Paredes, Américo: 1915-1999: Folklorist, Educator
Américo Paredes: 1915-1999: Folklorist, educator
Surely the only scholar to have had a corrido—a Mexican-American border ballad —composed in his honor, Américo Paredes was a pioneer in the academic study of the Mexican-American experience in the United States and of the culture of the U.S.-Mexico border. His 1958 study With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero was one of those rare works that overturned historical orthodoxy and opened up whole new areas of inquiry. Paredes fought to expand the Mexican-American presence at the University of Texas over his long career there and inspired countless students who went on to create the discipline of Chicano Studies. His own work, folklorist Richard Bauman was quoted as saying in the New York Times, showed "that a deep, detailed, nuanced understanding of the local will illuminate and inspire a more global vision."
Paredes was born in Brownsville, Texas, on September 3, 1915, into a family that had deep roots in the Lower Rio Grande valley; his father's side of the family had been in the New World for several centuries, first as part of a Sephardic Jewish settlement in the state of Nuevo León and then, since the mid-1700s, becoming active as ranchers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. He was named after Amerigo Vespucci, the 16th-century Italian mapmaker who lent his first name to the lands of the Western Hemisphere—because, family legend had it, of a promise his mother had made to a sister who had married an Italian sailor.
Heard Songs and Folktales from Workers
Traditionally after the school year ended in Brownsville, Paredes worked in the summer and began to experience the Mexican-American folklore of the area first-hand, from Mexican agricultural workers he met. He began writing poetry while still a high school student, but his school counselor assumed that, as a student of Mexican background, he would not go on to college. His persistence first showed itself when he sought out a more sympathetic teacher to plead his cause; after he won first prize in a statewide poetry contest he applied and was admitted to Brownsville Junior College. Paredes landed a job as a writer, translator, and proofreader with the Brownsville Herald newspaper, and by the time he was 20 he had seen some of his poems published in San Antonio's La Prensa.
At a Glance . . .
Born on September 3, 1915, in Brownsville, TX; died on May 5, 1999, in Austin, TX; son of Justo (a rancher) and Clotilde Paredes; married Consuelo Silva (a singer), August 13, 1939 (divorced); married Amelia Sidzu Nagamine (a Red Cross worker), May 28, 1948; children: (first marriage) one son; (second marriage) Américo Jr., Alan, Vicente, Julia. Education: Graduated from Brownsville Junior College; University of Texas, BA (summa cum laude ), 1951, MA, 1953, PhD, 1956. Military service: U.S. Army, 1944-46.
Career: Stars and Stripes, Japan, reporter, 1940s; Texas Western College, lecturer, mid-1950s; University of Texas, professor, 1958-85, founder, Center for Intercultural Studies of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, 1967, editor, Journal of American Folklore, 1968-73, founder, Mexican American Studies program, 1970, professor emeritus, 1985-99.
Selected awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1962; Charles Frankel Prize, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1989.
In 1937 Paredes published a book of poetry, Cantos de adolescencia. He continued to write for the Herald, but he encountered discrimination there and was increasingly restless. Continuing to write poetry and short stories (many of which were first published only at the end of his life), he searched for new opportunities and worked for Pan American Airways for a time. Paredes was briefly married to Brownsville singer Chelo Silva; the marriage produced one son. In 1944 Paredes enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantryman.
After the war he was sent to Japan to write for the Army's Stars and Stripes newspaper, where he covered Japanese war crimes trials and served as political editor. Paredes lived in Japan for five years, doing public relations work for the Red Cross after his discharge. At the Red Cross offices in Tokyo he met his second wife Amelia Nagamine, a woman of Japanese-Uruguayan background; friends had introduced them hoping that they would enjoy speaking Spanish to one another. The two were married in 1948 and settled in Austin, Texas. Paredes enrolled at the University of Texas and, with junior college already under his belt, graduated summa cum laude after a year of study.
Investigated Background and Development of Corrido
Paredes stayed on at the University of Texas, receiving his master of arts degree in 1953 and a doctorate in 1956. He taught for a year at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) and then returned to Austin to teach folklore and creative writing at Texas. In 1958 his landmark study With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero was published; it covered an actual incident, the 1901 death of a Mexican agricultural worker, Gregorio Cortez, who was hunted down and killed after he shot a Texas sheriff. Paredes presented both a balanced history of the incident (earlier written histories had been slanted toward Texas law enforcement's version of events) and investigated the musical balladry that Cortez's death inspired among Mexican Americans in subsequent years.
With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero was published by the University of Texas Press only after prodding from Paredes's few faculty support-ers—as the New York Times dryly noted, the university "had never been particularly welcoming to Mexican-American students or scholars." Paredes set out to change that situation, founding the university's Center for Intercultural Studies of Folklore and Ethnomusicology in 1967 and, in 1970, a program in Mexican American studies. Despite his impressive academic credentials—he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962, among other honors—Paredes encountered resistance to his initiatives and more than once considered resigning from the Texas faculty.
Paredes published several more well-received books as well as numerous articles, however, and he served as editor of the prestigious Journal of American Folklore from 1968 to 1973. His books included A Texas-Mexican Cancionero, an annotated songbook that has since served as a standard reference for the traditional corrido repertory. In 1989 Paredes was honored with the Charles Frankel Prize by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 1991 he received the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican government—that country's highest honor given to citizens of foreign countries.
Honored in Corrido by Folk Songstress
An honor of a different kind came from San Antonio-born folksinger Tish Hinojosa, who studied with Paredes and on her 1995 album Frontejas included a corrido, With His Pen in His Hand, that depicted the events of Paredes's life. Hinojosa, according to the All Music Guide, spoke lovingly of absorbing from Paredes corridos, love songs, and "anecdotes of the borderland where he was raised and where my family's roots lie deeply embedded. These sessions continue still and the knowledge I receive is a precious resource from which I'll always draw."
After his retirement, Paredes authored several more research studies and saw many of his early writings published. The stories he had written as a young journalist in Brownsville were collected and published as The Hammon and the Beans and Other Stories (1994) and a novel from the same period, George Washington Gómez, which several publishers had originally rejected, appeared in 1990. These writings realistically depicted the Texas of Paredes's youth from a Mexican-American perspective. George Washington Gómez depicted the Texas Rangers as violent racists and, noted the Texas Monthly, "touches on events usually overlooked in Texas history classes" such as the 19th-century Plan of San Diego, an abortive attempt to establish a Mexican-black-Japanese Republic of the Southwest. In 1998 he published a new book of fiction, The Shadow. Américo Paredes died on May 5, 1999, in Austin; the date was perhaps an appropriate one for a man who was in his way a modern-day hero of Mexican Americans.
Cantos de adolescencia (poetry), 1937.
With a Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, University of Texas Press, 1958.
Folktales of Mexico (editor, with Richard M. Dorson), 1970.
A Texas-Mexican Cancionero, University of Illinois Press, 1976.
George Washington Gómez, 1990 (novel, written late 1930s).
The Hammon and the Beans and Other Stories, 1994 (mostly written 1940s).
The Shadow (novel), 1998.
Houston Chronicle, December 18, 1994, p. Zest-33.
New York Times, May 7, 1999, p. A25.
Publishers Weekly, June 6, 1994.
Texas Monthly, January 2000, p. 26.
"Americo Paredes," All Movie Guide, www.allmovie.com (March 19, 2003).
"Americo Paredes," American Decades CD-ROM, Gale, 1998; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 19, 2003).
"Americo Paredes," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 19, 2003).
"Américo Paredes Biography," Univeristy of Texas Library Association, www.lib.utexas.edu/benson/paredes/biography.html (March 19, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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Paredes, Américo: 1915-1999: Folklorist, Educator