It seems to be a truism of history that significant events begin inauspiciously. Or at least if one is attuned to the significance of the moment, its augury for the future is importuned less significantly. Some histories report that MEChA began in California in the wake of the momentous meeting that produced El Plan de Santa Barbara. There’s no reason to doubt that origin. In the mid-60s California was a cauldron for change, and many organizations supporting change came into being in California. But change was in the air everywhere. Texas was no exception.
At UT El Paso there was a Mexican American Student Association in 1968 (NOMAS/ UMAS) that quickly became MEChA. About the same time a Mexican American student organization came into being at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces and also at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was faculty advisor for the group at New Mexico State University; Louis Bransford was the institutional advisor for the group at UNM. There was no faculty advisor for the UTEP group.
However, what I remember is the grilling I got from the students when I applied for the position of [founding] Director of the Chicano Studies Program. The UTEP Mechistas and I remember that moment now with good humor.
The details of how I came to apply for that position are a bit vague today, but in the Spring of 1970 I recall that Dr. Ray Small, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at UTEP, called me at NMSU to ascertain if I might be interested in the post since I was gaining some recognition for my public affairs pieces on Chicanos (Cf, “The Minority on the Border,” The Nation, December 11, 1967; “The Green Card Dilemma,” The Texas Observer, March 15, 1968) as well as pieces on Chicanos and American education (“Language and Reading Problems of Spanish-Speaking Children in the Southwest, Journal of Reading Behavior, Winter 1969), and my affiliation with the Quinto Sol writers group out of Berkeley. In 1968 two pieces of mine were published in the premier volume of El Grito (the Quinto Sol Publication) that attracted some attention. The first was a short-story “The Coming of Zamora” (1:3, Spring 1968) based on the trial of Reyes Lopez Tijerina which took place in Las Cruces; the second was a piece entitled “The Mexican-Dixon Line” (1:4, Summer 1968). Hundreds of pieces followed, but in 1970 I was still slouching toward Aztlan with the Chicano Movement.
In many ways I was an “unknown” to the MEChA students at UT El Paso, despite the fact that I completed the Bachelor’s degree there in 1959 when it was still called Texas Western College; and was awarded the Master’s degree (1966) from The University of Texas through Texas Western College when all Master’s degrees were conferred by UT Austin. That history probably worked in my favor, but I had no way of knowing that in the Spring of 1970 when I interviewed for the position. Though I was not a West Texas barrio boy, I did know the barrios of San Antonio, Chicago, and elsewhere when the itinerant work of my parents took us there.
There were many candidates for the Directorship of Chicano Studies, but in April of 1970 Ray Small informed me that the MEChA students had accepted me. He offered me the post with an appointment as Assistant Professor of English. Additionally, I was to serve as Advisor to the President on Chicano Affairs. It turned out I was also the first faculty adviser to MEChA. No one in MEChA ever told me if I was their first choice.
I was elated, unaware of just how that appointment was to change my life. I resigned from a tenured position at NMSU where I had been since 1964 and moved on to UT El Paso, little realizing that the Chicano Studies Program there would be the first such program in the state and that it would endure to the present. Its endurance is, I believe, a testament to the foundation of the program and the stewardship of subsequent directors of that Chicano Studies program.
Thanks to Ray Small I started working on the proposal for the Chicano Studies Program in the summer of 1970. That Fall, the proposal was submitted to the Board of Regents for approval. What made that proposal unique was the MEChA input from start to finish. Because of that input the Chicano Studies Program at UTEP, unlike a number of Chicano Studies programs elsewhere, included a community advisory board and Chicano student participation in building the curriculum and in the recruitment of Chicano faculty. We built Chicano Studies pretty much by the book–El Plan de Santa Barbara.
El Plan became literally our bible; and our fortress. Every part of the construction of Chicano Studies was tested against El Plan. What didn’t fit or couldn’t be made to fit was discarded. Philosophically there was consensus among all of us for the Plan’s injunction: Better no program than Chicano Studies without Chicano control or Chicano faculty! That was the principle that created differences between the Administra-tion and Chicano Studies/MEChA.
Joseph Smiley was president at UT El Paso when I joined the university in the summer of 1970. He had come to UTEP from the University of Illinois at Champagne/ Urbana; and had been professor of French in an earlier stint at Texas Western College. He was not a newcomer to El Paso. Nor was I.
In August of 1958 the Air Force assigned me to Biggs Air Force Base in El Paso. I had spent the last three years with U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE) as a Strategic Intelligence (Threat) Analyst in Soviet Studies, and had come to El Paso as a Special Weapons Officer (Captain) for the B-36 Wing based at Biggs Air Force Base. The long-range delivery of a nuclear pay-load by the B-36 was staggering but flawed by its refueling limitations.
In 1958 there were few Hispanic Air Force officers, fewer who had gone to flying school. I went to flying school at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, in class 53-O, an officer’s class. I had received an Air Force Reserve commission as a 2nd Lt upon completion of Advanced ROTC at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. Though I spent four years at Pitt, from 1948 to 1952, for odd reasons I did not take a degree. Which is why when I arrived in El Paso the Air Force authorized completion of my degree through its Bootstrap Program in an effort to keep me in the service. I received the B.A. degree in English (with minors in Spanish and French) from Texas Western College in 1959. I was 34 years old.
But military service provided me with little opportunity for graduate work in English. I finally left the Air Force in 1962 to pursue graduate studies in Eng-lish, explaining that I didn’t have any future in the Air Force since I was not going to be Air Force Chief of Staff. That humor helped ease the transition from military life to civilian status. I had spent nine years in the Air Force, and with the three years I had spent in the Marines during World War II, I had accumulated twelve years of military service. I did not regret my decision. I left the Air Force as a reserve Major. I was a Platoon Sergeant when I was discharged from the Marines.
I took up graduate studies at Texas Western College while teaching at Jefferson High School in El Paso where I was the French teacher. There were no positions for a Mexican American teacher of English. French, yes. Maria Esman [Barker] was director of Foreign Languages for the school district. In 1964, I was recruited by Newman Reed to teach at New Mexico State University. I had only the B.A. then. Quickly, though, I completed the M.A. in English at Texas Western College and finished the Ph.D. in English at the University of New Mexico while teaching at New Mexico State University.
In the meantime, I wrote furiously and published slightly. Through it all, I was becoming a Chicano. Philip D. Ortego was becoming Felipe de Ortego y Gasca (adding my mother’s name). Though my birth certificate listed me as Felipe, my public persona had become Philip since the first-grade when Felipe was changed to Philip because Anglo teachers thought Philip was more American than Felipe. I suffered the traumas of starting public school as a Spanish speaker, repeating first-grade, held back in the 4th grade because of what teachers perceived as a language problem, and winding up in the 9th grade two years older than the rest of the class. I quit going to school at the end of the 9th grade. That was 1943, the year I turned 17, during the grim days of World War II and old enough to join the Marines. At war’s end I wound up in the Pacific with service in mainland China. I was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1946 and made my way to the steel mills of Pittsburgh where I worked on the ore-trestle of Jones & Laughlin Steel as a laborer until I decided to try college.
To say that I was unprepared for college in 1948 is an understatement. Still, thanks to Chancellor Fitzgerald at the University of Pittsburgh, I enrolled at Pitt as a provisional student. In 1945 Chancellor Fitzgerald decreed that Pitt welcomed any ex-GI regardless of academic preparation.
For two years I struggled to get the hang of academic scholarship. My first semester at Pitt I received two A’s and three F’s. My two A’s were in Spanish. To remain enrolled as a “probationary” student I needed to have one of those F’s changed to a D. The history professor turned me down; the chemistry professor also. My English professor, who had been a Marine Lieutenant during World War II, sympathetically changed my F to a D. The next semester I took the second half of Freshman English with the same professor and I earned the D. He did not have to give it to me. I sometimes wonder if that’s not why I pursued the Ph.D. in English.
Anyway, that was the canvas I took with me to UT El Paso as founding director of Chicano Studies. I knew I was ready for the challenge. What I did not know was what that challenge would exact from me.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and with much enthusiasm we (MEChA and I) undertook the responsibilities of Chicano Studies. The UT Board of Regents approved the program in the Fall of 1970 but the administration of Texas Western College proved intransigent in supporting the program.
I’ve never thought that Joe Smiley was the problem. The infrastructure of the school was the problem. Department chairs were immovable in recruiting Chicano faculty. While they had signed off on the interdisciplinary courses in their departments for Chicano Studies, I believed they had done so to placate the Chicano students who were increasingly becoming more strident in their expectations of the university.
There were a number of Hispanic faculty at UTEP in the Fall of 1970, but only four who were Mexican Americans/Chicanos. Santiago Rodriguez and I joined UTEP in the Fall of 1970. Our appointments doubled the Chicano faculty. Santiago’s appointment was in Social Work. There was Jesus Provencio in Physics. Norma Hernandez in Education. A mejicano de Mexico taught in the Foreign Language department. That was it. We were the “Chicano” faculty. Hardly enough to launch a Chicano Studies Program. But we knew that going in. We thought, however, that the university would support the Chicano Studies Program with new faculty in the participating departments. On reflection, that was naivete on our part. But we thought the university was truly going to be a partner with us in developing the Chicano Studies Program.
After all, almost half the students at UTEP were Mexican Americans. The university was situated in a community that was some 75% mejicano. It was time for a new beginning, time to put internal colonization to rest. Both the mejicano students and the mejicano community of El Paso needed to see a balanced faculty and a balanced curriculum in place at the university. Surely that was not too much to ask in 1970. Chicanos had served their country well, particularly during World War II, and, if education was the key to a successful future, then a Chicano presence at the university would enhance that future that much more.
Almost 100% of the grounds keepers were mejicanos; almost 100% of the custodial workers were mejicanos. None of us thought the university needed prodding towards affirmative action. But we were wrong! We were in for a rude awakening. In the meantime, the MEChA students kept asking me (as Director of the Chicano Studies Program) what the delay was in fully implementing the program? My explanations were as lame as those the department heads gave me.
Still, we tried every venue, every tactic, every strategy. In the Spring of 1971, Tony Bonilla, then president of the Texas LULAC, led a delegation of us from UTEP and El Paso to governor Preston Smith’s office to beseech his help in the UTEP matter. When our conversation turned to the prospective appointment of a Chicano to the UT Board of Regents, he huffed and puffed citing his responsibilities as governor to all the people of Texas and not to any special interest. He called for the Sergeant at Arms to escort us forcibly from his office.
Chicano Studies was not standing still during all this period. We were teaching some Chicano Studies courses under the aegis of departmental listings. I taught a Chicano Literature course with an English designation. As an interdisciplinary program there were no Chicano Studies courses per se. John Haddox in the Philosophy department taught a Chicano Philosophy course with a Philosophy designation. Elsewhere in the university, Chicano Studies courses were taught by non-Chicano faculty. In the meantime there seemed to be no progress in recruiting Chicano faculty. All the while the MEChA students kept turning up the heat on the hotseat of the director of Chicano Studies. That heat turned hotter in the kiln of Chicano ideology. I was starting to feel like a Tio Taco making excuses for the university, trying to explain institutional processes to the MEChA students.
I threatened, I cajoled, I went to meetings ad nauseam, I did everything but kiss the administration’s butt to move Chicano Studies forward. I was fully prepared to do that too in order to get things moving. But like underground lava, the volcanic pressure of hope meeting the resistance of intransigence was heating up the ground of expectations, looking for a vent. When the “blow” came it surprised everyone but MEChA students.
Ya Basta! Became the watchword of that fateful December day of 1971 when 35 MEChA students, one graduate student (Pete Duarte), and one Assistant Professor of English (me) met with Joseph Smiley in his office with a list of non-negotiable demands for Chicano Studies.
In retrospect perhaps the locution “non-negotiable demands” could have been omitted from that meeting. But desperate times require desperate measures. Or so it seemed to us at the moment. I knew full well that repercussions of my involvement in that meeting would devolve on me and my future at UTEP. But the rightness of our cause stayed my course.
I’ve never thought of myself as an ideological martyr, nor have I ever thought of throwing myself into the consuming pyres of ideological conflagrations or throwing myself on my sword. The conflicts of World War II were enough for me. But on that balmy December morning of 1971, I little knew what lay in store for me–nay, for all of us. Perhaps none of us knew what the outcome would be.
Today, when we talk about our roles in that historic moment I detect no regret for our actions on that fatiric day. For the participants, it has become a badge of honor.
20/20 hindsight illuminates the past clearly. Would I make the same choices today? I think so. Today I am fulfilled by the choices I’ve made in my life. This doesn’t mean those choices were not painful. Many were. But the character of my life is more clearly defined by those choices, shaped by how we confront moments of choice. We are always at choice in life. Many people, though, choose to be at the effect of life, buffeted by the vagaries of life wither they take them, rather than accept responsibility for one’s life, taking charge of the reins.
In December of 1971 I was 45 years old. I had made the transition from being an American to being a Mexican American, metamorphosing into a Chicano. There was no hesitation, no second-thoughts when the outcome of our meeting with Joseph Smiley seemed futile and when without a word spoken the meeting turned into one where Joseph Smiley became fortune’s hostage until the MEChA demands were met.
For 36 hours some 3,500 Chicano students at UTEP (though Agapito Mendoza, now Vice Provost at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, says 5,000 Chicano students) encircled the administration building keeping out the police and other authorities, chanting paeans of liberation. Other students were letting the air out of the tires of police cars and buses, alert to police snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings, alert to the aggregation of sheriffs’ posses and military troops from nearby Fort Bliss. On that autumn day of December 1971, Chicano students at UT El Paso had stormed their Bastille and were at one with other student liberators around the globe.
I was not the leader of the group, but as its most elder I wheedled, I pleaded, I sought to get Joseph Smiley to see the justice of our cause. Nothing seemed to work but, finally, 36 hours later the impasse broke and we reached a settlement with the president. Via his office, he would support stronger recruitment of Chicano faculty, more departmental collegiality with Chicano Studies, a stronger institutional affirmative action plan to improve opportunities for Chicano staff within the university infrastructure.
We had won. But what had we lost? Personally, I had lost the goodwill of the president. I had always liked Joe Smiley. He was affable, he was attentive. But he was part of the “oppression”–we would both, it turned out, be casualties of that moment.
But the acrimony that event engendered from the Anglo professoriate at UTEP, the Anglo students on campus, and the Anglo community of El Paso, persisted for many years after. Some professors stopped talking to me; others became hostile.
Things changed. In the English department alone there were three Chicanos: Donald Castro, Hector Serrano, and me. Rudy Gomez joined us in history, Tomas Arciniega in Education, Rudy de la Garza in government. More followed. But my days at UTEP were numbered. The Dean of Arts and Sciences speculated that my future at UTEP did not look promising. My request for tenure, a promotion, and an increase in salary were politely shunted aside.
My situation at the moment reminded me of a comparable time at New Mexico State University in 1968 when I was president of the campus chapter of AAUP (American Association of University Professors). During a period of presidential despotism on campus, the AAUP chapter voted unanimously to censure the university president with a vote of “no-confidence.” As head of the AAUP chapter, I delivered the “no-confidence” message to the president of the university, although I would have preferred Clyde Tombaugh deliver the message. Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, was on faculty at NMSU, and led the no-confidence vote. The president promptly shot at the messenger. In part, that prompted my departure from New Mexico State University in 1970.
Here I was again, caught up by circumstances in a situation where I played out a role prescribed by the event because I happened to fill an office. An actor carried from one play into another, not knowing the lines of the character, ad-libbing through the scene, hoping I was doing what I was supposed to be doing in the play.
When MEChA finally gave up the president’s office, 36 hours later, the police took into custody everyone involved in the siege, carting all off to jail for booking and fingerprinting. All were charged with kidnapping and trespassing. Hours later, after bail was made, all were released—thanks to the good offices of Hector Bencomo who was a member of the city council and also a member of the Mesa Directiva (Community Advisory Council) of the Chicano Studies Program. Thanks also to the legal work of Tati Santiesteban, Paul Moreno, and Jesus Ochoa who eased our legal difficulties.
One outcome of the takeover event was that we were able to see who our friends were. To many on campus, Chicano Studies was seen as an interloper, a program of little academic worth, established only to placate the stridency of students manipulated by anarchists and radical groups out to subvert American democracy. We were obviously un-American. One Anglo woman accosted me on the street one day after the incident and asked me if I was a Communist. I said, No, whereupon she asked if I believed in God. Publicity demonized us and made us personae non grata. Joe Smiley was removed from the presidency of the university.
Currently, Chicano Studies is beset with the same problems of demonization in efforts to discredit the discipline. We must stand as firm today as we did yesterday. Tenemos que defender MEChA y Chicano Studies como hijas queridas.
Disheartened but not demoralized, I faced bleak prospects in the Academy. In March of that year I put out feelers for a position elsewhere. There were some nibbles. Perhaps I had overestimated my value as a Chicano scholar. After all, had I not produced the first historical study on Mexican American Literature in 1971? Was Simon & Schuster not bringing out my anthology of Chicano Literature, the first by a major mainstream press? Had I not beat out Paul Newman as narrator of the documentary film North From Mexico? My hopes improved when I was invited for an interview at Stanford University for the position of Assistant to the President; and for a position in the English department at UC Santa Barbara. But it was the call from James Palmer, President at Metro State in Denver, that buoyed my enthusiasm. From a mutual friend he had heard of my plight at UT El Paso. I was the person he wanted as his assistant.
That move to Denver in the summer of 1972 pretty much defined my future activities. At Metro State I learned about college administration. I attended a post-doctoral program on management and planning for higher education at the Harriman Institute of Columbia’s Graduate School of Business. I organized Metro State’s Affirmative Action Program. I prepared the president’s agendas for his meetings with state lawmakers. I filled in for him at social functions. I thought I was ready for a presidency of my own. In 1973 when I applied for the presidency at Texas A&I in Kingsville, I was not selected even though I was the number one choice of the search committee. I sued the university and 9 years later with the help of the EEOC the matter was settled. I went on to be Vice Chancellor of the Hispanic University in Denver.
Suffice to say, the road has been long and winding and arduous but the journey exciting. Sunset and evening star and the memories of those years with MEChA at the University of Texas at El Paso during the hubbub of the Civil Rights Movement comfort me. And like Don Quijote, con un pied en el estribo and a lance at the ready, I summon Rocinante for my mnemonic expeditions and my bouts with windmills.
Copyright © 1998 by the author. All rights reserved. This paper was presented on the occasion of the UTEP MEChA 30th Anniversary Reunion in El Paso, Texas, August 29, 1998. At the time Felipe de Ortego y Gasca was Professor of English, Director of the Bilingual Studies Program, and Director of the Title III HSI Program, Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas.