Two Renaissance men, father and son: Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, famous Mexican poet and teacher (1889-1959); Dr. Bernard Ramon Ortiz de Montellano, famous U.S. scientist and professor (1938-2016).
My friend, Bernard, passed away in Austin, Texas, December 2nd, RIP. This column is an homage to both gentlemen, father and son, serious scholars and committed humanitarians.
Don Bernardo was an existential poet of the 1930s and 40s, a literary critic and teacher. He founded the magazines Contemporáneos and Letras de México. His notable publications included Red and Sueños y poesia. At Bernardo’s home, in Mexico City, little Bernard could often be found playing around the feet of his father and mother, (Thelma Lamb de Ortiz de Montellano), a bright, elegant American teacher and translator, as they chatted with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and other luminaries of that golden era.
Such was the heady atmosphere of Bernard’s infancy. It was my honor to know his mother, as well as his widow, Ana Mercedes Torres de Ortiz de Montellano, a native of Puerto Rico and, with Bernard, an inveterate, world-wide traveler. Together 50 years, in retirement, they were mainstays in the hugely successful New-comers’ Club of Austin. They provided members with choices of meeting people in that progressive city, hosting those who were into film, books (history, international affairs), wines or culinary explorations.
Bernard’s comfortable home, in the hill country near Austin, was often a way station for visiting professors and students from all over the nation and world. It was redolent of tasteful art: portraits, photos of famous friends of his parents, valuable prints and pre-Hispanic artifacts. The deer came to the windows; alas, they ate the roses. Visitors enjoyed many an invigorating discussion of politics, history or philosophy by the fireplace.
I knew Bernard as a colleague, since teaching days together at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas. We fought many a fight with the right-wing version of a White Citizens’ Council, the “Good Government League.” There seemed to be one in every major Texas city, even here in the Valley. They opposed educational reform and, of course, appropriate, necessary taxes. Bernard opposed their stubborn resistance to progressive change and local governmental reforms, such as single-member districts. The “At-Large” system was designed to favor the richer north side.
Bernard received his PhD. in Chemistry, University of Texas—Austin. Dr. Charles Dibble, renowned Aztec scholar at the University of Utah, mentored Bernard in studies of Nahuatl. Nationally and internationally, he was known as the expert on scientific aspects of native (Aztec, Mexican and Mexican American) herbs and medicinal cures; e.g., Las Hierbas de Tlaloc; Empirical Aztec Medicine.
These publications deal with healing ingredients in wormwood, Zoapatle and Mexican Amica, properties frequently sought by people who have health problems for which they lack a cure. His seminal work, Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, has been widely acclaimed. In that research he employed modern scientific methods to assess the efficacy of Aztec medicine on both its own and contemporary terms.
As Bernard frequently noted, 80 percent of pharmaceutical products are based on plant components. He published his research in a series of books widely used for teaching and for reference work in anthropology and biochemistry. He conducted scholarly work with his mother, translating books from the Spanish to the English; she was in her 90s when still working with her son.
Bernard was solidly on the side of those who support spiritual and economic needs of Mexicans and Mexican Americans/Chicanos, whether in Mexico or the U.S. He despised racism and sexism. (But he did not use the trendy @ to include both genders in Spanish; not the even trendier X, instead of an S.) He fought for respect for Mexico, for his own heritage as a Mexican and Mexican American and for advancement of science and higher education.
Bernard’s scholarly, inter-disciplinary work was embraced by the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University (WSU), Detroit, Michigan. He also held a Masters’ Degree in Political Science. He was intellectually, professionally, politically and personally dedicated to a holistic, cooperative attitude toward education and toward life. Much of his research, often inspired by his father’s pioneering work, was accomplished through teamwork with colleagues at WSU, and with the help of his wife, Ana Mercedes.
Bernard worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for jail reform in the 1970s. He was founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Bernard always advocated for culturally relevant science. He was Director of the Chicano-Boricua Studies, WSU, working tirelessly to insure that Program’s support and high standards.
Bernard and Ana visited my family in the Rio Grande Valley several years ago. We were in Reynosa, having coffee at Café de Paris. Suddenly, he stopped speaking. He looked as if he had seen a ghost. A striking couple walked in the door—old friends of Bernard’s from professional anthropological circles, Dr. Ann Millard and Dr. Isidore Flores.
That couple had just moved to the Valley to work at Texas A&M in the area of public health. We have since become fast friends. In this case, and always, Bernard was a great “connector,” providing nexus between people, between ideas, between science, philosophy, art and poetry. Above all, his love of humanity and his love of wife and family sustained him.
Ana Ortiz de Montellano has lost her great love and her “best friend,” as she put it. My wife, children and I have lost a close confidant and an inspirational role-model. Mexico, the U.S. and the world have lost another Renaissance Man, an intellectual genius and civic leader who contributed scientific, practical advice for current and future generations. Perhaps, in death, only poetry can do Bernard justice; I will leave this homage with the words of his father, Bernardo:
Voz que del sueño vuelve,
a donde la carícia no penetra
desciende, alegre, el aire, el sol, la sangre . . .
. . . y me despierta.
(From Sueños, featured in Poesía en Moviemiento, by Octavio Paz).
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