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WINTER 1999 ISSUE

Con su pluma en su mano


By El Andar staff and Oralia Garza de Cortés
Photo by Jesse Herrera

 

Dr. Américo Paredes
September 3, l915 - May 5, l999

On a Sunday afternoon in May at the University of Texas at Austin, a service was held in memory of the eminent scholar Dr. Américo Paredes. Dr. Américo Paredes, a native of Brownsville, Texas, died on el cinco de mayo. He was 84 years old.

Former students and lifelong colegas paid tribute to the eminent Mexican American scholar, the man who challenged historians and their versions of life along the Texas-Mexico border. “His work skewered official versions of Texas history,” wrote Texas journalist Rebecca Thatcher.

The young Paredes was a poet and a singer, then a reporter at The Brownsville Herald. He married and divorced Chelo Silva, a singer now famous in Mexico. During World War II, he was a reporter and editor of Stars and Stripes magazine in the Pacific theater. He met his wife Amelia in Japan, and after the war the couple moved to Texas, where Paredes continued his education. “Brownsville was not exactly a place of intellectual ferment,” Paredes later remarked. “And the war gave my generation and me a late start.” But in a few years Américo graduated from student to teacher: by 1958 he was a professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Dr. Paredes founded the Center for the Intercultural Studies of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT-Austin.

Paredes was one of the first to identify and define Mexican-American culture, and his studies of working class people along the Rio Grande spawned a revolution in the study of early Texas history. “He was a very courageous man,” California State University professor Manuel Peña told the Austin American-Statesman. “In 1958 when he published `With a Pistol in His Hand,’ the Texas Rangers were larger-than-life figures in some circles. He was arguing that they were basically thugs who killed innocent Mexicans. He was kind of declared a persona non grata. That took a lot of courage, but it was part of his effort to set the record straight.”

“We had these conversations that lasted for days,” UT Vice Provost Ricardo Romo told the American-Statesman, “then in the evenings he’d take out his guitar. He probably knew 500 songs by memory. It’s hard to imagine this campus without him.”

Members of the university community and immediate and extended family members were in attendance at the memorial service. Dr. Ricardo Romo, the first Mexican-American president of the University of Texas at San Antonio, presided.

Testaments spoke of Dr. Paredes as scholar, hero, mentor and friend.

Many of Texas’s finest artists offered tribute. El Conjunto Aztlán, led by Juan Tejeda and José Flores Peregrino, began with a song made famous by Dr. Paredes’s research, “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez.”

Chicano poet Raul Salinas, accompanied by the conjunto, followed with a poetry performance of “El Corrido de Américo Paredes,” a tribute he composed to honor el doctor.

Singer/songwriter Tish Hinojosa sang “Collar de perlas,” which her mother used to sing when she was little. For years, Hinojosa tried to find the lyrics to the song, and eventually Paredes turned up and sang it to her, beginning her apprenticeship with the master folklorist. Then she sang the well-known corrido she composed in the doctor’s honor, “Con su pluma en su mano,” from her Frontejas album (Rounder Records, 1995).

Lourdes Pérez, the singer/songwriter from Austin and San Francisco, performed a dramatic and impassioned décima, a ten-line stanza that was one of Dr. Paredes’s favorite literary art forms: “Paredes, que tus escritos se vuelvan lucecitos que en el universo arden” (“Paredes, may your writings become little stars that burn in the universe”).

Dr. Paredes’s son, Dr. Vicente Paredes, called his father “a Renaissance man,” a scholar of history, literature, music, folklore and ethnic studies. He said Dr. Paredes was “a man of no pretenses” who endured much pain as he struggled to build a university career well past the age of 35.

Vicente recalled another hero, Amelia Paredes, his mother and the life-long companion of Dr. Paredes, a woman who endured her own pain as a witness of the bombing of Japan during World War II. Amelia Paredes was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on May 5th, the same day Dr. Paredes passed away. She died July 22, l999.

“I haven’t done all the things I wanted or was able to do,” Paredes once said. “But I guess I’ve done OK, considering how far I had to go from scratch.”

The memorial ended with a joyful chorus of “De Colores” sung by the Mariachi Paredes de Tejastitlán, a University of Texas group named in Dr. Paredes’s honor.

 

Oralia Garza de Cortés is a writer and Latino children’s literature and library services consultant living in Austin, Texas. She was a student in Dr. Paredes’ last graduate seminar in Folklore Studies. A native of Brownsville, Texas, she grew up hearing stories of the legendary Dr. Paredes from her mother, her father and her uncle, who recalled Paredes as “un hombre de justicia.



© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine