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Especially Texan is a weekly dive into historical topics that make up the tapestry of Texas history.
Especially Texan: Américo Paredes
Américo Paredes was an award-winning scholar and folklorist who cofounded the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Mexican-American Studies. Continue reading below to learn more about the first Mexican-American to receive a Ph.D. at the University of Texas.
Américo Paredes, musician, scholar, and folklorist, was born on September 3, 1915, in Brownsville, Texas. Born to Justo Paredes, a rancher, and Clotilde Manzano-Vidal, he was named Américo by his mother after the Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, as “the result of a promise to an aunt and her Italian sailor husband.”
Growing up bilingual, Paredes had an ear for the cadences and rhythms of both Spanish and English, whether written, spoken, or sung. As a youngster, he wrote poetry, played guitar, and sang occasionally. He was educated in the Brownsville school system and graduated from high school in 1934. That same year, he began working at the Brownsville Herald, first as a cub reporter and later as a proofreader in both Spanish and English, earning $11.40 per week. In 1936 Paredes completed his associate’s degree from Brownsville Junior College (now Texas Southmost College in partnership with the University of Texas at Brownsville), and two years later he began to publish poetry in San Antonio’s Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa.
In 1937 he published his first book, a volume of poetry entitled Cantos de adolescencia. While hosting a radio program in Brownsville in 1939, Paredes invited locally-known singer, Chelo Silva (who later became known as “La Reina de los Boleros”) to perform. They later married but divorced when the couple drifted apart during Paredes’s tour of duty in the United States Army. They had a son.
In 1940 Paredes went to work for Pan American Airways as a civilian war worker. In 1941, however, he had enlisted in the United States Army and was sent to the Pacific Theater, where the army made use of his literary skills, assigning him to write and edit Stars and Stripes. After the war, he covered the Japanese war crimes trials. He also edited Armed Forces magazine. While stationed in Japan, he met and married Amelia Nagamine on May 28, 1948.
Paredes returned to the United States in 1950 and also returned to college, this time enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin. By 1956 he had completed a bachelor’s (1951, summa cum laude), a master’s (1953), and a doctorate (1956) degree.
Paredes was the first Mexican-American to receive a Ph.D. at the University of Texas. After acquiring his doctorate, he accepted a teaching job at the University of Texas at El Paso, and within a year he was offered a tenure-track professorship at UT Austin.
He was first appointed to the Department of English, but in 1969 he accepted an additional appointment in the Department of Anthropology. As a teacher, he often integrated music into his classroom. Rather than sticking to the standard lecture format, he often played his guitar and sang in class.
In 1958 the University of Texas Press published his dissertation as a book, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. The subject was Gregorio Cortez Lira (or simply known as Gregorio Cortez), a Tejano hero of a well-known border corrido. The book garnered immediate acclaim for Paredes and helped to establish his reputation as a folklorist.
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Beginning in 1958, Paredes published a series of articles on the musical form of the corrido. Although the corrido was long thought to be of solely Mexican invention, Paredes demonstrated that, in fact, the corrido originated along the Texas-Mexican border. The earliest extant corrido, “El Corrido de Kiansis” (“The Ballad of Kansas”) actually originated in Texas. Its subject is ostensibly a cattle drive, but the corrido also subtly explores the relationship between Anglo and Mexican cowboys.
Paredes’s early work as a poet and novelist helped to spark the Chicano literary movement, influencing writers such as Tomás Rivera and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith. Paredes published a number of important books and articles, including Folktales of Mexico (1970), and A Texas Mexican Cancionero: Folksongs of the Lower Border (1976). His later works included George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel (1990), a novel he had actually written years earlier as a reporter, and Between Two Worlds (1991), which influenced another generation of Mexican-American writers.
Paredes was also an activist. As a professor, he pushed for the founding of the Center for Intercultural Studies of Folklore and Ethnomusicology in 1967. He lobbied for and in 1970, along with George I. Sánchez, cofounded UT Austin’s Center for Mexican-American Studies. Once the center was created, Paredes continued to promote and bring mainstream acceptance to the field of Mexican-American Studies. Through his teaching and writing, he challenged the portrayal of Mexican Americans’ role in Texas history by authors such as Walter Prescott Webb and J. Frank Dobie.
Music and folklore were intertwined in Paredes’s career as both a scholar and teacher. As a scholar, he collected stories and jokes from the Texas-Mexico border and from northern Mexico, and he trained generations of folklorists in UT’s Anthropology and English departments. In recognition of his contributions to folklore, literature, and cultural studies, he received numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1962 and the Charles Frankel Prize from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1989.
In 1990 Paredes received the Orden del Aguila Azteca, Mexico’s highest honor given to citizens of other countries. In 1998 the Austin Independent School District invited him to break ground for the Américo Paredes Middle School, named in his honor.
Paredes died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-three on May 5, 1999, in Austin, Texas. His wife Amelia died later that year. They were survived by Américo Paredes, Jr., (his son with Chelo Silva) and by their three children: Alan, Vicente, and Julia. In 2008 Américo Paredes was an inaugural inductee into the Austin Music Memorial.
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