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Hispanic Heritage

Américo Paredes

1915-1999
Folklorist, educator, author, novelist

"To the memory of my father, who rode a raid or two with Catarino Garza; 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 violent things; while I listened." — Paredes' dedication to With His Pistol in His Hand

Acclaimed Mexican American Folklorist Americo Paredes was a folklore scholar known for his collections and translations of the folklore and ballads of Mexico and the Mexican American border region. His celebrated 1958 book, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, described the legend of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican American ranch hand who shot a Texas sheriff and then became a hero as he eluded capture. Paredes heard the story, which ended tragically, sung as a ballad in small towns along the Rio Grande. "Borders and ballads seem to go together, and their heroes are all cast in the same mold," he wrote. Throughout his long career, he challenged some of the stereotypical views of life in the borderlands of Texas and Mexico. By learning the songs and the lore of the region, he "set in motion a revolutionary approach to writing about the way things and people had been in early Texas," according to a statement released by the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin upon his death in 1999. "In doing so, he helped to shape a positive cultural identity among Mexican-Americans and influenced a whole new generation of Texas scholars."

Praise for Literary Works

Paredes was "renowned as an ethnographer, literary critic and social historian," according to Ramon Saldivar in the foreword to Paredes's fiction collection The Hammon and the Beans and Other Stories (1994). Similarly, Richard M. Dorson described him as "the outstanding scholar of border folklore" in the introduction to Paredes's Folktales of Mexico (1970): "He is the thorough folklorist, equally at home in the field, the library, and the archives," Dorson wrote. "No one is more uniquely qualified to present the folktales of Mexico." Paredes developed Chicano and folklore studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was professor of English and anthropology for over 30 years. A prolific writer, he was editor of the Journal of American Folklore from 1969 to 1973.

Between Two Worlds

Paredes was born to Justo and Clotilde Paredes in Brownsville, Texas, on 3 September 1915. He was raised between two worlds — a phrase which became the title of his 1990 book of poetry — on the Texas-Mexican border with its rich mixture of languages and cultures. In Folktales of Mexico, Paredes wrote that he spent childhood summers in northern Mexico, listening to storytellers. Aspiring to be a poet and fiction writer, he studied at Brownsville Junior College from 1934 to 1936, then worked as a journalist at the Brownsville Herald and Pan American Airways. He traveled to Japan with the U.S. Army in 1944 and 1945. As political editor for Stars and Stripes, he covered part of the post-World War II war crimes trials in Japan, according to notes in The Hammon and the Beans.

Develops Folklore and Chicano Studies.

Paredes had a long and distinguished academic career. In 1951, he received his bachelor's degree in English and philosophy, summa cum laude, from the University of Texas at Austin. He earned a master's in 1953 and his doctorate in 1956, both in English (folklore) and Spanish. He then taught at the university, rising to professor of English in 1965 and professor of anthropology in 1966, and serving on the folklore program faculty. He was later named the Ashbel Smith Professor of English and Anthropology and the Anderson Centennial Professor. After retirement, Paredes became Professor Emeritus of English and Anthropology.

Professional Accomplishments

In 1957, Paredes organized the Folklore Archives at the University of Texas and served as archivist. He founded the university's Mexican American Studies Program in 1972, and directed the Center for Intercultural Studies in Folklore and Oral History. Beyond the university, Paredes, who published frequently in professional journals, was president of the Texas Folklore Society in 1961-1962, and vice-president of the American Folklore Society in 1964-1965. He was also active in civil rights, bicultural education, and ethnic minority affairs for Texas and the university.

Journeys to Lower Rio Grande

A dedicated field researcher, Paredes traveled the Lower Rio Grande border, collecting corridos (Mexican American ballads) and folktales from farmers, ranchers, folksingers, and others. Many of his tapes are housed in the Folklore Library at the University of Texas at Austin. His doctoral thesis, "With His Pistol in His Hand" — which was made into a public television film — is considered a classic study of the border ballad. "It illuminates the folk psychology of the Mexican border folk," according to The Centennial Index: One Hundred Years of the Journal of American Folklore. "It also indicates how folklore sources can contribute to historical knowledge."

Nature of Mexican Folklore

In Folktales of Mexico, Paredes wrote that folklore in Mexico and the United States is a blend of "imported, indigenous and American-historical traditions," molded by a combination of "colonization, the westward movement, Negro slavery, immigration, regionalism, the rhetoric of democracy, and the technology of the mass media." Animal folktales, like "The Ram in the Chile Patch" and "Perez the Mouse," are among the stories he collected for the book. "Folktales of wonder and adventure still are told in Mexican villages and towns with all the old embellishments," he observed.

Collecting Songs, Celebrating a People

Paredes's 1976 book, A Texas-Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border, was "among the first folksong volumes to emphasize Mexican rather than Spanish heritage," John O. West noted in Mexican-American Folklore. Paredes collected the words and music of 66 folksongs from the Texas-Mexican border, and added his own historical information and interpretation of each one. "The total reveals a scholar with an impressive command of border folksong," West claimed. In addition, the book was deemed appropriate for both scholars and general readers.

Cultural Advocate

Paredes was not only a scholar, but a cultural advocate who cared deeply about the history and people of his region. In the dedication to "With His Pistol in His Hand," Paredes wrote: "To the memory of my father, who rode a raid or two with Catarino Garza; 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 violent things; while I listened."

Later Works

Paredes worked well into his 70s. Folklore and Culture of the Texas-American Border appeared in 1992. His efforts at fiction and poetry came to fruition with the publication of a novel, George Washington Gomez (1990), and a poetry collection, Between Two Worlds (1991). "These imaginary works address the predicaments of contemporary Chicano/a cultural politics, identity formation, and social transformation," Saldivar stated. Paredes's short-story collection, The Hammon and the Beans, published in 1994 but mostly written in the 1930s and 1940s, vividly describes the Brownsville of his youth, where Mexican Americans struggled against poverty, prejudice, and loss of cultural identity.

Family Life

Paredes married Consuelo Silva in 1939. After the marriage ended, he wed Amelia Sidzu Naeamine in 1948. Paredes dedicated some of his many books to his four children, Julia, Americo, Jr. Alan, and Vicente. In 1989, Paredes was honored by the National Endowment for the Humanities with the Charles Frankel Prize for his lifelong contributions to the humanities. The government of Mexico in 1990 awarded him the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest award to non-citizens for preserving Mexican culture. Paredes died at the age of 83 in 1999.

FURTHER READING

Jackson, Bruce, Taft, Michael, and Harvey S. Axelrod, eds., The Centennial Index: One Hundred Years of the Journal of American Folkore, (Washington, DC: American Folklore Society, 1988).
Ryan, Bryan, ed., Hispanic Writers, (Detroit: Gale, 1991).
West, John O., Mexican-American Folklore, (Little Rock, August House, 1988).

SOURCE CITATION

Biography Resource Center, Gale, 1999.

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