- 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 [End Page 140] 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...