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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Americo Paredes (c. 1915-1999)

[6573] Anonymous, Cover art for Americo Paredes’s With a Pistol in His Hand (1958), courtesy of the University of Texas Press.

Born in the town of Brownsville on the border between south Texas and Mexico, Americo Paredes became an eloquent interpreter of the complicated, bicultural society that had grown out of the conflicts and tensions of this region. As the title of his second volume of poetry indicates, he found his identity Between Two Worlds. Paredes’s pioneering work recording and elucidating Chicano folklore, as well as his commitment to furthering the field of Mexican American studies, left a lasting legacy that has inspired many writers and scholars interested in border cultures.

Paredes received his early education in Brownsville’s public schools and at the local community college. He began writing poetry and fiction in the late 1930s. His novel George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel, a bitter coming-of-age story of a Mexican American man who experiences discrimination in his childhood and copes by eventually renouncing his culture, was completed in 1940 but was not published until 1991. At the start of World War II, Paredes was sent overseas with the U.S. Army, where he served as a reporter for The Stars and Stripes and as an administrator for the International Red Cross.

After returning to Texas, Paredes entered college at the University of Texas at Austin. When he received his Ph.D. in folklore and Spanish in 1956, he became the first Mexican American student to earn a doctoral degree at that institution. Paredes wrote his dissertation on the story of the Mexican American folk hero Gregorio Cortez. In the late nineteenth century, Cortez avenged the unprovoked death of his brother at the hands of Anglo rangers (rinches) by killing a white sheriff. Cortez then successfully evaded the posses sent to capture him by drawing on his connections within the Chicano community and by skillfully navigating the southwestern landscape. When the rinches began punishing the Mexicans who helped Cortez, he surrendered himself to spare his people any further suffering. The story of Cortez, with its emphasis on heroic protest and resistance in the face of Anglo oppression, became legendary among Mexican Americans in the Texas border region and inspired many stories, drawings, and especially songs that celebrated Cortez’s life and martyrdom. Paredes’s dissertation, entitled With a Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, explored the political and cultural importance of the Cortez story and of the ballads, or corridos (see Unit 5), which it inspired. This pioneering study of the development of folklore and the importance of conflict in border regions became enormously influential and has gone through over eight printings.

Paredes joined the faculty at the University of Texas in 1957. During his thirty-year teaching career, he was involved in the creation and administration of the Mexican American studies program and the Center for Intercultural Studies of Folklore and Ethno-musicology. His scholarship and creative work were instrumental in the movement to define and proclaim a unique “border identity” for people living in the land caught between the United States and Mexico, which has long been characterized by conflict and tension.

Teaching Tips

  • Read the Gregorio Cortez corrido aloud with your students. Ask them to think about what made Cortez such a heroic figure to Mexican Americans living in Texas. How does Cortez display his heroism? You might have them generate a list of qualities and characteristics that describe Cortez. After thoroughly discussing the corrido, ask your students to compare its plot, characterization of its hero, and themes to those of a contemporary song that they like.
  • Ask your students to think about the significance of the fact that Gregorio Cortez shares his name with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Does Gregorio Cortez have more in common with Cortés or with the Aztecs he conquered? How might the creation of a specifically Mexican American Cortez challenge or build on the legacy of Cortés the conquistador?
  • Have students draw a map of the town in which George Washington Gomez lives, including the major landmarks and locales that Gomez visits. What distinguishes this as a border town? How is space divided in the town both symbolically and literally?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is a corrido? Why do you think the story of Gregorio Cortez was such a popular subject for ballads?
  2. Comprehension: What different names does the protagonist of George Washington Gomezgo by? What is the significance of each name? When does he adopt different names in different situations?
  3. Context: How does Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands both borrow from and challenge Paredes’s definition of Mexican American mestizo identity? How does her description of the obstacles and prejudices that Chicana women face compare to Paredes’s narrative of the obstacles and prejudices faced by a Chicano man like George Washington Gomez?
  4. Context: Compare the vision of American masculinity as presented in corridos such as “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” with that presented in the narratives of Spanish and British colonial authors such as Cabeza de Vaca, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and John Smith. What attributes do these men share? In what ways do the corridos present a new or different notion of American manhood?
  5. Context: Gloria Anzaldúa calls the border “una herida abierta,” or, “an open wound.” What is Paredes’s implicit or explicit definition of the border? Do he and Anzaldúa agree on the experience of border life?
  6. Exploration: Why do you think an “outlaw” figure like Gregorio Cortez became a folk hero in the border region? Can you think of similar rebel or outlaw contemporary figures who have acquired hero status? If so, in what contexts are they celebrated? Among what groups? When is rebellion against authority perceived as acceptable and even heroic?

Selected Archive Items

[5936] Jose Guadalupe Posada, Corrido: Fusilamiento Bruno Martinez (1920s), 
courtesy of Davidson Galleries.
Political and social statements played an important part in Posada’s art. This Mexican Revolutionary-era print shows a charro bravely facing a group of onrushing federales. The title translates as The Execution of Bruno Martinez.

[6573] Anonymous, Cover art for Americo Paredes’s With a Pistol in His Hand (1958), 
courtesy of the University of Texas Press. 
Paredes’s With a Pistol in His Hand tells the story of Gregorio Cortez, an early-twentieth-century border hero who lives in folk memory on both sides of the Rio Grande in “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez.”

[6575] Marcos Loya, Americo Paredes with Guitar (2001), 
courtesy of UCLA. 
This painting of Americo Paredes was done by Marcos Loya two years after Paredes’s death. Loya is himself an accomplished Chicano guitarist.

[6581] Americo Paredes, Sheet music: Gregorio Cortez p.1 (n.d.), 
courtesy of the General Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin, © 2002. 
Cortez was a border hero who lives on in folk memory and whose story was told by Americo Paredes in With a Pistol in His Hand. The second page of the sheet music can be seen in the American Passages Archive [6583].

[7747] Danny Lyon, Fifth and Mesa in the Second Ward. El Paso’s “Barrio” (1972), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 
Photograph by Danny Lyon for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project. Lyon, one of the most creative documentary photographers of the late twentieth century, photographed the Rio Grande Valley and the Chicano barrio of South El Paso, Texas.

[9064] Anonymous, El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez (c. 1910), 
courtesy of Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez. 
Text of Cortez corrido. This corrido takes as its subject the murder of an Anglo-Texan sheriff by a Texas Mexican, Gregorio Cortez, and the ensuing chase, capture, and imprisonment of Cortez.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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