Border Songs: A Look2 Essay on Américo Paredes
Deep, deep down in the southernmost part of South Texas sits the city of Brownsville. The landscape is home to countless ranches, endless dry brush, and thousands of recent migrants to the US from Mexico. Brownsville is seventy miles south of where the US Border Patrol operates one of its busiest traffic checkpoints, in Falfurrias, Texas. According to an article in The New York Times late last year, this checkpoint “apprehends the largest number of people that have entered the country illegally—14,243 from October 2014 to August .” South Texas is a place where the Border looms everywhere: revered and reviled, and often transgressed. And Brownsville, flush against it, is the birthplace of Américo Paredes, a multilingual folklorist whose writing records the sounds, sights, and textures of life on the Texas-Mexico border.
Paredes, writes the literary scholar and cultural theorist José Limón, is “the leading Mexican-American scholar/intellectual/creative writer of our time.” All those slashes are telling—and they might be why you haven’t heard of him. (And why Limón has: the noted academic was a student of Paredes and wrote a genre-transgressing masterpiece, Dancing with the Devil, in 1994.) It is possible that the very disciplinary and generic boundaries that Paredes exploded in his writing are responsible for his lack of notoriety. Paredes worked in a wide variety of forms, from lyric poetry to academic scholarship. His hybrid-genre books are interspersed among more traditionally conceived scholarship, making it easy to consider him, particularly from a distance, a capital-S scholar, not a public intellectual, not a journalist, nor a musician, novelist, or poet—despite his having been all that and more. He died in 1999, but many of his best books mix genre and form in innovative ways that presage some of the twenty-first century’s most renowned experimental writers.
Even before receiving his bachelor’s degree at the nontraditional age of thirty-five, Paredes was writing and publishing in both English and Spanish. His multiple volumes of poetry began with Cantos de adolescencia (1937), published in Mexico when he was twenty-two. Paredes wrote much of his fiction and poetry before returning to school, resulting in an early body of work that did not see publication until decades after it was written, once he had established a formidable reputation as a scholar of Mexican American folkways. During his first year as a professor, Paredes tossed off a novel just for a shot at a $500 prize being offered. He won it. The novel George Washington Gómez (1990), which Paredes wrote between 1935 and 1940 and then stashed in a drawer for 50 years, the scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin now calls among “the most important works in twentieth-century American literature.”
There isn’t a typical Américo Paredes book, genre, or style. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958), Paredes’ best-known book, exemplifies his extraordinary range as a scholar/intellectual/creative writer, to use Limón’s formulation. The book fuses academic balladry scholarship, lyric storytelling, cultural ethnography, and journalistic recovery work—all by looking closely at a single folksong, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.” Some of Paredes’ other important academic folklore books include Toward New Perspectives in Folklore (1972, with Richard Bauman), A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border (1976), Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border (1993), and dozens of academic studies of Mexican, American, and Mexican American folklore, written in both Spanish and English. In essays like “The Folk Base of Chicano Literature” (1979) and “The Problem of Identity in a Changing Culture” (1993), Paredes uses his interdisciplinary perspective to assert beyond doubt that, as Audre Lorde says, poetry is not a luxury. Looking at daily life, folklore, and literature, Paredes cannot help but see the vital links between them that most of us miss entirely.
Within all his literary variety, Paredes wasn’t so much an experimentalist as a pragmatist. He had to write, so he wrote, genre be damned. He wasn’t trying to find his voice or his story; he already had his story. Born in 1915, Paredes grew up on the Texas side of the Texas-Mexico border, where the distinctions between the two cultures and their languages were sometimes indiscernible, and sometimes as loud as a rifle blast. In the Paredeses’ Spanish-speaking household, Mexican traditions prevailed; meanwhile, at the mostly white public schools Paredes attended, lessons were in English and often conveyed cruel stereotypes about Mexican Americans. By the time he enrolled in the doctoral program at Austin, he was already pushing forty. He was no gull fresh out of undergrad hoping to hop on the tenure-line gravy train. To attend graduate school, he had left a successful journalistic career that included covering war crimes trials in Tokyo and working as a PR man for the Red Cross. He had fought as an infantryman in World War II. Through it all, he encountered racism of many varieties—paid lower wages for the same work, overlooked by educators, passed over for promotions. When he entered academe’s old boy network in the early 1950s, he had long been awake to truths that even most of his professors were not ready to acknowledge.
The Texas-Mexico border that Paredes spent his life writing about, from his youth through his years as an emeritus professor, was both under- and over-imagined. It was a site of mythic battles between good guys and bad guys. It was also a site of a people, Americans of Mexican heritage, that went unrecognized in the country in which they putatively belonged. The awkward subtitle of George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel speaks to the situation Paredes was dealing with. He wrote before words like Chicano/a, Latina/o, and Hispanic had cultural or academic currency. As he wrote, he summoned his experience and that of his “folk” into the official culture. The coming-of-age of Paredes’ George Washington Gómez, or Guálinto, as he is known by everyone, is mediated at every turn by issues of culture, community, and belonging.
George Washington Gómez is the story of Guálinto’s childhood and young adulthood in the lower-class barrio of Jonesville-on-the-Grande, a substitution for the Brownsville of Paredes’ youth. (Jonesville-on-the-Grande is also the setting of many of the short stories in Paredes’ The Hammon and the Bean.) Paredes sets Guálinto’s story in a broader context, including the failed uprising by South Texan sediciosos in 1915, the Great Depression (known in the book as La Chilla), segregation, and World War II. As Guálinto comes into self-consciousness, suffers and recovers from a serious illness, enters school, endures bullying, makes friends, finds and loses love, and works his first job, he is affected, often deeply, by the turbulence of the economic and social landscape that mark the early twentieth century.
Some of the most formally compelling passages in George Washington Gómez are about La Chilla. Departing from Guálinto’s story, Paredes zooms out for a long chapter, providing pointed, but often lyrical, social critique. The Depression took its time getting to the Rio Grande Valley, particularly to its poorest residents, Mexican American farmworkers. A typical Border laborer, Paredes writes,
could not imagine a state of things where he would be poorer than he already was. He heard about the people of Oklahoma, who were leaving their land, getting on their trucks and going west. To the Mexicotexan laborer, anybody who owned a truck was rich. He heard of some sharecropper families who had nothing to eat but flour and bacon. The Mexican laborer, who had subsisted on tortillas most of his life, wondered how people who could afford biscuits and bacon could be poor.
There is cutting social critique throughout the rest of the novel, as well. For example, driving home after being turned away from a high-school event at a Mexican-themed club that, it turns out, has a no-Mexicans policy, one of Guálinto’s classmates tells a story: “When I was in fifth grade I wrote a theme once, in geography class. About the population of Texas. And I said, ‘Texas is a very big state with very little people.’ The teacher took off five points for that. She said it was bad diction.”
Like the greatest, longest novels of Naturalist literature—Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913), Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925)—George Washington Gómez describes the disappointing stringency of society’s expectations. Guálinto has some of the charisma of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, and is, like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas in Native Son, formed to a great extent by his social conditions. But Guálinto resists the hero status that often attaches to literary characters when we read them for the first time. As a little boy, told by his mother and uncle that he is special, better, destined to be a leader of his people, Guálinto rallies. “Just wait till I’m a man! I’ll get our land back. I’ll be like Gregorio Cortez,” he tells his uncle. Cortez, the hero of the corrido (ballad) that Paredes writes about in With His Pistol in His Hand, looms over Guálinto as a model for Mexican American manhood. By his teenage years, though, Guálinto seethes against that prescription. Guálinto knows what his family, and his more optimistic friends, takes much longer to grasp: He just isn’t that great a guy. He is smart but not clever; he is petty, selfish, spoiled; in other words, Guálinto is a man, not a hero. The cultural critic William Nericcio has designated the “fertile, intoxicating terrain of Américo Paredes [as] the domain of ethnic American self-loathing.” As an “ethnic American,” why should Guálinto be denied the self-loathing that invades our native arts, buttresses the defensive sounds of our favorite sitcoms?
As Guálinto sinks into despair, threatening to drop out of high school during a family crisis, his (red-haired) friend El Colorado tries to inspire him. El Colorado talks for pages—he seems to have long held his story inside.
“What if my father don’t know how to read? I know how, don’t I? What if my mother don’t even know what an accountant is? I know what an accountant is, and I want to be one. And I’m going to be one, whatever it costs me. I’ll show these bastards!” He stopped, exhausted and hoarse from the longest speech he had ever made to anyone in his life, and he looked at Guálinto with a timid expression on his big, freckle-splotched face as if the baring of these inner thoughts of his had somehow made him vulnerable. Guálinto looked at him admiringly. The red-head was a better man than himself. “He could really have done something great,” he thought. “He’s the kind of guy I should have been.” He tried to say it but the words stuck in his throat. Instead he said, “You’re a fighter, I’m a coward.”
Guálinto takes a few cracks at love throughout the novel. He tries, in this passage, to love his good friend as El Colorado deserves to be loved. But Guálinto doesn’t seem to have it in him. Although Guálinto has renounced the corridos of his childhood, they cast their shadows over him: In his self-pity, he sees a world of only good vs. evil, fighters vs. cowards. In the space between fighter and coward, of course, is where real life takes place.
In his studies of folklore, Paredes shows how Guálinto might have developed such a mindset. Paredes analyzes how everything from corridos to jokes shapes one’s experience of the world. He seeks fact with a journalist’s rigor, then interrogates his findings with a poststructuralist’s cynicism.
This is particularly true in With His Pistol in His Hand. Paredes submitted With His Pistol in His Hand as his doctoral thesis in 1954, and the University of Texas-Austin Press published it as a book four years later. The book centers on Paredes’ study of “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” a popular corrido in Mexican ranching communities in the Rio Grande Valley. The ballad is of unknown authorship, but Paredes traces its first performances to the summer of 1901, weeks after the real-life Gregorio Cortez Lira shot and killed a Texas sheriff in self-defense and, for several days, outran and outwitted hundreds of racist, bloodthirsty Texas Rangers before finally surrendering, under renegotiated and more humane terms. As a common variant of the ballad ends,
Then said Gregorio Cortez,
With his pistol in his hand,
“Ah, so many mounted Rangers
Just to take one Mexican!”
With His Pistol in His Hand is a book as hybrid as the culture it describes. The book is divided into two parts, its first something of an ethnography—a cultural and historical introduction to border life, as if to say, you cannot begin to understand “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” without knowing the people who sing it. In the book’s “Part One,” Paredes combines the twice-told and the never-mentioned, devoting a chapter to Cortez the legend, and a chapter to Cortez the man, using court records, letters, and interviews to reconstruct a history that most official sources had done their best to erase or control.
Even the materials Paredes worked from testify to the racist, Anglo-centric history and practices of Border life. The sources he cites include newspaper reports that refer to Cortez as the “arch fiend.” Much of the history of the Border he pieces together relies not on published accounts, but on other University of Texas students’ master’s theses, for the simple reason that there were no published accounts from which to draw. The folklore scholar Marilyn Motz has defined folklore as “fugitive knowledge.” With His Pistol in His Hand demonstrates how knowledge becomes fugitive, and not just because Cortez is a literal fugitive, on a flight from the law in life and legend. Michel Foucault famously characterized our age as one in which the truth itself matters less than does the status of the truth. With His Pistol in His Hand is a book about how struggles over the status of truth affect real peoples’ lives. If the things you know are considered “fugitive” rather than “official,” what does that suggest about who you are?
Before Cortez was memorialized as lore, he was a person, just like anybody else, eating meals and resting with his wife on the porch. On June 12, 1901, the day that Cortez ended up leaving his house forever, Paredes writes,
He had just finished the noon meal and was lying full length on the floor of the front gallery of his house…, his head on his wife’s lap. Sitting outside with them were his mother, his brother Romaldo, and Romaldo’s wife. The children were inside, still eating. It was hot and clear; the corn was tall and promised a good harvest. There was cause to be contented. It was at that moment that Sheriff Morris appeared looking for horse thieves.
“There is much variation in oral accounts concerning Cortez’s personal appearance,” Paredes reports, sifting through the descriptions he has collected from people for whom Gregorio Cortez is a household name. Paredes notes that “as the story moves farther away from fact into legend, the narrator identifies himself personally with Cortez.” As the legend of Cortez circulated, the often-ignored people living on this often-ignored Border took the opportunity to tell their own stories—to place their lives within legend. “A short, very dark man told me that Cortez had been just a little dark man, chiquitito y prietito. Ah, but what a man!” Paredes writes; meanwhile, “The variant according to which Gregorio is a field hand was given to me by laboring people.” Paredes’ goal in the first section of With His Pistol In His Hand seems not so much to record lore, or even to bring to light the facts behind the legend. Instead, in the many glimpses it offers of Mexican American life at a certain time and place—from lying peacefully on the front porch at noon to the importance of masculinity and manhood—this unclassifiable book hints at the vistas of peoples that have fallen from the official record. And of all those who were never on the record in the first place. Paredes shows that Cortez’s story was circulated, and ascended into lore, even as it was unfolding. The alacrity with which that transformation took place suggests how “fugitive” or “unofficial” peoples construct the sense of cultural significance that mainstream culture withholds from them.
The second section of the book is about the song itself, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” with a history of the Border corrido form, variants of the ballad in English and Spanish, and line-for-line analyses. Paredes pinpoints the original time and place of each variant based on how and when performers would have received the information within its stanzas.
Paredes’ books are replete with images of father figures passing down lore. His dedication to With His Pistol in His Hand appears in the form of a poem:
To the memory of my father
who rode a raid or two with
and to all those old men
who sat around on summer nights,
in the days when there was
a chaparral, smoking their
cornhusk cigarettes and talking
in low, gentle voices about
while I listened.
As Limón points out, the poetic form of these words signals that “this is no conventional dedication, and what follows is no conventional book.” Paredes’ practice of writing lyric poems as dedications to academic books is an initiation into his expansive way of thinking about discipline and genre. Here, a lyric statement about oral storytelling frames an academic study.
Paredes is a foundational figure in a tradition of books that combine literary and critical theory, fiction, poetry, memoir, and folklore to express hybrid cultural and ethnic identities. Although Paredes is not a familiar name among creative writers, his stylistic and intellectual influence runs deep. Writing in and against Paredes’ example, Gloria Anzaldúa, author of the work of critical theory/poetry/memoir Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, kickstarted a Chicana feminist movement that has included Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, and Julia Alvarez. These writers, like Paredes, are fluent in multiple languages and genres, and tend to combine them in unexpected ways. Paredes variously influenced and prefigured what scholar Christopher Douglas calls the “literary multiculturalism” of contemporary masters like Toni Morrison, N. Scott Momaday, and Ishmael Reed.
Paredes makes mincemeat, throughout his work, of the long tradition of white writers, like J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb, who wrote romanticized histories of Texas that cast the Texas Rangers in the role of courageous good guys. The studies of Mexican American communities that they claimed to have put painstaking effort into, Paredes exposes as mere racialized misunderstandings, assumptions, and guesses. In other words, fiction. Further, historians and folklorists like Dobie and Webb promoted their own reputations and fame by exploiting the racist expectations of their general and academic audiences. In Dancing With the Devil, Limón shares the awful factoid that Dobie encouraged people to call him Pancho, a cartoonish appropriation of the culture and language he purported to translate. In George Washington Gómez, Paredes lampoons Dobie in the character of K. Hank Harvey, “a local luminary” who gives a high-school graduation speech to an auditorium of politely unamused Jonesville residents. Harvey, the perfect inverse of Paredes, has a readymade audience and nothing to say.
Paredes’ expansive work, crossing disciplines and genres, suggests surplus—too much to say, having waited too long to say it. In George Washington Gómez, peoples’ stories, although they have never told them to anyone before, come bursting out of them, overlong and fully formed, like the adult-shaped babies in Renaissance paintings. Toward the end of the novel, Juan, the stolid farmhand of George’s uncle Feliciano, reveals to Guálinto with surprising eagerness some key information. “Juan talked for a long time, longer than he had talked to anyone in years. When he finished he sighed and said, ‘I have been wanting to tell you all this for months now. I’m glad I did.’” One gets the sense that nearly all the characters in the novel, from George’s slightly unhinged mother, Maria, to his pretentious former schoolmate Francisco, are itching for the space and audience to tell their personal histories, having been unheard most of their lives. Like Paredes, they have their stories. They merely lack an audience.
This urgency may be inevitable when one lives in the type of place that the scholar Mary Louise Pratt has termed a “contact zone,” a place where a “we” meets a “them.” Paredes laments in With His Pistol in His Hand that border ballads have hardly been studied at all, “having received to date but passing attention from the Texas folklorist and almost none at all from the Mexican ballad student.” If it’s not one or the other, easy to file as Southern or Western or Texan or Mexican or American, theory or history, we tend to turn away. But it’s never one or the other. Paredes’ writing may be the best example of the hybrid songs we sing in America, even when we don’t know we’re singing them.