Chicano Renaissance Leader Turns 90, Continues To Teach, Write

© Western New Mexico University

Every calendar holiday, Dr. Felipe Ortego y Gasca sends an email to his colleagues at Western New Mexico University. The email is simple and includes an attachment with a short write up. Ortego, a professor of English and the university’s Scholar-in-Residence, is sharing thoughts on history and social issues he feels are important to his readers.

Now he’s turning 90, and he finds himself the same way he has for several years, behind a computer screen and a keyboard, contributing his ideas on current issues important to culture and society.

“Felipe is a rare combination of academic, activist and a person with sustained creativity,” said Dr. Jack Crocker, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at WNMU. “His intellect and experience are an important legacy to our university.”

Considered the principal scholar of the Chicano Renaissance, Ortego is the founder of Chicano literary history having written the first study in the field, Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, in 1971.

“The piece opened the way for other scholars to consider the scope of Chicano literary history,” said Ortego. “This provided the template for scholars who followed.”

Before turning heads with his alternative perspectives on Chicano literature, Ortego began his colorful life as the child of a field worker in Chicago. He served during World War II as a Marine and his worldview was formed from his travels through Europe. Post-war, Ortego served a ten-year tenure as an Air Force officer during the Korean Conflict and the early Vietnam Era.

He found his passion in the high school classroom, first teaching French, and then finding his identity as a professor of English. Several decades of teaching and serving in administrative academic roles, Ortego continues to influence students, activists and opinion leaders with the written word.

“Writing has been both a creative and therapeutic instrument,” said Ortego. “For me, the writer is always part of the story because we see stories that we tell through our own eyes.”

His latest birthday is only the most recent in a long list of milestones. He has appeared in a major motion picture, written plays and was the fifth Mexican American in the United States to hold a Ph.D. in English. And it has all been sprinkled with controversies along the way.

“My outlook as a professor of English can be characterized as a vision of inclusivity opening the aperture of the English curriculum so that it reflects the mosaic of the American people,” said Ortego. “Not just the privileged texts of British literature.”

Ortego is well known in New Mexico and Texas as an activist, speaking for those he feels are marginalized and championing for Mexican American representation in literature. He organized the Chicano Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in 1968 at a time when there were very few Chicanos in English.

Ortego turns 90 years old on August 23 and it is appropriate that he has sent out one of his famous emails marking the occasion, this time reminding his colleagues that with longevity, comes opportunity, and Ortego is taking advantage of opportunities he sees on the horizon to continue to write and influence. He’s not done yet. 

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