her for so many things, but we knew her as mom,” Gant said.

So many turned out in the wake of Gallegos’ passing to share memories and stories of the small but mighty woman, Gant said.

“Sometimes you forget who family was when they were younger,” said Debra Gallegos. “Her friends helped us remember. I don’t think we realized how much she meant to the city. She was so significant to our community.”

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