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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The Guiding Light : Young Latinos who believe that college is beyond their reach just haven't met Martin Ortiz. He's helped thousands see graduation day.

November 13, 1994|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Martin Ortiz, a man of many firsts, attempts another: crossing a plaza packed with well-wishers without being sidelined for a quick hello, handshake or hug.

Buena suerte.

Not even Ortiz, a revered Whittier College elder known as El Jefe (the boss), can control the pandemonium his presence is causing.

For 26 years, Ortiz, director of the college's Center of Mexican American Affairs and its only Latino graduate in 1948, has guided thousands of students, finding scholarships, arranging tutors, securing jobs and sharing words of wisdom that many hold dear long after graduation.

His crusade, or movimiento as he prefers to call it, is inspired by a past that taught him, "Don't just cry, qualify"--an Ortiz original.

As a boy, a teacher degraded him because he didn't speak English. As a young man, restaurateurs, barbers, hoteliers and landlords turned him away because of his Mexican heritage. And while walking to class on his first day at Whittier, he was stopped cold and asked, "And where do you think you're going?"

A soft-spoken Ortiz replied: "To get an education."

Today, Ortiz, long considered by educators the nation's father of minority student programs, is the college's first Latino namesake of a multimillion-dollar scholarship endowment for Latinos.

But it's his personal touch, his chivalrous and charismatic way with people, that has lured 700 Latino students and parents on a fall day to the hilltop mansion of Whittier College President James Ash for a tardeada , or afternoon reception .

An 11-piece mariachi orchestra plays "Cielito Lindo" on the vihuela , guitarra de golpe and guitarron , high-gloss guitars of various sizes and sounds. Nin n os , perched on their fathers' shoulders, reach for helium-filled balloons. Streamers in patriotic red, green and white flutter like kite tails above the throng.

Ortiz, in a receiving line, manages to break away.

He takes three steps before a former student hits him with a kiss and asks if the man she considers her surrogate father might give her away at her July wedding.

Another student approaches to vigorously pump the hand of the man he respectfully calls "Dad"--the man who provides the encouragement to stick with college, especially when the student's own father, an alcoholic, abuses his mother until the violence becomes unbearable.

Then a proud Mexican woman whose son is the first in the family to attend college bashfully asks Ortiz to pose with her for a photo. Wearing a gorgeous braid and fringed shawl, she wraps her arms around his waist, snuggles her head against his chest and smiles, revealing several gold-capped teeth. "One day I will show my grandchildren his picture," she says later in Spanish, "and I will tell them, ' El Jefe is the reason for my son's success."' But Ortiz, a painfully shy man, flatly refuses to take the credit.

The praise, he says, should be showered on the parents and their kids. Thanks should go to Ash and his predecessors--except the one who tried to put the center out of business in its early years. And, he says, the center's Hispanic Students Assn., the Hispanic Parents Advisory Council and the Hispanic alumni group should also be commended.

In 1970, two years after returning to Whittier to teach Chicano studies, Ortiz, then 49, became the center's founding director. The college's enrollment was 5.5% Latino. Five years later, it reached 16%. This year, 27% of the 1,260 students are Latino--the highest percentage among the 73-member Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Says Jonathan Brown, the association's president: "Carefully and cautiously, Martin has followed a social mission to deeply enmesh Whittier into the Latino community. He is the foot soldier who has made it work."

No matter what their heritage, students pop into his small office, four flights up from the president's suite, to ask for advice and letters of recommendation, or to just say hello to "Mr. Whittier College," another of Ortiz's monikers.

The annual tardeada , held since 1970, is one of the many ways Richard Nixon's alma mater embraces its diversity.

And every year Ortiz revels in introducing parents to professors and students to administrators, then slips into the background because the spotlight, he says, "belongs on our students."

But not this year.

After everyone settles into their chairs with plates of carne asada tacos, rice and refried beans, after the band brilliantly performs its last classical song, after the announcement "to hold onto your beer cups because we're all out" comes the real reason for the celebration.

Says Ash, simply, eloquently: "We are here today to celebrate the gentleman whose work is the glorious fulfillment of his hopes and dreams."

Clearly, El Jefe , surrounded by cheering and applauding students, is moved.

"I'm in heaven," he whispers.

*

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