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Even though Don Américo had been ill for several weeks, I am unprepared for his passing. Instead I immerse myself deeper into the details of running the Center (for Mexican American Studies) that he established nearly thirty years ago. Keeping busy is easier than writing a memorial.
Write about the meaning of his life? My words and sentences fail me. The following nouns come to mind: journalist, wartime correspondent, poet, guitarist, singer, novelist, storyteller, historian, folklorist, ethnographer, essayist, satirist, master teacher, editor, public intellectual, founder of two academic centers, internationally-recognized scholar. ¿Que más puede hacer uno en su vida? To these nouns I can add a few adjectives: courageous, funny, sarcastic, witty, generous, gallant, chivalrous, charismatic. He was a caballero – a true gentleman – from a border society that has largely passed away.
Random recollections fill my mind. I recall a symposium in Paredes’ honor a few years ago, where I remarked that walking down the Texas history aisle of bookstores was like walking through contested terrain. On one side was Walter Prescott Webb, shelved under Texas History, and on the other Paredes, shelved under Ethnic Studies. The division, of course, was a false one, because both authors were writing about the same history of conflict but from different perspectives. In the fifties and sixties, before the development of an extensive Chicano literature, it was Paredes who almost single-handedly maintained that contested terrain. His classic work, With a Pistol in His Hand, was a direct rebuttal and challenge to the mythologies created by his contemporary, Walter Prescott Webb. At a time when Jim Crow segregation was still strong, Paredes’ writings defended Texas Mexican culture and memory. Once this segregation began to break down at Texas universities in the late sixties, it was fitting that Américo Paredes would become, in 1971, the founding director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at U.T.—Austin.
I smile as I recall Américo’s hilarious critique of those anthropologists who misunderstood Texas Mexicans. It was apparent that Don Américo, who grew up at a time when South Texas was considered a prime site for field studies, enjoyed writing such essays. Humor and sarcasm were the literary devices Américo often used in challenging misinterpretations of the border culture. So it was fitting, too, that Don Américo would later establish the Folklore Center at U.T.—Austin.
I should note that Don Américo was equally unforgiving of the “cowardly” behavior of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the face of racism. I recall his acceptance, in 1991, of Mexico’s highest honor for non-citizens, La Aguila Azteca, bestowed in a formal ceremony at U.T. He launched into a biting critique of Mexican intellectuals who had ridiculed the “low culture” of Texas Mexicans, and who had impassively stood by during the outrages of Jim Crow segregation. It was an incredible performance; it is burned into my memory “pa’ siempre.”
In the last few years, when Américo could no longer maintain a regular teaching schedule, he nonetheless made a habit of Tuesday coffee sessions at the campus Cactus Café. Here he would hold court with the “younger” intellectual generation (Ricardo Romo, Manuel Peña, Neil Foley, and others who would drop by). Later he would pass by the Center to see how things were going. With thirty associated faculty who teach approximately sixty classes in Mexican-American studies each year, the Center is thriving, I would tell him. “We’re one of the best ethnic study centers in the country,” I would often mention. He would beam on hearing that.
Don Américo passed away on the Texas Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo. Can a more poetic statement be made?
David Montejano is director of the Center for Mexican American Studies and Associate Professor of History and Sociology, U.T.—Austin.