"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Challenging Our Dreams: Antonio Machado, The Road, and The Dream by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Challenging Our Dreams
Antonio Machado, The Road, and The Dreams
Keynote presentation at the LULAC Council 8003 Annual Scholarship Event, Western New Mexico University, July 31, 2010
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
Scholar in Residence and Chair of the Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University

In that grand soliloquy of Hamlet, after his “to be or not to be” introduction, he ponders the question: “to sleep, perchance to dream, ay there’s the rub,” meaning: how are we to know what dreams may come when we sleep? 

It seems to me that much of humankind spend their lives sleeping — I mean going about their lives “asleep at the wheel,” so to speak, somnambulant day after day, letting life slip by them, afraid or unwilling to dream, that is, afraid or unwilling to dream the dream of a tomorrow-in-the-morning or of some distant day in the future. 

And yet that’s an essential dream we must all dream as we face the future, trying to determine our stake in that future. Otherwise we are always buffeted by the vicissitudes of life, always at the effect of life rather than at cause in life — that is, always in control of our lives.

But it’s not enough just to dream — for dreams are just velleities, wishful thinking. How to translate our dreams into realities: that’s the challenge. Dreams do not sui generis by themselves become our future. It’s not enough to know that each of us can become what we want to become. Those are empty words. Repeating that mantra to our children: “mi’jo/mi’ja you can be whatever you want to be” is misleading unless we add “pero tienes que prepararte/you have to be prepared, to do what is required to be what you want to be. 
Antonio Machado

In an incisive poem, the Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) wrote: “caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar”—“traveler, there is no road. The road is constructed step by step.” 
Step by step, that’s how the roads of futures are constructed. No magic wand takes us from here to there, no red shoes like Dorothy’s, no time machine, no Scottie to beam us up. Four hundred years ago in The Tempest (1610), Shakespeare’s Prospero opines: “we are such stuff / as dreams are made on, and our little life / is rounded with a sleep.” We are indeed “such stuff as dreams are made on.”  

No hay futuro sin los sueños — there is no future without dreams but “our little life” need not be rounded only with a sleep, that is, brief as our lives may be we need not end them in a sleep, T.S. Eliot notwithstanding, we can end them with a bang, not a whimper. We must not be beguiled by the pessimism of Calderon de la Barca that la vida es sueño y los sueños sueños son, that life is a dream and dreams are but dreams. Dreams are the stuff of life.

Strange how “the road” has become the popular metaphor for the trajectory of life. In English literature, there are references to “dream of the rood” that date back to the 7th century. We don’t know “who” but we know “when.” In the literature of antiquity, of ages past, there are countless references to the road and the dream. The road takes us always to perdition or salvation — to hell or the hill, to that shining emblematic city of the future. But the metaphor of the road and the dream poses a dilemma when we reach a fork in the road of life. Robert Frost helps us surmount that dilemma with his poem “The Road Not Taken:”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, just as fair,
Having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there,
Had worn them really ’bout the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“And I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Life will pose many such dilemmas for us. How can we know with any certainty which road to take? We can’t know that. What we do know is that we are faced with a choice. And, more often than not, the choice can make all the difference. We must have the courage to choose. 

With a sigh, now ages hence, and apologies to Robert Frost, let me tell you a story. In 1969 I was a teaching fellow in the English Department at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. After 4 years of summer doctoral work at UNM, I had taken my comprehensive doctoral examination and had written 3 chapters of a dissertation on Chaucer. 

That fall Louis Bransford, newly appointed director of Chicano Studies at UNM, first such program in the state, asked me to organize a class on Chicano literature which I did with gusto. What I didn’t know was that organizing and teaching that class would change my life. After that experience, at the start of the Spring semester in 1970, I went to Joe Zavadil, head of the English Department, to tell him I wanted to change my dissertation topic. His jaw dropped and he looked at me as if I was crazy.

“You what?” he bellowed.

I repeated my intention to which he shook his head, saying “You’re almost finished with your dissertation on Chaucer.

“I know,” I said, “but I want to change my dissertation topic to one in Chicano literature.” I had chosen a Chaucer dissertation because I had written a Master’s thesis on Hamlet, identified by the renowned Shakespearean scholar Haldeen Braddy as the most provocative in a century of Hamlet studies. But knowing so little about Chicano literature I wanted to know more. I already knew about Chaucer and Shakespeare. Why had no one in the schools I went to taught me the literature of my people? Why after 122 years were we not in the textbooks?

Acknowledging my intention, Joe Zavadil said shaking his head, “I’ll approve the change, but you’ll have to find 3 faculty members for a new committee.”
did. I found 3 of the newest members of the department (all younger than me) who agreed to be a committee for my new dissertation topic. Scant as it was, I was the only one with any experience with the topic but, as it turned out, I had organized and taught the first course in Chicano literature in the country. And now there I was raring to write a dissertation on Chicano literature about which I had a lot to learn.

As it turned out, my dissertation on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico 1971) was the first study in the field. I delayed earning the doctorate by about a year. What I didn’t know until much later was that I was the first Mexican American to earn the Ph.D. in English at the University of New Mexico; and would be only the fifth Mexican American in the country with that degree. Today there are more than a hundred. Still not many.

That decision transformed my life. I went on to frame the production of Chicano literature as a “Chicano Renaissance” within a timeline of Mexican American literature that stretched from 1848 to 1970. My essay on the “The Chicano Renaissance” (cited as the most seminal in the field) was published in the Journal of Social Casework in May of 1971. It may seems strange to publish a work on literature in a journal of social work. In 1971 few people — especially editors of literary journals — cared about or knew anything about Chicano literature.

In the words of Antonio Machado, my road to Chicano literature was constructed one step at a time. 

Importantly, oftentimes we don’t know in advance who or what we will become. The road may lead us to that destination or discovery. For me, coming to that fork in the road in 1970, “the road not taken” was the Chaucer road. I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference.

To our emerging scholars whom we honor tonight with scholarships — gathered by nickels and dimes from bingos and enchilada sales by mothers and fathers, abuelos and abuelas, viejitos and viejitas who want the best for their children and grandchildren — I say challenge your dreams. Con ganas se realizan. With determination, make them a reality. Si, se puede! Como decía Cesar Chavez, as Cesar Chavez would say.

In closing let me reveal that I only completed one year of high school. I never got a GED. 

With only one year of high school, but having served in the Marine Corps during World War II, the University of Pittsburgh admitted me as a provisional GI Bill student in 1948. Later, in 1952, as an ROTC student at Pitt, I was commissioned a 2nd Lt in the Air Force Reserve. I served subsequently 9 years in the active Air Force, exiting as a Reserve Major. All together, I served 12 years in the U.S. military: during World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the early Vietnam Era. Todavia no termino con el camino

Willy Nelson and I are both still on the road.

Gracias y que Dios los bendiga!

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