In 1939, a young newspaper reporter from Brownsville finished a novel he’d been working on for years—a heavily autobiographical coming-of-age story about a rebellious Texas Mexican growing up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley as Anglo-Americans were consolidating their economic and political control over the region.
The writer, Américo Paredes, would eventually gain fame as a pioneering hero of Chicano literature. At the time, Paredes found no takers for his fiction. Few publishers were interested in a work about a firebrand Mexican-American. As Paredes later joked, “The mail took two days to get from Brownsville to Austin, but whenever I sent my manuscript out, it was always returned the next day.”
Paredes set his novel aside, and it sat in a box, untouched, for more than 50 years. Paredes became an influential professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He founded the university’s Center for Mexican American Studies and published extensively. He is most famous for his first book, about a Mexican-American rancher who kills a white sheriff, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. It single-handedly challenged generations of Anglo-American mythmaking. In 1982, the book was made into a successful film, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring Edward James Olmos.
After Paredes retired from UT in the late 1980s, he began to look back through his old manuscripts, and there he found the copy of his novel. He dusted it off, and Arte Publico Press published it in 1990 as George Washington Gómez.
The book, remarkably, holds up extremely well today. The novel tells the story of Guálinto Gómez, a young man whose father has been murdered by Texas Rangers. In Paredes’ view, los rinches are not iconic heroes, but rather a paramilitary force used by Anglo invaders. George Washington Gómez chronicles Guálinto’s journey through the segregated school system and his dawning political awareness. Paredes was one of the best writers to come from Texas, and George Washington Gómez is written in his trademark style—ironic, lean, and graceful.
Paredes’ novel is important not only for its literary merit, but also for its historical context. During the decades his manuscript sat unread, Anglo-Americans dominated historical writing about South Texas. Much of what got published was one-sided propaganda—one reason why the Texas Rangers became legends, rather than war criminals. In George Washington Gómez, Paredes presents a personal, affecting portrait of the Lower Rio Grande Valley that, at long last, provides some balance to our history.
Steve Davis is an assistant curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos.