I can’t remember exactly when and where I first met Nancy Gallen, but it was in the late 1970s on a picket line, probably in front of a Safeway store in town. I was a student at the University of Arizona and she was the local organizer for the United Farm Workers grape boycott.
The last time I saw Gallen it was at a 2012 campaign rally for Democratic U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva. The one-time teacher was excited about a bilingual children’s coloring book, promoting the Tucson congressman, that she had been distributing in his district.
In one way or another, over a 40-year span, Gallen found ways to get people involved in social causes and political campaigns.
She was passionate, as good teachers are, to educate others about César Chávez and the farmworkers who toiled for so little under harsh conditions. She was determined, as only an ex-nun could be, to preach the merits of her cause. And she was funny, relying on her Irish wit, to win over converts.
Gallen died last month. She was 77 years old.
“To the end, her strength failing, with iron resolve, she remained true to the cause of justice, her banner held high,” read her Christmas Day obituary in this newspaper.
Gallen was one of those rare individuals who, regardless of their political bent or position, did not relent in their causes. And while she stepped on people’s toes, including those of other progressive activists, Gallen remained focused on her issues, from farmworkers to undocumented immigrants to minority rights.
“She was one tough person. She wouldn’t back down from anybody,” said John Miles, a former union organizer with the United Steelworkers and miner in San Manuel. “Nothing was going to deter her from organizing people in the fields.”
Miles met Gallen in the early ‘70s when she arrived in Tucson to work on the UFW’s national boycott of grapes. He was working at the time with John Mackoviak, another miner and union organizer, and who later became Gallen’s life partner.
Miles was in awe of her zeal. They became allies over the years, marching, protesting, organizing. However serious Gallen was about her liberal causes, she was equally humorous about life around her, he said.
“She was Irish to the core,” said Miles. Gallen loved to tell stories and was an avid fan of the Fighting Irish of the University of Notre Dame.
For Pancho Medina, Gallen was more than an activist. She was a life changer. His life.
“She transformed me into a new person. I wouldn’t be in my political world if it wasn’t for Nancy,” said Medina, a volunteer at Casa Maria Free Kitchen, a Catholic Worker soup kitchen south of Santa Rita Park on West 22nd Street.
In the early ’70s, his political world was narrow, Medina said. Gallen entered his world and altered global perspectives. She broadened his outlook on politics and organizing. He found it refreshing that she openly talked about the hobbling effects that racism and discrimination had on Latinos and blacks.
Gallen came to her causes through her understanding of Irish nationalism and the Irish struggle for independence. She also came to know the plight of big-city minority communities while working as a Catholic nun in New York City.
“She was a good listener. She was a rank-and-file person. She had a big love for fighting injustices,” said Medina.
Gallen brought her life experiences and passions to the classroom.
When she was teaching at St. John’s Catholic School on Tucson’s south side, Cecelia “Cece” Aguilar Ortiz was in the eighth grade. Gallen had them read “Black Boy,” Richard Wright’s autobiography about growing up in the segregated South; “Hiroshima,” John Hersey’s account of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan; and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” the story of the migration of poor American farmers during the Great Depression. The students learned about the UFW and Chávez, and the social and political issues in Latin and Central America.
“My awareness of social issues, and connecting my sense of place and justice, comes from her,” said Aguilar Ortiz, regional director for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a faith-based group working in this country and abroad.
Aguilar Ortiz spoke at Gallen’s memorial Mass at St. John’s Catholic Church last month. The former student, who has kept a small purse filled with prayer cards that Gallen had given her, needed to say adios and gracias.
“She was an inspiration. She was fearless,” said Aguilar Ortiz.