OCTAVIO ROMANO AND THE CHICANO LITERARY RENAISSANCE
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence,
I was stunned by the email from Carlos Muñoz informing us that Octavio Romano had died on February 26. He was 82 (1923-2005).
I always thought of Octavio as indestructible. Yet here was the unexpected word that he had passed on. I was stunned. I mourn for Octavio not just because he was one of the leading luminaries of the Chicano literary renaissance, but because Octavio was one of those rare visionaries who tread the “boards of life” all too often unsung for the roles they have played in significant events.
He deserves our most profound mourning. Despite our differences over the years, I admired and respected him for his singular contribution to Chicano letters and for his dedication to the cause of Chicano literature. I venture to say that Octavio Romano gave Chicano literature its primary direction.
Octavio Romano and I met for the first time in
I was still new on campus having only in 1964 left Jefferson High School in El Paso (where I had been a teacher of French) to join the English department at New Mexico State University, a relatively small agriculture school then just up the road from El Paso.
By the strangest of circumstances Octavio and I met on campus in front of the library. We exchanged greetings and paused to chat. He told me who he was and offered that he was just strolling the campus. He and his wife were visiting relatives in
I didn’t know that then, and would not until the end of that decade when I undertook the study of Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature at the
During that chance encounter I suggested a cafesito. Octavio and I talked about sundry academic topics over coffee and pan dulce. He explained that he was an anthropologist in the
I was surprised, for I had never met a Mexican American anthropologist. I learned that he had received his B.A. at the
I told him about my interests in literature and that I had just completed a study of Hamlet. He too was interested in literature, he remarked.
So much so that he and a cohort of Mexican Americans in the Bay Area, including John Carrillo, Steve Gonzales, Phillip Jimenez, Rebecca Morales, Ramon Rodriguez, Armando Valdez, and Andres Ybarra, had been thinking about publishing a literary journal dedicated solely to Mexican American thought and expression.
That piqued my interest. He said he’d send me info as the journal developed. We parted and met irregularly over that summer.
Toward the end of the fall semester of that year, I received a note from Octavio with details about the journal which would be called El Grito: Journal of Mexican American Thought and would be published by Quinto Sol Press.
The symbolism did not escape me. The term “Chicano” was still percolating on the ideological stovetops of many Mexican American activists. Octavio encouraged me to submit work to El Grito. Several of my pieces were published in that first volume of El Grito. I thus became one of the Quinto Sol writers.
However, what radiated elán from the Quinto Sol enterprise was the editorial on the frontispiece of Volume 1 Number 1 of El Grito in the Fall of 1967: that publication of El Grito was a manifesto that Mexican Americans would be judges of their own cultural works; that Mexican Americans would speak for themselves henceforth, and that all Anglo discourse about Mexican Americans was suspect and, therefore, would be challenged.
This discourse, the editorial asserted, “must be stripped of its esoteric and sanctified verbal garb and have its intellectually spurious and vicious character exposed to full view.” That has always struck me as a courageous pronouncement.
But the significance of that editorial lies in its last paragraph: “Only Mexican Americans themselves can accomplish the collapse of this and other such rhetorical structures by the exposure of their fallacious nature and the development of intellectual alternatives.”
That was the key: “intellectual alternatives.”
The rest is history. El Grito became the premier journal of the Chicano literary movement, not the only one, but it led the way. There is no doubt in my mind that without El Grito the Chicano literary movement would have developed differently–if at all.
Without El Grito there would have been no Premio Quinto Sol, an award many of us in Chicano literature came to regard as equivalent to the Nobel Prize or, at least, the Pulitzer.
Who would have published Rudy Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima? Some other publisher, perhaps, in an alternative dimension or universe.
This scenario reminds me of the film It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart who as George Bailey, the despondent president of a Savings and Loan Credit Union on the verge of bankruptcy, wishes he had never been born and then learns how important his life has been when the angel Clarence, who had negotiated that wish with God, makes it clear to George that since he had never been born he had never “touched” the lives of those he held dear in the life he did live. Octavio Romano touched many lives.
Manuel Delgado, a student at Berkeley in 1969, remembers Romano as a middle-aged guy in wrinkled khaki pants and a white shirt the day Romano attended a meeting of the Mexican American Student Confederation, precursor to MEChA on campus.
Romano and the Chicano students were trying to get a Chicano history course approved at
Octavio Romano was tapped as the Instructor for The Mexican American Population 143X, a social analysis course which he described as overdue (Daily Californian, January 6, 1969).
Romano went on to say that the course would help to offset the John Wayne syndrome afflicting the American population vis-à-vis Mexican Americans, closing with the prophetic words: “the Chicano must realize that he must regain control of his historical function.”
This self-definition was the same clarion call I sounded as I prepared to teach the first course in Mexican American literature at the
More importantly, though, Octavio Romano was a pragmatist in the Greek sense of ideation and accomplishment. That is, for the Greeks praxis is the ideation of deeds and pragma is the deed done, actually bringing them to fruition.
All too often in life, there is a disconnect between what we think should be and its actualization. El Grito (the journal) was actualization of the need for Chicano self-expression in a time when that need was paramount and urgent.
For me, the consequence of that actualization was a direction that gave impetus to my life not only in letters but in Chicano literature. Without Romano’s influence I would probably have completed a dissertation on Chaucer, which was already in progress, before I decided to write a dissertation on Mexican American literature instead, not knowing it would be the first in the field.
That was how profoundly Octavio Romano affected my life.
My first efforts as one of the Quinto Sol writers were published in Volume 1 (1967-1968) of El Grito– “The Coming of Zamora” (a short story based on the trial of Reies Lopez Tijerina) and “The Mexican-Dixon Line” (about the Southern plantation mentality in the Hispanic Southwest).
In 1969 Octavio Romano published El Espejo–The Mirror: Selected Mexican-American Literature, the first “anthological” salvo of Mexican American writing in the Chicano era, in effect “the first anthology of Chicano literature published by Chicanos” (1972, viii).
This review engendered my concept of “The Chicano Renaissance” which was published in the May 1971 issue of Social Casework. In the fifth printing of El Espejo (1972), Octavio listed the Quinto Sol writers as part of the introduction he and Herminio Rios wrote (xi-xii).
In 1971 Octavio Romano published Voices: Readings from El Grito 1967-1971, in which he included my piece on “The Mexican-Dixon Line.” My academic and literary odyssey led me hither and yon in the 70’s and distanced my contact with Octavio.
That distance, however, did not lessen my regard and admiration of him and his consistent efforts in promoting Chicano literature. Without Octavio Romano and Quinto Sol Publications and El Grito would we know about Tomas Rivera, Rudy Anaya, Estela Portillo, Rolando Hinojosa, Jose Montoya, Alurista, and the host of other Quinto Sol writers?
For me, Octavio Romano was la joya inesperada, shining in a firmament of jewels that has become Chicano literature.
Copyright ©2007 by the author. All rights reserved.
Quinto Sol Writers 1967-1972
[From El Espejo (5th Printing), 1972, xi-xii]
Acosta, Oscar Zeta
Clark y Moreno, Joseph
De Anda, Diana
De Anda, José
De la Guerra, Pablo
De la Torre, Alfredo
Figueroa, B. G.
García, Juan Antonio
Garza, Carmen Lomas
González, José Elías
Gutiérrez, F. N.
Gutiérrez, José Ángel
Gutiérrez, José E.
Hijar y Haro, Juan
Jiménez, J. Philip
Navarro, J. L.
Ortego, Philip (Felipe)
Perez Díaz, Roberto
Ramírez, Manuel III
Ríos, Francisco Ríos, Herminio
Salaz, Rubén Dario
Sierra, Pedro Ugalde
Sol, Paco (pseudonym)
Vigil, J. M.