The decade of the 70’s would be a momentous decade for me, starting with completion of my dissertation Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature. In February of 1970, Ray Small, Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso inquired if I’d be interested in applying for a teaching position in English with additional duties in organizing a Chicano Studies Program. Loathe as I was to leave New Mexico State University after 6 years there, I said “yes.”
In April of 1970, Ray Small informed me I was a finalist for the position he had described, and invited me to UT El Paso for an interview. What an interview that was! The faculty of the English department greeted me warmly. I did, after all, know most of them. I was not prepared for the grueling interview by the MEChA students. Mistakenly—or perhaps pompously—I assumed that my growing reputation as a writer and scholar in Chicano literature would carry the day for me. I was not only publishing well on the English and American canon of writers (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnson, Browning, Melville, Steinbeck, and other literary luminaries), but publishing well in Chicano literature and public affairs.
My interview with the MEChA students was like my interrogations of Strategic Air Command pilots at the Air Force Survival School in the isolated high desert of Reno, Nevada, during my nine years in the Air Force. The MEChA students were determined to peel away any layers of inauthenticity in their search for the real Felipe Ortego. Having been a World War II Marine in the Pacific, I was not intimidated by the students. In fact, my admiration for them grew larger as they pressed on with the interview. They got to the ideological nub of my commitment to the Chicano Movement. Satisfied, they settled on me. To this day, I don’t know who the other finalists were. But the confidence of the MEChA students in choosing me to be founding director of Chicano Studies at UT El Paso changed my life.
I settled in as Founding Director of Chicano Studies at UT El Paso on August 15, 1970, and began immediately on the proposal to the UT Board of Regents and the Texas Commission on Higher Education to establish the Chicano Studies Program at UTEP. Helping me were MEChA students and Mario and Richard Garcia both of whom had finished their graduate work at UTEP and bound for Ph.D.’s elsewhere. With my appointment in the English Department and that of Santiago Rodriguez in social Work, the Chicano faculty at UT El Paso doubled. On board already were Norma Hernandez in Education and Jesus Provencio in Mathematics. There were other Hispanic faculty on campus who were not Chicanos, that is, Mexican Americans. Of the Chicanos we were four in number, not counting Pete Duarte who was a graduate student in Sociology. The Chicano Studies Program was housed in Graham Hall, second floor. My appointment was jointly in English and Chicano Studies.
What I noticed most about UT El Paso in 1970 was the presence of so many mejicanos, all of them sweeping floors, cleaning windows, mowing lawns, trimming trees, dusting furniture in offices, vacuuming carpets, and serving food in the cafeteria. We were everywhere except in the classrooms as faculty and as administrators at any level of the university hierarchy. Bear in mind that in 1970 the mejicano population of El Paso was well over 70% while almost half the student body at UT El Paso were mejicanos. Those figures are dramatically higher today.
In shaping the Chicano Studies Program at UT El Paso, our bible was El Plan de Santa Barbara, the Chicano Studies template forged at UC Santa Barbara in 1969 by the Chicano Coordinating Council on Higher Education “as a manifesto for the implementation of Chicano Studies,” not only in California but everywhere. The most compelling aspect of El Plan de Santa Barbara was the role of community participation in Chicano Studies. Uppermost in our minds was the mantra that: A Chicano Studies Program without Chicano control is not a Chicano Studies Program. At UT El Paso we quickly organized a Mesa Directiva to bring the Chicano community into the academic sphere. The most prominent members of la Mesa Directiva were Jose Piñon, a pharmacist and Hector Bencomo, a grocer and El Paso Councilman. Both were to play key roles in the MEChA takeover of the administration building in December of 1971.
While the Chicano Studies proposal formally established the Chicano Studies Program at UT El Paso, the principal impetus for the formation of Chicano Studies on campus came from the MEChA students roiled into action by the string of high school walkouts during 1969, among them the student walkouts at Bowie High School and at Jefferson High School. Chicano activism was not exclusively a California phenomenon, though the first Chicano Studies program in the country was established at California State University—Los Angeles in 1968, followed by formation of the Chicano Studies Department at California State University—Northridge in 1969. In 1970 the first Chicano Studies Program in Texas was established at the University of Texas at El Paso, third in the nation, although UT Austin has contested that claim. Celos! Puros celos!
There were many considerations to take into account in getting Chicano Studies up and running at UT El Paso, first among them an academic structure consonant with the philosophy and objectives of Chicano Studies. We all knew what was needed and where we wanted to go. The question was: How to get there? And, of course, how to decide? The first steps were obvious. We organized a Chicano caucus of students, faculty, and community supporters. The proposal for the Chicano Studies program came out of this caucus. Needless to say there were hurdles in the deliberations of the caucus, deliberations which gave credence to the proposition that when you get three Chicanos to deliberate you get four opinions. But I jest!
Being focused and single-minded, and thanks to students of MEChA, the caucus achieved not just consensus but unanimity. By November we received word that the Chicano Studies proposal had been approved. Anticipating that approval, we hired Ana Osante—may she rest in peace—as the Chicano Studies secretary who came to embody the spirit of Chicano Studies. With so much preliminary work to conduct, we hired student workers as well—two of whom were Patricia Roybal (now a New Mexico State Representative) and Hilda Parra.
There were administrators and faculty members who wanted us to succeed; and there were those who wanted to see us fail, that is, those who regarded Chicano Studies as a divisive academic wedge. In part, that perspective nudged us toward crafting Chicano Studies as an interdisciplinary program and as a strategy for providing staffing by the departments: that way we would have courses and a cudgel in getting Chicano faculty in the departments.
Increasing the presence of Chicano faculty on campus would prove to be our donnybrook. The stumbling block there was garnering faculty support in the departments to hire Chicano faculty. In this regard, our strongest faculty supporters then were John Haddox, professor of Philosophy, Melvin Strauss, professor of Political Science, and Ray Small, Dean of Arts and Sciences. There were others, of course; not many, but others. I always thought President Smiley was in our camp but caught in a web of disdain and malice wrought by the powers in the UT system that saw us as Meskins, pretty much the way the Texas Rangers and Walter Prescott Webb saw us. In the end, Joe Smiley and I were collateral victims in the ideological struggle for Chicano representation at UT El Paso.
Many of us in the Chicano caucus thought that the interdisciplinary approach was preferable since it seemed to be a way of increasing our numbers throughout the academic departments rather than clustering them in one department. At Western New Mexico University we have a Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies with affiliate faculty in the various academic departments of the university, a hybrid version of a departmental and interdisciplinary structure which seems to be working well for us. We have the autonomy of a department while at the same time influence in the departments via Hispanic/Latino faculty.
No matter the structure, the interdisciplinary program of Chicano Studies at UT El Paso has survived 45 years. That’s a testament to its foundation and its stewardship. But its history has not been without travail. In recruiting Chicano professors for the various disciplines, we were met with departmental disdain and intransigence engendered by institutional disdain. No departments were taking us seriously.
That’s what ignited the MEChA takeover of the Administration Building and holding the president hostage for 36 hours on that December day of 1971. We were all frustrated; the students more so. Our efforts at galvanizing the mejicano community to support us were met with consejos to tone down the rhetoric, to slow down, we were going too fast, expecting too much, too soon. In the spring of that year when Tony Bonilla, Texas Director of LULAC and I and a contingent of mejicanos (including students) from El Paso met with Texas Governor Preston Smith beseeching him to appoint mejicanos to Texas universities’ boards of regents, he had his Sergeant-at-Arms throw us out of his office, admonishing us that as Governor he could not favor one group over another. That was the climate in Texas at that time.
That fatidico ( decreed by fate) morning of the takeover I was caught by surprise. Not that the students didn’t trust me; they were protecting me but I perished anyway. After a morning of wrangling with President Smiley, we were no further ahead than when we started. None of us could persuade the president to consider our “demands”—perhaps “non-negotiable demands” was a poor choice of words. Then silently as the clock moved toward noon, the MEChA students ushered the secretaries out of the office and locked the doors. Phones were disabled. Joe Smiley grew nervous. The room crackled with the electricity of uncertainty. I felt like an actor in a play with an unfamiliar script, improvising the next scene, adlibbing the lines.
Outside, as if anticipating the takeover, Chicano students began to flock around the administration building. Newspaper estimates described the throng as 3500 strong, but Agapito Mendoza, who went on to become Vice Provost at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, asserts that 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, 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 were victorious—but at what cost?
The students and I were rounded up and carted off to jail, charged with kidnapping felonies. Thanks to the efforts of Hector Bencomo, Jose Piñon, and attorneys Jesus Ochoa, Tati Santiestaban, and Paul Moreno we were cleared—branded, yes, but cleared. The university would not press charges against us, though the event had serious criminal consequences. I was regarded as the instigator—my contract was not renewed for the 1972-73 academic year. Pero como dice el dicho: no hay mal que por bien no venga—even an ill wind blows some good.
The takeover was not in vain. The MEChA students had served notice on the university—nay, to Texas—that the “good ol’ boy” way of doing business with mejicanos was headed for the scrap-heap of history. We made great strides the following semester. By the time I left UT El Paso in May of 1972, the Chicano faculty included Tomas Arciniega in Education, Rudolfo de la Garza in Political Science, Donald Castro in English, Hector Serrano in Drama, Rudy Gomez in History, and Karen Ramirez in Linguistics. There were others. In retrospect, nos despedimos (we left) with heads held high. Pero la lucha continuó y contínua! But the struggle still continues!
Joe Smiley was forced into retirement for giving in to the demands of the MEChA students. 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; some branded me as a “communist. “ Some of that acrimony persists to this day, fueled by the fiery vestiges of “the Black Legend”—the stereotypes that have plagued Spaniards and their progeny everywhere since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Years later, Joe Olvera wrote to me saying: “Thank you, Dr. Ortego. I’ll never forget how you stood with us when we took over the Administration Building at UTEP in 1971 and held the President hostage. Your courage under fire was admirable. You placed your career on the line and never flinched. But of course you had been a Marine during World War II. No wonder your bravery was so uncompromising.”
Two successes occurred over that summer of 1972: the first phase of the Task “Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English (of which I was a founding member) actuated by the National Council of Teachers of English in cooperation with the College Conference on Composition and Communication had come to a close with publication of Searching for America, edited by Ernece Kelly. In Searching for America, the Task Force made up of the Chicano Caucus (of which I was Chair), the African American Caucus (chaired by Ernece Kelly), the Native American Caucus (chaired by Montana Rickards), and the Asian American Caucus (chaired by Jeffrey Chan) surveyed the anthologies of American literature used in Colleges and Universities for inclusion of minority American writers. Needless to say, the inclusion of minority writers was nominal, including only a couple of African American writers. There were no Chicano, Native American, nor Asian American writers included in those anthologies. In fact, the paucity of women writers astounded us. Searching for America was a stinging criticism of American publishers and their neglect of minority American writers. Searching for America includes my piece on “Chicanos and American Literature’ (with Jose Carrasco), reprinted by Wiley and Sons in The Wiley Reader: Designs for Writing in 1976.
In the Summer of 1972 I was asked to edit a special issue of Educational Resources and Techniques focusing on Chicano Literature. The issue turned out quite well garnering kudos from a variety of sources. The year was both calamitous and rewarding. The calamity was that my contract at the university of Texas at El Paso was not renewed; the year was rewarding because no hay mal que por bien no venga—even an ill wind blows some good. Unexpectedly, through a mutual friend in Denver, Colorado, James Palmer, president at Metropolitan State College in Denver called me to ask if I’d be interester in being his executive assistant. I had not despaired in finding a new post. In fact, I interviewed for positions at Stanford, Cal State—San Luis Obispo, and at UC Santa Barbara. After James Palmer’s call, the Metro State post appealed the most to me.
I moved to Denver to be Assistant to the President at Metro State College where I met Dan Valdes and became one of the founders of La Luz magazine, first national Hispanic public affairs magazine in English. In 1973, thanks to James Palmer, I went off to Columbia University for post-doctoral studies in Management and Planning for Higher Education which helped me in 1974 as one of the founders of the Hispanic University of America, first major effort to establish a stand-alone university for American Hispanos by American Hispanos, and was named Vice-Chancellor for Academic Development. That year I was also the prime candidate for the presidency at Texas A&I University at Kingsville. Rejected, I filed an EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) suit against the university which was not settled until 1982 in my favor.
My story was that I left UT El Paso in 1972 to pursue better opportunities elsewhere, but Dan Valdes knew the real story since he was the one who recommended me to Jim Palmer who told me he knew what happened at UT El Paso, and from what Dan Valdes told him about me, I was the “man” for the job. By August I moved all my stuff from El Paso to Denver. In fact, I made that move with Santiago Rodriguez, who went to Denver to work on the DSW (Doctor of Social Work) at the University of Denver. Coincidentally we both started at UT El Paso at the same time in 1970. Our arrival that year at UT El Paso doubled the size of the Chicano faculty. In Denver, Santiago and I found a modest but comfortable apartment near the downtown area, not far from the Brown Palace. The following spring I found an apartment nearer to Metro State College. Santiago moved closer to the University of Denver further out on the west side.
On my arrival at Metro State Dan Valdes greeted me warmly, showed me around the Metro campus which was really not a campus at all. The college rented all its space in a cluster of buildings near downtown. Later, it would become part of the Auraria Complex of colleges which would occupy the Auraria site just off Cherry Creek downtown. The arrangement of three institutions of higher learning on one campus—Metro State, Auraria Community College, and the University of Colorado Denver Center—reminded me of the Air Force arrangements of a Base with a Commander who provided support services for tenant units that had their own commanders.
When I arrived at Metro State in August of 1972 that arrangement was still in the future. I was impressed by the truly urban character of the college, taking classes out to the community. I had come from one grand enterprise in Chicano education to an equally grand enterprise in urban education. In addition to being Jim Palmer’s executive assistant, I was also Associate Professor of Urban Studies–one foot in administration and the other foot planted firmly in the ranks of the faculty where I was “home.”
Working with Dan Valdes on La Luz was a boon in my publishing experience. Dan Valdes who later, after we met, styled himself as “Dan Valdes y Tapia”–was a product of the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado; and proud of his Hispanic roots which stretched back to the earliest settlements of the Spaniards in North America. Through an agency of a branch of my mother’s family, my roots in Texas stretch back to 1731, to the 16 families that founded the city of San Antonio, Texas.
At Metro, Dan Valdes took me under his wing and immediately included me in his circle of entrepreneurs who were involved in establishing La Luz Magazine, first national Hispanic public affairs magazine in English. Not long thereafter I became Managing Editor of the magazine and Associate Publisher. Within a short time I was the second largest holder of stock in the magazine. Dan held control of the magazine with 51 percent of the stock.
Dan Valdes was cantankerous and he disliked banks. I never knew where he stashed his money, and he almost never carried money with him. Invariably I wound up paying for our morning coffee at Dunkin Donuts located conveniently around the corner from the offices of La Luz in Glendale. But Dan was generous with me. He didn’t approve of the term “Chicano” but he gave me the space to call myself a Chicano. My first title with La Luz was as Literary Editor which gave me considerable leeway with topics. More importantly, however, there was chemistry between Dan and me that sparked inspiration in my association with him and La Luz.
That first year cost La Luz a million dollars to operate. Fortunately, the magazine managed to attract enough income to allay the expenses. To cut operating costs after that first year the magazine was reduced in size from “Life” size to “Time” size. At the helm of the editorial tiller of the magazine, I sought to make it a publication that truly reflected the diversity of Hispanics in the United States while maintaining its cultural identity with the Hispanics of the Southwest principally Mexican Americans and Chicanos. By 1975 the readership of La Luz magazine—which we touted as the first Hispanic public affairs magazine in English—had grown to 500,000.
In many ways, La Luz magazine was ahead of the Hispanic curve in the United States. Which is why we had trouble attracting mainstream advertisers. Our subscription rates were low. Any income from subscriptions quickly went for production, leaving us with the liability of subscribers who had already paid for the magazine. We scrambled for every penny to keep the magazine afloat.
In terms of content we published established Hispanic writers and newcomers. One of the earliest Hispanic personalities to be published in La Luz was Juan Bruce Novoa. Juan was 28 when I first met him in the fall of 1972 in Denver, Colorado; I was 46. Though a generation separated Juan Bruce-Novoa and me, we were peers and colleagues in the roiling pot of Chicano literature. That September of 1972, Juan and I gave presentations in Denver at the joint conference of the Colorado Council of Hispanic Educators and the American Association of Publishers. In an open letter to me published in La Luz Magazine in 1973, Juan wrote:
I sat listening to you deliver the keynote address . . . . you seemed to be in your usual top form. You proceeded to reprimand the publishers for their lack of minority authors in their catalogues and briefly recounted the various paths that minorities, especially Mexican Americans, had taken in the past and the new developments in the present scene. During the speech, you called for a new aesthetic, one not biased in favor of the Anglo writer, one that would allow the Chicano contributions to American culture to take their rightful place alongside those of other groups. A new literary aesthetic, a Chicano aesthetic, by which to judge the works of the Chicano author.
In that presentation, my call for a Chicano aesthetic was to free Chicano literature from the burdens of history and the shackles of American literature. In that Open Letter, Juan Bruce-Novoa proceeded:
Later in the conference, I rose to address the two groups myself. I also called for a new aesthetic, artistic as well as critical. I deplored as I always have, the existence of any pre-established definitions of the characteristics of art and its sub-types. Those that have been proffered by segments of the Chicano movement are no less oppressive than those so long held by the Anglo critics. I called for complete freedom to write about anything, in any way and in any language without cultural, regional or political prerequisites. No restrictions from outside nor inside the Movement. To compliment this freedom, a new critical approach: post analysis instead of prejudgment
Freedom of Expression and the Chicano Movement:
An Open Letter to Dr. Philip Ortego
To my knowledge, this was the first published piece by Juan Bruce-Novoa. This would be the first in a string of exchanges we would have over the next 28 years. Over each of those years our perspectives on Chicano literature would be sharpened and refined. While we were not in absolute agreement in everything about Chicano literature there was certainly no contradiction between my call for a Chicano cultural aesthetic and Juan’s call for an acultural one. We were both concerned about the rise of norms that could stifle Chicano literature aborning.
In Denver, Juan and I would meet often for charlas on Chicano literature over cafesitos here and there in the many coffee shops scattered across the city at the time. In August of 1973, I went off to San Jose State University as a visiting professor in English, Chicano Studies, and Social Work. Juan graciously hosted a bon voyage gathering at his house for me at which he presented me with a framed copy of one of his etchings entitled “Innocencia Perversa” which would be the title of his book of poetry published in 1977. The work has always hung prominently wherever I’ve lived—still does.
I should add that in the Spring of 1973 I applied for the presidency at Texas A&I University in Kingsville, Texas. Having worked with James Palmer as his Executive Assistant, I felt ready for a presidency. It turned out I had lots of community support for my candidacy. I surfaced as the first choice of the selection committee. Following historical protocol, the regents should have offered me the post. Unfortunately, the Regents of the University chose the number three person on the list of recommended candidates. It turned out that they fired their choice within three years for incompetency. I’ve since joked that they should have given me the chance to be as incompetent as he was. I filed an EEOC suit against the University. The case was not adjudicated until 1982 with the EEOC finding in my favor. The University settled with me though I would have preferred the job. Pos, asi es la vida!
Returning to Denver after my visiting stint at San Jose where I became a fast friend of Ernesto Galarza, I threw myself into La Luz Magazine as its Managing Editor, hawking the magazine hither and yon. Juan went off to Yale and finished his dissertation. In January of 1974, Juan invited me to Yale for a Roundtable presentation on Chicano literature which I entitled “The Forgotten Pages of American Literature.” Tino Villanueva and Carlos Morton presented at the Roundtable also, the proceedings of which were published in the Journal of Ethnic Studies (Spring, 1975).
It was bitterly cold in New Haven that January; ice-storms almost paralyzed the area. I flew into New York from Denver and went on to New Haven by bus. As always, Juan was the perfect host (in a smoking jacket no less). Wine warmed us and words stirred us to passion. The rhetoric of Aztlan pushed us onward and upward—arriba y adelante! At that conference, Juan introduced me to Paul de Man, the controversial proponent of deconstruction, who sympathized with the plight of Chicano literature.
That cold and icy winter reminded me of the days of my youth in Chicago (1936-1940) with winters no less cold or icy. Though brief, my visit to Yale and New Haven also stirred in me memories of my winters from 1948 to 1952 in Pittsburgh where I was an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in comparative studies (languages, literature and philosophy). Now here I was at 48 in the northern reaches of Aztlan preaching the gospel of Aztlan to the uninformed. But Juan was doing a great job there by himself, drawing Chicano students from Aztlan to the gothic chambers of Yale. Two years earlier I had lectured at Harvard on Chicano literature, recording that experience and my visit to Cape Cod in a piece entitled “Lest Darkness Overtake Me.” There I was, an Argonaut from Texas looking for my immortal soul on that stark stretch of rocks jutting out into the Atlantic from Provincetown.
In October of 1974, David Conde and I organized the first National Chicano Literary Conference at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Chicanos from across the nation came. Juan Bruce-Novoa came and delivered a blockbuster of literary theory which he called “The Space of Chicano Literature.” Twenty years later at a Chicano literary conference at the University of Mexico in Mexico City which Juan and I both attended, I confessed (jocularly) that for all the years since his presentation of “The Space of Chicano Literature” I pretended to understand the concept of Juan’s theory for fear of being found out that I didn’t.
Juan’s concept of the space of Chicano literature was an important step in the advancement of Chicano literature and critical theory. Thanks to Henry Casso, the Proceedings of that conference were published as The Chicano Literary World—1974 by the National Education Task Force de la Raza in 1975 and republished by Jose Armas as a special issue of De Colores (1:4, 1975) of Pajarito Press. Juan was the man of the hour at that conference. Thirty years later in 2004, Juan and I would reunite at New Mexico Highlands University for the 30th commemorative anniversary of that conference. We were both considerably grayer by that time, though now I was walking with a cane. Juan looked as trim and young as always.
In November of 1974, Juan and I were at another conference on Chicano literature at the University of Texas at Austin when we heard that the Fort Worth Independent School District had banned all Chicano books and materials from their schools. On the banned books list was We Are Chicanos: Anthology of Mexican American Literature which I had edited for Washington Square Press in 1973. Thanks to all our efforts but especially Juan’s, we were able to exert enough pressure on the Fort Worth Independent School District to rescind its ban. The reason for the ban—the Chicano books incited revolt and revolution. Shades of the Texas Textbook Massacre of 2010 by the Texas State Board of Education.
Over the following decades, Juan traveled extensively, principally in Europe, curtailing our encounters. On occasion, however, I‘d receive a note or missive from him posted from Germany or Spain or wherever his travels had taken him. In those years I thought of him as a bon vivant. But he was always the critical observer of the human condition. Our disagreements were always jovial, although I bristled a bit when he referred to me once as a “media mogul” in one of his works. In 2005 I received a congratulatory note from Juan for receiving the Patricia and Rudolfo Anaya Critica Nueva Award from the University of New Mexico for “scholarly achievement and exemplary contributions to Chicana-Chicano literature.”
The last time I saw Juan was on April 24th of 2007 at the 13th Annual Multicultural Conference in San Antonio, Texas, hosted by San Antonio College and Juanita Lawhn. At that conference I received the Premio Letras de Aztlan from the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies—Tejas Foco “for lifetime work and achievement in Chicana/o scholarship and community activism.” I gave the keynote presentation and Juan introduced me, explaining in that introduction “On Renaissance, Luz, and Selective Amnesia: An Overdue Tribute to Felipe Ortego” his perception of my role in the birthing of Chicano literature and the days of our friendship when I was with La Luz Magazine in Denver. His words brought tears to my eyes. I had no idea that would be the last time I would see Juan Bruce-Novoa. Like Lycidas in John Milton’s pastoral elegy, Juan was too young to die.
Other stellar Hispanic writers whom we featured in La Luz were Rosario Castellanos, Ricardo Sanchez, and Ernesto Galarza, to name but a few. I wrote monthly editorials with a column heading of “Mano a Mano.” We covered the waterfront for news of Hispanic events in the United States. In retrospect, we were so far out on the leading edge of change in publishing the U.S. Hispanic/Latino experience that we sank by the sheer weight of innovation and mainstream ignorance of who Hispanics were and their significance to the American market and culture
One of Dan Valdes’ dreams was to establish a stand-alone university dedicated to the education of American Hispanics much like Howard University in Washington, DC is dedicated to the education of African Americans. That dream emerged in 1973 when Dan convened a group of prominent educators attracted by Dan’s vision for the Hispanic University of America. Among them was James Palmer, President at Metropolitan State College in Denver for whom at the time I was his Executive Vice President. In the plan for the Hispanic University of America, Dan was Chancellor and I was Vice Chancellor for Academic Development. By 1974 the Hispanic University of America had a campus thanks to the Catholic Diocese of Denver who gave us tenancy at one of the Catholic campuses in the area. We had lots of enthusiasm but little money. Dan was able to catch the attention of U.S. Senator Joe Montoya from New Mexico to take up our cause in Congress by promoting a bill for the development of Hispanic colleges and universities much like the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). The going for that bill was tough but just when it seemed that success loomed Senator Montoya was defeated by Republican astronaut Harrison Schmitt in 1977. Our chances for securing funding for the Hispanic University of America dissipated. For a brief time we operated like a university, classes and all. As Vice Chancellor for Academic Development I developed the academic curriculum for the university My faculty appointment with the university was as Professor of Hispanic Studies and Research.
Owing to financial exigencies during which I taught at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, in 1978 I accepted a post at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas, as Founding Director of the Institute for Intercultural Studies and Research. By 1980 Dan Valdes threw in the towel with the Hispanic University of America. I continued with La Luz magazine from a distance. In 1980 Dan and his long-time girlfriend Maria married in San Antonio, Texas. I was his best man. Dan died suddenly in 1982. He was 72.
When Dan Valdes died my enthusiasm for La Luz magazine ebbed, and I sold my shares of La Luz stock. Dan Valdes was a true pioneer in promoting the story of American Hispanics. There were others before him, of course, who had sought to tell that story, but following Robert Browning’s injunction that a man’s reach ought to exceed his grasp, Dan Valdes reached well beyond his grasp to the moons of Barzoom in promoting the presence of Hispanics in the United States. Dan’s death closed a significant chapter in my life.
Copyright 2016 by Dr. Philip de Ortego y Gasca. Photos of Plan de Santa Barbara, seated students, Ernesto Galarza and Ricardo Sanchez copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. Photo of book and magazien cover used under “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos are in the public domain.