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A renowned scholar and folklorist who specialized in the border culture of the American Southwest, Americo Paredes wrote both poetry and academic works on the corrida, or Mexican ballad. Through his work, he sought to correct what he regarded as the misrepresentation of his people and culture. Paredes was instrumental in the development of the field of folklore in academia as well as in the field of Mexican American studies. His groundbreaking book, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958), is considered highly influential in the founding of folklore studies and Chicano studies.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Brought Up on the Rio Grande
Born on September 3, 1915, in Brownsville, Texas, Paredes was the son of Justo Paredes and his wife, Clotilde Manzano-Vidal. His father’s family had been ranchers on both sides of the Rio Grande, beginning in the mid-1700s, while his mother’s family had come to the region from Spain in the mid-1800s. One of eight children in his family, Paredes learned to read and write Spanish at home, but received his formal education at the English-language public schools in Brownsville. While a student at Brownsville High School, Paredes began writing poetry and took first prize in a state-wide poetry contest.
After graduating from high school in 1934, Paredes entered Brownsville Junior College, aspiring to be a poet and fiction writer. At the time, the United States, and indeed the whole world, was dealing with a deep economic downturn known as the Great Depression. It began with the stock market crash of 1929. The stock market crashed because an investment boom which began in 1924 was fueled by investors buying stocks on margin (in which investors took out loans to buy stocks for as little as ten percent down), and with purely speculative money. The stocks themselves were also wildly overvalued and their value plummeted as the economy took a downturn. The failure of the stock market caused the economy, first in the United States then the world, to fall in a dramatic and sustained depression which lasted through the 1930s.
Published First Book of Poetry
While a college student, Paredes did not lack for employment, as many Americans did. He worked as a translator and writer for the local newspaper, The Brownsville Herald, as well as for Pan American Airways. Paredes also found occasional work as a professional singer and studied piano and guitar during this time. In addition, he continued to write poetry, though it remained unpublished for many years. Some of the poetry Paredes had written in high school began appearing in the paper, as well as ”Los lunnes literarios,” the literary supplement of San Antonio’s Mexican-American newspaper La Prensa. Poems from this time period were collected in Paredes’ first volume of poetry, Cantos de adolescencia (1937). These poems recount an adolescent’s struggle to fit into a culture that is neither Mexican or American.
In 1939, Paredes married Consuelo Chelo Silva, a local singer. The marriage was brief, but produced a son, Americo Paredes, Jr. When Paredes married Silva, World War II was beginning in Europe. The war began when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939 and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead.
Served in World War II
During World War II, Paredes served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1946. After a stint as an infantryman, he worked as a reporter and editor for the U.S. military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, in Japan. Paredes remained there after the war and worked for the Red Cross for five years doing public relations work. He met his second wife, Amelia Shidzu Nagamine, during his time in Japan. The couple married in 1948 and eventually had three children together.
In the early 1950s, Paredes returned to Texas, entering the University of Texas at Austin. He earned his B.A. in English, summa cum laude in 1951, then remained at the school for graduate work. Paredes was given his M.A. in 1953 and Ph.D. in 1957, both in English (folklore) and Spanish, with a specialty in the folklore of the Texas-Mexican border region. While a graduate student, he published his first collection of short stories, Border Country (1952).
Dissertation Turned Book
After earning his graduate degrees, Parades held a variety of positions in academia. He first taught at Texas Western University, then organized and worked as an archivist at the University of Texas at Austin’s Folklore Archives from 1957 to 1967. In 1958, Paredes published the scholarly work, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Based on his doctoral dissertation, it was a study of the ballad form, passed down as part of the Texas-Mexican border region’s oral tradition and performed by anonymous balladeers.
As an academic, Paredes was the editor of an acclaimed collection of translated folklore, Folktales of Mexico (1970). He also published several scholarly studies of folklore, including A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Bridge (1976), Uncle Remus con Chile (1992), and Folklore and Culture on the Tex-Mex Border (1993). In addition, Paredes was also the co-founder of the University of Texas’s Mexican-American Studies Program. For his work as a humanist, he was given the Charles Frankel Prize by the National Endowment of the Arts in 1989.
Works Old and New
In the 1990s, Parades published a number of original works in a variety of genres. In 1990, he published his first novel, George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexas Novel, perhaps his best known work of border literature, and originally written while he was a young journalist in Brownsville. His second novel, The Shadow, was published in 1998. Paredes put out his second volume of original poetry, Between Two Worlds, in 1991. These poems were written in the 1930s, but were unpublished at the time of their composition. Among the best-known poems was ”The Mexico-Texan,” which had been used in south Texas political campaigns and entered the local oral tradition. His second collection of short stories came out in 1994, The Hammon and the Beans and Other Stories, which featured stories primarily written in the 1930s and 1940s. It was also considered a significant contribution to border literature as it vividly describes the Brownsville of his youth where Mexican Americans struggled against poverty, prejudice, and the loss of cultural identity.
In his last years, Paredes served as a professor emeritus of English and anthropology at the University of Texas. He died of pneumonia on May 5, 1999, in Austin.
Works in Literary Context
Paredes was a pioneer in the academic study of the Mexican-American experience and of the culture of the U.S.Mexico border. His poetry, fiction, and scholarly work were all informed by his conviction that his people, and his region, had been misrepresented in the literature of the dominant American culture. Paredes’s poetry was specifically inspired by the ballads and stories passed down to him by his father when he was a boy, works that also greatly shaped his fiction and nonfiction work. As a writer, Paredes was also influenced by childhood summers spent in northern Mexico, listening to storytellers, as well as the culture in which he was raised. Authors that inspired his work include Gustavo Adolfo Becquer.
Mexican and Southwestern Folklore
Much of Pare-des’s scholarly work focuses on folklore, specifically Mexican, Mexican American, and southwestern types. His first academic work was “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. This pioneering study on Mexican American folklore focuses on the legend of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican American ranch hand who shot a Texas sheriff and then became a hero as he eluded capture. In his “With His Pistol in His Hand,” Paredes discusses all facets of Cortez’s story and how the ballad ”El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” developed out of actual events. He also provided the folk background out of which it came. His next major work on folklore was Folktales of Mexico, a collection of tales edited and translated by Paredes. In addition to including folktales, his introduction offered a complete history of folklore societies and folklore studies in Mexico. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border is a comprehensive anthology and study of traditional songs in the border area.
Bicultural Heritage and Cultural Conflict
In his poetry and fiction, Paredes often explores—and sometimes celebrates—his bicultural heritage as a Mexican-American living on the border between Texas and Mexico. He includes information about what it means to grow up in this society and reflects the era in which the work was written. For example, his first poetry collection, Cantos de adolescencia, features a poetic voice of an adolescent, whose existence as an Hispanic in an Anglo American world, compels him to treasure his ancestral roots. Paredes’s second collection of poetry, Between Two Worlds, also reflects his bicultural heritage with poems which reflect, among other topics, the conflict arising from the poet’s Mexican-American identity. His novel, George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel, was written between 1936 to 1940, reflecting the Great Depression, the beginning of World War II, and conflict of cultures in the Rio Grande Valley. It is a portrayal of an era of hardships that left a deep mark on the Chicanos of south Texas through the character of Gucilinto, who lives in this environment riddled with cultural conflict. His father is murdered by the Texas Rangers, who incorrectly assume that he is part of a seditionist movement seeking to establish a Spanish-speaking republic in the southwest. Gualinto himself faces prejudice in school, as was common in the place and time.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have offered high praise for Paredes as a pioneer in the field of border culture, and in what came to be known as ”border writing.” He was lauded for his attempts to capture more accurately the culture of his people and his region. Much of Paredes’s fiction and poetry was highly regarded by critics, though there is limited criticism of his work.
George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel
Much scholarly attention has been paid to what is generally considered the better of Paredes’s two novels, George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel. Writing in MELUS, Hector Perez offers his interpretation of the novel, examining its themes and the history of the region and times in which it was written. He asserts, ”George Washington Gomez can be read as a radical novel, though its radical quality can best be appreciated in the context of its setting: the U.S.-Mexico border and the era’s literary and intellectual environment.” Another scholar finds the novel to be an example of a new form of modernism. Christopher Sched-ler in Texas Studies in Literature and Language writes, ”. . . Paredes develops a form of Mexican-American modernism to depict a new period of linguistic and ideological—rather than armed—cultural conflict and to represent the pluralistic identity of an emerging Mexican-American middle-class subject.” In a popular publication, Texas Monthly, Don Graham concludes,
Paredes … focused his whole career on the uphill struggle to assert the claims of border culture against those of the prevailing Anglo history. In George Washington Gomez he did just that, leaving behind a powerful critique of another side of race relations in South Texas.
Between Two Worlds
Similarly, Paredes’s second collection of poetry, Between Two Worlds, received little critical attention, though scholars found the work to be both significant and praiseworthy. In The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, Ram6n Saldvar points out how far ahead of its time the poetry of Between Two Worlds was. He writes, “Between Two Worlds might well emblematize the features of . . . postmodern border writing were it not for the fact that it predates the notion by more than a half a century.” In another essay by Saldvar, included in The Borderlands of Culture: Americo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary, he concludes that all of Paredes’s works of fiction and poetry, including Between Two Worlds, ”imagine the predicaments of contemporary ethnic cultural politics, identity formation, and social transformation in the context of what I am here calling bilingual modernity and transnational modernization.”
- Limon, Jose E. ”Americo Paredes, Tradition, and the First Ephebe: A Poetic Mediation on the Epic Corrido.” Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems, History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1992, pp. 45-80.
- –. The Return of the Mexican Ballad: Americo Paredes and His Anthropologist Text as Persuasive Political Performance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Center for Chicano Research, 1986.
- Saldfvar, Ramon. ”Bilingual Aesthetics and the Law of the Heart.” The Borderlands of Culture: Ameerico Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 264-288.
- –. ”The Borders of Modernity: Americo Paredes’s Between Two Worlds and the Chicano National Subject.” The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions, edited by David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 71-87.
- –. ”The Folk Base of Chicano Narrative: Americo Paredes’s With His Pistol in His Hand and the Corrido Tradition.” Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, pp. 26-32.
- Graham, Don. ”Don Graham’s Texas Classics: Amemerico Paredes’ novel George Washington Gomez.” Texas Monthly (January 2000): 26.
- Leal, Luis. ”Americo Paredes and Modern Mexican American Scholarship.” Ethnic Affairs (1987): 1-11.
- Limon, Jose E. ”Americo Paredes: Ballad Scholar.” Journal of American Folklore (Winter 2007): 3.
- Perez, Hector. ”Voicing Resistance on the Border: A Reading of Americo Paredes’s George Washington Gomez.” MELUS (Spring 1998): 27.
- Saldfvar, Ramon. ”The Borderlands of Culture: Americo Paredes s George Washington Gomez and Chicano Literature at the End of the Twentieth Century. American Literary History (Summer 1993):272-293.
- Schedler, Christopher. ”Inscribing Mexican-American Modernism in Americo Paredes’s George Washington Gomez. Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Summer 2000): 154.
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