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A Conversation With Don Americo BY BILLY PORTERFIELD IT IS DIFFICULT these days for Americo Paredes to make an appearance at his office on the University of Texas campus, much less take heart and good advantage of the honors and honorariums that are supposed to brighten a great man’s twilight. At 74, this Renaissance man of American Hispanics must husband his energies. Disease has robbed him of physical vibrancy, while time and the river have cast a melancholy upon his passionate soul. But his long, Quixotic face, which droops to a Vandyke wispy and elegiac as Spanish moss, stirs to life in conversation. The mind is as quick as ever, appearing first in his Brownsville eyes, which change from winter to spring in a blink and a wry crinkle. Then come the words, biting through medication, warming themselves as they walk and then run through you like the border corridos he used to sing. He had made a special effort to see me. His wife, Amelia, had driven him from their home in Allandale Terrace to the campus. He sat before a spare desk, a small, spare figure \(no bigger than the late Augustine of Calhoun Hall, reading The Daily Texan. I hesitated before stepping through the open door. Frail as he appeared, Dr. Paredes is a fabled man, a giant of Aztlan in Mexican Texas, where I spent much of my youth and young manhood, and, gringo though I am, I approached him with simpatico y respecto. I’d been among the throngs who heard him speak and play his guitar, I had heard him speak not only of lore, but of revolution and enlightenment. He was a professor at the great university, yes, but he was also a professor of the folk, one who spoke eloquently of their dreams and aspirations. I had heard his ballads, had read his poems and stories and books, but had never been alone with him, face-to-face. Only last month it had been announced that he was one of five American scholars to receive the first Charles Frankel Prize, and $5,000, from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Paredes was cited for his contribution to Mexican American culture and studies. I took a breath and plunged. Billy Porterfield is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, where this writing originally appeared. Americo Paredes LARRY MURPHY “Anything going on in the Texan?” I said breezily. Paredes lowered the newspaper and, chin down, looked at me from over the top of his spectacles. “It’s never been the same since those young gadflies, Ronnie Dugger and Willie Morris, used to write for the Texan,” he said, smiling. “Well, it did pick up a bit here in the ’60s and early ’70s, but the ’80s have been a yawner.” He put the paper down, stood and offered a slight, long-fingered hand, and sat back down, turning his chair toward me. He wore a tan Guayabera wedding shirt that matched the tan of his trousers and elegant loafers. I also noticed that the walls and shelves of his office were almost bare. He must have noticed me noticing because he asked me to forgive the austerity of his surroundings. “I used to have a somewhat grander office,” he said with mock rue, “and that in itself is a good story. You see, for 25 years I taught here in basements for practically nothing, and often at political odds with the administration, only to find myself suddenly numbered among the grand old men. I was given the Raymond Dickson, Alton C. Allen and Dillon Anderson Centennial Professorship Emeritus, which came with a $10,000 salary supplement and a $10,000 expense account, as well as an impressive office. “But after only a year, my brother, Amador, died, and I went into such a depression, so acute it can only be described as clinical, that I resigned from the university. That was in 1984. Amador died of cancer, a terribly slow and agonizing death. I was devastated by his suffering. Now, I’ve got cancer too, but my heart will give out before the cancer gets me. At any rate, I got over Amador’s death, and the university has allowed me to return, to this. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t have the strength spend much time here anyway.” HE TALKED at length about his childhood in Brownsville. Americo was the fifth of eight children raised in a traditional border family. He was deeply attached to a sister, Blanca, five years older, who died of pneumonia at 20, two months before her scheduled marriage. Blanca was the bridge between the oldest children and the youngest, and Paredes still insists, like a true campesino, that the reason the older kids lived longer was because they were nourished on goat’s milk. He is the only child left who drank cow’s milk. At 19, he won a statewide poetry contest that helped him attend a Brownsville junior college on scholarship. He began reading proofs at the Brownsville Herald for $11.54 a week. On the side he wrote feature stories in Spanish for Matamoros newspapers. He inspected airplanes at the Pan American plant, but the biggest money he would ever make was the $1 a minute he got for singing his own songs on the local radio stations on both sides of the Rio Grande. World War II found him a correspondent for Stars and Stripes, landing in Japan just after the atom bombs had been dropped and peace had been signed. He covered the war crimes trials and Japanese politics. Upon his discharge, he joined the International Branch of the American Red Cross, and remained in Japan as a troubleshooter and problem solver. Amelia Nagamine was a pretty Red Cross girl. She was the daughter of a Japanese diplomat and his Uruguayan wife, and had been educated in Mexico City. Americo fell in love with her and they were married, against the advice of their superiors, in Tokyo. “We thought all this mixing was wonderful, but the authorities did not. We had to sign papers swearing that Amelia would not try to become an American citizen, and so THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21