Born in 1915, Americo Paredes, rose to become the founder of Mexican American Folklore in America and creator of Mexican American Studies in Texas. In 1937, Paredes published his first poems in La Prensa of San Antonio.
Paredes, a native of Brownsville, studied at the local community college and worked as a proofreader at the Brownsville Herald newspaper. Paredes also hosted a Spanish-language radio show and sang musical requests that were mailed daily to the radio station. In his early years of singing ballads and corridos it occurred to Paredes that myths and folkloric events were often celebrated in corridos, and the legends and traditions of the Borderlands were both popularized and preserved through ballads.
While working for the radio station, Paredes met Chelo Silva, one of the most popular female performers of Mexican border music. She was a guest on his show several times in 1939. He married her soon after meeting her. America’s entry into World War II in 1941, ended his radio career and marriage as he entered the military and was sent to the Pacific war zone.
Paredes’ linguistic skills and journalistic experience earned him a post with the Army’s Stars and Stripes weekly newspaper. While stationed in Japan, he also edited the Armed Forces magazine. Paredes returned to Texas in 1950 and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. By 1956 he had earned three degrees in English, becoming the first Mexican American to earn a PhD at UT Austin. It was while working on his PhD, that Paredes had the opportunity to explore the significance of Mexican American folkloric traditions and myths in songs and poems.
In 1958 the University of Texas Press published Paredes’ first book, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, and Paredes accepted a teaching post in the English Department at UT Austin. In researching the life of Gregorio Cortez, the subject of his dissertation and first book, Paredes found evidence of many early corridos sung along the Texas-Mexican border. Corridos (ballads) had their origins in Texas Borderlands or the region that Paredes referred to as Greater Mexico.
While Mexican scholars credited Mexican composers south of the border with introducing the corrido tradition, Paredes discovered that the first corridos originated in Texas in the 1850s.
Over his forty year career at the University of Texas, Paredes continued his scholarly research of border music and folklore. He published extensively and trained the next generation of Chicano folklorists.
In an edited book dedicated to Americo Paredes, Richard Bauman wrote that scholars like Paredes successfully challenged traditional portrayals of Mexican American regional folk cultures as “fatalistically accepting and docile folk, quaintly backward in their customs and beliefs.”
Bauman, a colleague of Don Americo, as his friends called the eminent professor, edited a book about Paredes’ essays with the title, Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border. Paredes’ writing, Bauman commented, took issue with the perception of Mexican Americans of the borderlands “as romantically quaint, simple, anachronistic, and colorful at best, debased and backward at worst.”
One of Don Americo’s first PhD students, Raymund Paredes, (no relation), arrived at UT Austin in 1968 to study with the famed English and Anthropology professor. His excellent training and mentorship with Americo Paredes paid off as Raymund Paredes landed a job in the English Department at UCLA. After teaching for nearly 30 years, Raymund went to New York City where he worked briefly with the Rockefeller Foundation. Today he is well known in Texas university circles serving as the Texas Commissioner of Higher Education.
Jose E. Limon, another of Don Americo’s Ph.D students, recently published a book on his mentor titled: Americo Paredes; Culture and Critique. Limon taught at the University of Texas Austin and Notre Dame University. Limon is a prodigious scholar and author of three major books in the field of Latino studies— American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States and the Erotics of Culture; Dancing with the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas; and Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry—and more than 35 articles.
Manuel Pena, another of Don Americo’s fabled PhD students, published his first book, The Texas-Mexican
Conjunto, in 1985. Pena wrote that “In its stylistic simplicity, its continuing adherence to the cancion ranchera and working-class themes and, most importantly, in its actualization in weekend dances, the conjunto remains the bedrock music for millions of people whose everyday culture is Mexican at its core.” Professor Pena, who taught at UT Austin and Fresno State University, passed away early this year. Like his mentor, Pena contributed greatly to the development of Mexican American Studies.
In the early 1970s, Americo Paredes corresponded with several young PhD students across the country about possible interest in joining the faculty of UT Austin’s Mexican American Studies program. I was honored to be contacted by Don Americo and visited UT Austin in the years before completion of my doctorate at UCLA. After several years of correspondence with Don Americo, I left my teaching post at UC San Diego and joined the History Department at UT Austin with a joint appointment in Mexican American Studies.
Mexican American folklore is better understood and appreciated because of Americo Paredes’ scholarly work and the research of the students he trained. While
Paredes passed away two decades ago, his legacy lives on.