In 1973 Washington Square Press—a Division of Simon & Schuster—published a Pocket Books edition of We Are Chicanos: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, first critical anthology of Mexican American Literature by a major American Press. I was editor of the anthology. There had been other anthologies before We Are Chicanos, but none as critical editions. That is, with critical commentaries, notations, and references.
At the time of publication I was Professor of Urban Studies and Faculty Assistant to Dr. James Palmer, President of Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado. At its foundation, Metro State was among one of the earliest universities without walls. That was an extraordinary time for me. I was also Associate Publisher of La Luz Magazine, first national public affairs magazine in English for American Hispanics. La Luz was ahead of the curve in print media for American Hispanics.
Backing up for a moment: from 1970 to 1972 I was founding director of the Chicano Studies Program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Owing to a student blowout and irreconcilable differences with the administration of the University of Texas at El Paso, I sought another academic venue for myself. Thanks to Dan Valdes, professor of Political Science at Metro State and Publisher of La Luz Magazine, I moved to Denver to join Jim Palmer’s team and also Dan Valdes’ team at La Luz.
The anthology We Are Chicanos had its genesis in a course I taught at the University of New Mexico in the fall of 1969. That summer Louis Bransford had been selected as the founding director of Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico, first program in the state. That summer Louis Bransford asked me to organize a course on Mexican American literature for the program. I was a Teaching Fellow in the English Department finishing up a Ph.D. in British Renaissance Studies and had published some pieces on Mexican Americans, several of them in The Nation.
That’s when I discovered the lack of extant materials which I thought would be readily available for the course. There were plenty of individual works in private and public libraries (including university libraries) but none available in sufficient quantities from a publisher for a course on Mexican American Literature with 35 students. I resorted to mimeographed copies of materials for the students.
At the time I was completing a dissertation on Chaucer with Dr. Edith Buchanan as my advisor. The course on Mexican American literature expanded my awareness not only about the diasporic history of Mexican Americans but about their literary legacy. I decided to switch my dissertation from Chaucer to Mexican American Literature. This was not a willy-nilly decision. Era del Corazon—it was a heartfelt decision.
With considerable consternation, Joe Zavadil, chairman of the English Department at the University of New Mexico relented and approved the change muttering under his breath oaths about my sanity. The switch cost me an extra year in getting the Ph.D. I threw myself immediately into the research for Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature. I did not know then that the dissertation would be the first historical and taxonomic study in the field.
The research for the study led me to the major university libraries in the Hispanic South-west as well as to the Library of the Undies in Mexico City. Throughout I was, in effect, “flying by the seat of my pants” as aviation parlance puts it. Serendipitously in my re-search I came into contact with Myra Ellen Jenkins at the New Mexico Archives in Santa Fe. Most graciously she took me into her confidence. She became my mentor and confident in the project.
It was that experience of switching dissertation topics that prompted my efforts to organize We Are Chicanos: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature. Putting the anthology together was not easy but the editors at Washington Square Press were indefatigable in their assistance. After two years (1971-1973) the anthology saw the light. Washington Square Press Pocket Books printed 75 thousand copies in the first run of which 50 thou-sand went into remainders almost immediately. Doggedly, however, there was a 2nd printing as word about the anthology began to spread.
Conceptually I envisioned the layout of the anthology in two parts by genres with introductory comments to the parts and sub-sections. I titled Part 1 Perspectives with 4 sub-sections. I titled Part II The Creative Spirit with 3 sub-sections. On reflection, the authors included in the sub-sections represent a stellar lineup of Mexican American writers up to 1973. There were discussions about an updated 2nd edition of We Are Chicanos but that never came to pass, not because the idea wasn’t keen but because life and its vicissitudes became more pressing.
Of the 42 authors included in the anthology, only 9 are women. The section on Folklore includes 3 women and the section on Drama includes an entire play by a woman. Only a fifth of the authors are women. Today that lineup of men and women would be more equitable. Mea culpa. This is not to say there were not more Chicana writers at the time. Not at all. It’s that I was unaware of them. Since then, the Arte Publico Project at the University of Houston on Recovering the U. S. Hispanic Literary Heritage has helped to fill in the gaps in the U.S. Hispanic literary heritage.
We Are Chicanos: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature
Part I: Perspectives
Sub-section 1 Backgrounds includes:
George I. Sanchez Stepchildren of a Nation, from Forgotten People.
Sabine Ulibarri Cultural Heritage of the Southwest
Jacinto Quirarte The Art of Mexican America
Feliciano Rivera Toward a History of the Mexican American
Sub-section 2 Folklore includes:
Nina Otero Count La Cerda’s Treasure
Josefina Escajeda Tales from San Elizario
Jovita Gonzalez Don Tomas
Americo Paredes The Legend of Gregorio Cortez
Sub-section 3 Days in the Lives includes:
Armando Rendon Kiss of Death from Chicano Manifesto
Reies Lopez Tijerina A Letter from Jail
Jose Andres Chacon Profile: Ruben Salazar
Philip D. Ortego Message from Garcia
Sub-section 4 Voices and the Movement includes:
Julian Samora An Interview with Julian Samora
Lydia Aguirre The Chicano Movement
Armando Rodriguez Speak up Chicano
Mario T. Garcia Chicano Youth and the Politics of Protest
Part II: The Creative Spirit
Sub-section 5 Poetry includes:
Roberto Felix Salazar The Other Pioneers
Jose Antonio Navarro Saltillo Mountains
Nephtali De Leon Of Bronze the Sacrifice
Luis Omar Salinas Aztec Angel
Javier Honda Nag’s Head, Cape Hatteras
Rafael Jesus Gonzalez To an Old Woman
The Oyster of the Green Gaze
Homage to the Greek
Jane Limon Incongruity
Leo Romero I Too America
Elvira Gomez Open
Georgia Cobos Suffer Little Children
Tomas Rivera Soundless Words
When Love to Be?
The Eyes of a Child
Tino Villanueva My Certain Burn Toward Pale Ashes
Chicano is an Act of Defiance
Jaime Calvillo Life of a Bracero when Cotton is in Season
Raul Salinas Los Caudillos
A Trip Through the Mind Jail
Raymundo Perez Hasta la Victoria Siempre
Ricardo Sanchez To a Child
Margarita Virginia Sanchez Escape
Peadro Contrearas Brown Eyes Children of the Sun
Jose Angel Gutierrez 22 Miles
Abelardo Delgado Stupid America
Sub-section 6 Drama includes:
Estela Portillo [Trambley] The Day of the Swallows
Sub-section 7 Fiction includes:
Arthur L. Campa The Cell of Heavenly Justice
Juan A. Cedillo Gentleman of Rio en Medio
Fray Angelico Chavez Hunchback Madonna
Daniel Garza Everybody Knows Tobie
Raymond Barrio Lupe’s Dream from The Plum Plum Pickers
At the end of the anthology there’s a Glossary and a Suggestion for Further Reading. The most taxing task of putting the anthology together were the Acknowledgements and Permissions. So many of the authors in the anthology are now gone but their works live on as the cumulative legacy of Mexican American literature. For a number of the authors this was their first publication. Lupe Anguiano was the face on the front and back covers of the book.
The book lists me as Philip D. Ortego my legal name for almost half my life until I became a Chicano and reclaimed my birth name Felipe and cobbled my father and mother’s last names to become Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. In the segregated American schools of 1932 the fast-track Americanization process was to change our foreign sounding names to American sounding names. Thus, I became Philip. Fortunately that Americanization process did not engender in me a schizophrenic identity. ¡Se quien soy! I know who I am.
It has been my tremendous good fortune to have known all the authors who contributed to We Are Chicanos. Despite living on the margin of American literature for half of my existence, my life in Chicano letters, especially, has been stimulating and rewarding. And all because in 1969—almost half a century ago—Louis Bransford asked me to organize a course on Mexican American Literature. My life now at almost 89 is so much more fuller having worked to bring the corpus of Mexican American Literature to the attention not just to Mexican Americans and the American public but to the world of readers.
All the generations of Mexican Americans still living need to be aware that as mejicanos del otro lado, Mexicans from the other side, we carried the creative spirit of our indigenous and blended ancestors with us and mixed it with the clay of another country to produce a rich literary heritage worthy of the mother lode and worthy of the literary vein of our diasporic home.
The spin-off from Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature that has brought me more recognition and fulfillment is the section in the dissertation entitled The Chicano Renaissance. I sent the piece off to a number of journals none of which responded positively. Lydia Aguirre, a Social Work colleague of mine at the University of Texas at El Paso was gathering contributions with the theme of social justice from Chicanos Social Workers for a special edition of The Journal of Social Casework. Margaret Mangold was editor of the journal.
I offered the piece on “The Chicano Renaissance” to Lydia who after mulling the offer for a moment accepted it for her collection, remarking that the essay was, after all, about the pursuit for social justice. The essay appeared in the May 1971 issue of Social Casework and subsequently reprinted in La Causa Chicana: The Movement for Justice, Margaret M. Mangold, editor, New York: Family Services Association of America, 1972. It was also re-printed in Introduction to Chicano Studies (2nd Edition), Livie Isauro Duran and H. Russell Bernard, editors, New York: Macmillan, 1973. And also reprinted in Aztlan: Historia Contemporanea del Pueblo Chicano, as “El Renacimiento Chicano” Mexico: Secretaria de Educa-ción Publi¬ca, Mexico, 1976.” The essay has traveled far as a seminal document in the evolution of Chicano Literature.
I’m often asked why “The Chicano Renaissance” was published in a non-literary journal and not in a literary journal? To which I reply that Margaret Mangold was the only one with the vision to recognize the significance of the essay. The times were not salubrious for Chicano Literature. In its incunabula Anglo America didn’t know what it was nor perceive its potential.
This fault of recognition also propelled publication of We Are Chicanos.
Copyright 2015 by Dr. Philip de Ortego y Gasca. This blog was previously published in 2015.