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By Nathan Batoon
Felipe Ortego was a high school dropout in 1943, but after joining the Marine Corps and serving in the Pacific Theater, he’d awakened a new passion: writing. And that passion would imbue him with a new identity.
“The Marine Corps helped me, changed me a lot,” Ortego said. “From having a sense of invisibility to how vulnerable we were as human beings.”
Ortego was born in Blue Island, Ill., as his parents were traveling between San Antonio, Texas, and the sugar beet fields of Minnesota. He failed first and fourth grade because of language.
“I was held back in the first grade because I spoke [only] Spanish and I was held back in the fourth grade because I didn’t quite get the hang of the English language,” he said. “In 1943, I was 17, so I joined the Marines and never finished high school” in San Antonio.
Without a high school diploma, or even a GED, Ortego eventually earned a PhD from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque – courtesy of the GI Bill.
“I never got my GED or high school diploma, but I ended up getting a Ph.D. in English” Renaissance Studies, Ortego said. “Pretty good for a kid who never graduated high school.”
Ortego did his basic training in Parris Island, S.C., in 1943, eventually becoming a machinist in Marine Air Group 24. He was part of a staging group in Hawaii, awaiting orders to go to the front. MAG 24 was stationed in Efate, New Hebrides, and assigned to the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. The group’s members participated in the Bougainville and Philippine campaigns, and, after the war, were stationed in China until 1947, according to the official unit website.
Ortego arrived in the volatile region of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945, to help recondition aircraft. These planes provided air support to “ground pounders,” said Ortego, using the term for “grunts,” or the infantry.
“I did not work on the airplanes. I worked on the parts and we had machine shops that I worked on,” he said.
During World War II, MAG 24 was stationed in the Pacific Theater, most extensively supporting the campaigns to liberate the Philippine Islands. Most of the MAG groups served on land – specifically, on air fields; very few worked on air carriers, Ortego says.
“Many of us could hear the fighting, the battles going on,” he said. “I think there were times when we didn’t know what was going to happen. By early ’45, it appeared that we were going to win the war, but that wasn’t the case in ’43. It still looked dark and grim.
“In some instances, it was exhilarating, and in some instances, it was fearful,” he said. “There was always the threat of lurking danger.”
At the end of the war, MAG 24 was dispersed: Those men with enough points (earned for being involved in skirmishes and other activities) were shipped home. And the rest of the troops were divided into two forces: one went to Japan as an army of occupation, and one went to China as an army of liberation.
“I was in that group that went to China, ended up in Shanghai in September of ’45,” Ortego said.
He doesn’t recall coming across any other Mexican Americans while in the Marines, nor does he recall experiencing discrimination while serving his country.
“After the war, it never seemed like anything significant,” said Ortego of being one of the few Mexican Americans. “I mean, I served and then I went home.”
In the war-torn countries of Japan and China, Ortego began his journey toward an extensive literary career, focusing on Chicano studies. He began to write, publishing a chap book of poetry in 1952.
“A lot of poetry, some of it didn’t survive,” he said. “But of the poetry that did survive, some of it’s pretty bad.”
In 1948, Ortego was admitted to The University of Pittsburgh after the Chancellor, Rufus Fitzgerald, declared that any veteran would be welcomed at the university, regardless of his or her academic background. Ortego also signed up for Air Force ROTC.
“Going to college was not easy,” he recalled. “I almost failed out the first semester.”
After graduating from The University of Pittsburgh in 1952, Ortego taught high school French in Munhall, Penn. Six months into his teaching job, the commanding officer of his reserve unit announced the Air Force was looking for pilots.
“I was already 27,” he said. “I had to get a special waver from the secretary of Air Force to go to flight school.”
He spent four years serving in Europe, and then finished out his Air Force career at Biggs Air Base in El Paso, Texas. All the while, he wrote constantly.
In 1962, he left the Air Force as a Major at the age of 36, to pursue a Master’s degree in literature at Texas Western College in El Paso. His focus: Shakespearean literature.
“I told people I was getting out of the Air Force because I realized I would never be Air Force Chief of Staff,” he said.
Ortego would eventually get his post-doctoral degree in Management and Planning for Higher Education in 1973 at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business’ Harriman Institute. In 1971, he got his Ph.D. in literature at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which provided him not only his diploma, but an entirely new identity as a Chicano.
One of his greatest influences is Octavio Romano, a pioneer of Chicano Studies.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “Octavio Romano made me a Chicano.”
At UNM, Ortego was asked to teach a Mexican American literature course. The more he read, the more fascinated he became, he says. So, despite the fact that he’d already written three chapters on Geoffrey Chaucer for his dissertation, he made a complete change.
“To me, it seemed as if nobody was stopping to recognize Mexican American literature as a body,” he said. “So I sought to do that.”
Ortego was one of the first Chicano writers published by Quinto Sol, a publishing company founded by Octavio Romano that worked to unite all Chicanos in the United States by publishing Mexican American authors.
That new identity led him to reclaim his name.
“On my birth certificate my name is Felipe, but my first year in school they changed my name from Felipe to Philip,” he said. “All my public documents are still under Philip, but I chose with the Chicano Movement to be known as Felipe.”
Ortego doesn’t have any surviving material from the war, but all of his professional papers can be found in the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin.
Dr. Felipe Ortego gave up on school in 1943, but through his perseverance and passion for writing, he became an English professor in the Texas State University System, and a Scholar in Residence at Western New Mexico University.
Mr. Ortego was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on March 21, 2008, by Mario Barerra.