Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, 87, is a scholar in residence at Western New Mexico University, where he helped establish the Chicano-studies department. He was involved in founding similar departments at the University of Texas at El Paso, Sul Ross State University, and San Jose State University. Now he is editing a two-volume Encyclopedia of Latino Issues Today. This is his story, as told to Taylor Harvey.
In 1966 I was on the English faculty at New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces. A young man wandering around the campus asked me for directions to the cafeteria. It turned out he was Octavio Romano, an anthropologist from Berkeley who was one of the key players in the rise of the Chicano literary movement.
He convinced me that maybe I needed to take a look at this status, the way I considered myself just as a plain ordinary American. He brought me into the Chicano movement. From that moment on, I kept wondering, Where are all the works our people have written?
I finished the first comprehensive study in the field, Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature, which was published in 1971.
ABC-CLIO/Greenwood Press, for which I’ve done a fair amount of work in the past, had made several attempts at launching an encyclopedia on Latino issues. Anne Thompson, an editor at the press, asked me in the fall of 2010 if I could explain the difficulty they had, and then asked me if I would undertake the project.
I gathered a team of editors. I also put together an advisory board of editors, and we drafted a plan to look at what the pressing issues for Latino-Americans were and then sent out a call for contributors. Just this past year we got all our 100 writers. The encyclopedia will likely come out in early 2015.
One of our goals is to promote awareness about Latino issues, to explore and show how those issues are addressed by Latino-Americans themselves.
The second objective is to educate Americans about who Latinos really are. There are so many stereotypes out there.
Major issues we address include drug addiction, religion, and representation in politics and the professions.
I wrote a piece that will be included in the encyclopedia on how references to and works by Latino-American writers are lacking in the curriculum of the public schools. Unfortunately—and I hate the sound of how I may say it—American literature is still pretty much a literature of dead white men.
Years ago, I did big work on Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, all of those. That prepared me for the second half of my life: writing about the forgotten pages of American literature.
For me the encyclopedia is a task I feel compelled to undertake, maybe a little like Noah when he was building the ark.
It’s like paving an asphalt driveway. The weather and automobiles put stress on it year after year, so you put some new asphalt on top of the old. The next thing you know, you’ve built up a fairly good layer of asphalt, but it always needs some attention. That may explain what I think will happen with this encyclopedia. This version is not going to last forever. Issues change.
In the next few years, I’d like to complete a piece that I’ve been working on, on Chaucer. This would be the magnum opus of my career. We still speak the language of Chaucer in the United States. Do you know any New Yorkers who say, "Ax me a question"? That’s Chaucerian English. Perhaps because much of New York was settled by folks who came from Chaucer’s part of England.
I know my time is dwindling, and I hope I live long enough to keep writing. But I’m excited by life. At 87, I’m not ready to hang up my tennis shoes.