By JJ Amaworo Wilson, WNMU Writer-in-Residence
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca was a man apart. His life was a picaresque tale – part Charles Dickens, part Great Gatsby. He was orphaned as a child, never graduated from high school but became a university professor, served his country in three conflicts, met James Baldwin and Richard Wright in Paris, published prolifically, acted in films and served in the government. Above all this, though, Felipe fought the good fight for la raza.
It’s one of the stories he loved to tell. He was writing his Ph.D. dissertation at UNM. His subject was Chaucer. Halfway through, he was asked to put together a course on Mexican American Literature. He began researching Chicano writers. Chaucer versus Chicanos? No contest. He abandoned Chaucer and began creating a Chicano canon. The results were: his seminal study Backgrounds in Mexican American Literature; the coining of the term The Chicano Renaissance; and the making of a Chicano.
The original Italian Renaissance was funded by Tuscan Dukes and Florentine bankers. The Harlem Renaissance came out of inner city jazz clubs and speakeasies. The Chicano Renaissance was propelled by the sons and daughters of migrant farmers, factory workers and janitors. It was a movement close to Felipe’s heart and it opened his eyes to the systemic disregard of Chicano culture in mainstream America.
Much of Felipe’s subsequent writing was based on this issue, but his range of interests was astounding. I once asked him what he’d published. He showed me a printout of his listed publications — just the titles. It was 60 pages long. Six zero. The man never stopped. He would turn a pensamiento into a five-page essay with footnotes. He wrote on education, social justice, linguistics, literature, current affairs, government, Chicanismo, running, music, you name it. He had a mind that never slept.
He also had an extraordinary memory. He could reel off names from half a century ago and tell us what they did, when they did it, where and why. His humor, too, was a delight. Many a time he’d leave a room with a throwaway “hasta later.” Once, during a forum, when some fool blurted out that the U.S. should annex Northern Mexico, Felipe piped up, “Good idea! We wouldn’t be a minority anymore!”
Felipe took great pleasure in language. As a child of migrant farmworkers, he spoke only Spanish and flunked school because of it. (Seventy years and a Ph.D. in English later, he had a stroke and temporarily reverted to his childhood Spanish only.) But he learned English and became a master prose stylist in several genres: journalism, fiction, essays, academic papers. He once told me if he couldn’t think of a word he was looking for, he made one up.
His stories were legend. When he was a young man sojourning in England, he met an aspiring actress called Judi. He asked her on a date, but there was a mix-up and it never happened. Many years later he learned her surname: Dench. Not everyone has a near miss with 007’s future boss.
Felipe’s own acting highlight was probably a voiceover he did when the scheduled actor dropped out at the last minute. The actor’s name? Paul Newman.
Felipe’s legacy is profound. As a teacher and professor, we’ll never know where his influence ends. He was more than beloved; he played a major role in the founding of the groundbreaking Chicano Studies program at UTEP, supporting the demands of MEChA students against a recalcitrant administration.
What of his writing? Posterity can be a merciless mistress, but Felipe’s massive output, style and intelligence is unquestionable. So is his prescience. A dozen years ago he published “Bridges not Walls.” Could a title be more relevant today?
I, like many others, will remember him for his kindness as much as his brilliance. He had time for everybody. It didn’t matter if you were the university president, adjunct faculty, kitchen staff or a struggling student: He treated everyone with respect and generosity. He will be sorely missed, not least by Gilda Baeza Ortego, his wife and the rock around which his genius flowed. Farewell to a great man and an inspiration to all.