A MEMORIAL ESSAY
From Historia Chicana, June 16, 2010
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence and Chair, Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University
Como Juan no hay dos—that’s what I wrote to Juanita Lawhn in response to her email informing me of Juan Bruce-Novoa’s death on June 11, 2010 (Novoa was his mother’s name).
Indeed, como Juan no hay dos. Needless to say, I was stunned by the news. He was just 66, born in 1944 in San Jose, Costa Rica where his father (James Bruce) then worked for the coffee importers Otis McAllister. The following year, James Bruce moved his family to San Antonio, Texas.
In 1948, the Bruces moved to Denver, Colorado where in 1966 Juan graduated with a B.A. in European history and psychology from Regis College, and earned an M.A. in 20th Century Spanish Literature in1968 and a Ph.D. in Contemporary Latin American Literature in 1974 from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Juan Bruce-Novoa was 28 when I first met him in the fall of 1972 in Denver, Colorado; I was 46. That August I had gone to Denver from El Paso, Texas, as Assistant to the President at Metropolitan State College and had hooked up with Daniel Valdes as founding Associate Publisher of La Luz Magazine, first Hispanic public affairs magazine in English. In El Paso I had been Founding Director of the Chicano Studies Program (first in the state) and advisor to the president on Chicano Affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Though a generation separated Juan Bruce-Novoa and me, we were peers and colleagues in the roiling pot of Chicano literature. The previous year I had completed my study on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971), first study in the field and my essay on “The Chicano Renaissance” had been published by the Journal of Social Casework (May, 1971), after being rejected by scores of journals because they had never heard of Chicano literature and consequently thought none of their readers would be interested in the topic.
Despite that situation with Chicano literature, I was having a run of publications that year, my piece on “Montezuma’s Children” (submitted for Pulitzer consideration) had been published as the cover story of The Center Magazine (November/December 1970) of the John Maynard Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, and entered into The Congressional Record by Senator Ralph Yarbrough of Texas (116 No. 189, November 25, 1970, S 18961-S18965). In April of 1971, The Saturday Review published my piece on “Schools for Mexican Americans” as a cover-feature.
That September of 1972, Juan and I gave presentations at the joint conference in Denver 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 n 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 along side 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 was going 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.
Returning to Denver after 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 achieve-ment 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.
In remembering Juan, my wife Gilda and I remember having breakfast with him on the last day of the San Antonio Multicultural Conference in 2007 where he suggested we collaborate on an anthology of works from La Luz Magazine. I liked the idea and agreed we should do it. But as so often happens in life, vicissitudes got in the way. I’m reminded of Haruki Murakami’s comforting words: "Memories are what warm you up from the inside.” And thinking about Juan makes me warm every time. Pero como Juan no hay dos. QEPD.
Te admiro mucho por tus palabras y sentimientos que expresas con todo corazon. Thanks for the words and your memories. I always look forward to reading what you write. Cuidate y que Dios siempre te bendiga. I guess Juan's passing and your words softened me up a bit. Todo esta bueno.
--Emilio Zamora, 6/16/10