Ballad of the Borderland

January 23, 2008

Last month, the Modern Language Association gave its Prize in United States Latina and Latino and Chicana and Chicano Literary and Cultural Studies (possibly the longest award title ever attempted by a major scholarly organization) to Ramón Saldívar, a professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University, for his monograph on the work of Américo Paredes.

It would be appealing to suppose that at this point everyone will respond by thinking, “Great timing! This year is the 50th anniversary of With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Which, come to think of it, is a book I really ought to get around to reading, what with immigration issues looking like they are going to define American politics for the next few decades, and everything.”

Yeah, that’ll happen. Paredes, who died in 1998, was a professor of English and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. With His Pistol was published by the University of Texas Press in 1958 and, it seems, given no promotion – or so Paredes complained, as authors usually do. It eventually found an audience outside the world of folklore specialists. I read it in a course on Southwestern American history at UT in the early 1980s. But its potential audience is even more cross-disciplinary now. It remains in print.

With His Pistol in His Hand analyzed a corrido (folk ballad) from the Valley – the southernmost part of Texas, where the geographical boundary with Mexico grows blurry, given the margin of cultural overlap between the countries. The song told of a Mexican-American farmer named Gregorio Cortez. His run-in with a white sheriff was made worse by each side’s limited command of the other’s language. The conflict escalated into a gunfight, after which Cortez fled, pursued by the Texas Rangers. His capture and trial culminate in a courtroom speech in which the Mexicano pleas to be judged by his community, not by the racist authorities.

Paredes collected and analyzed the various incarnations of the corrido sung in the Valley, and compared it to ballads from other countries telling of an ordinary person driven to become an outlaw and hero-of-the-people. He also traced the origins of the legend back to actual events unfolding in Texas during the first years of the 20th century.

Although the book did not reach a wide audience at first, it did come to the attention of the Texas Rangers, who were not pleased. At least one Ranger expressed an interest in revising the historical record by shooting Paredes. Evidently he thought the better of this idea.

Scholars in American cultural studies have long taken inspiration from explorations in social history such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Maybe this anniversary will be an occasion to remember a Chicano intellectual who anticipated such work by paying attention to the cultural activity going on around him.

But to be honest, I hadn’t actually thought of With His Pistol in His Hand in a very long time when my attention was drawn to a large poster at the Duke University Press booth in the exhibit hall during the MLA convention in Chicago. It announced the award just given to Ramón Saldívar’s The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary, published by Duke. And even then, my memory was jogged only indirectly. Nowadays, Saldívar is the Hoagland Family Professor of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. But when he was an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, long ago, I read Lacan with him for a semester, and listened with awe to anything Ramón could report about studying with the giants of deconstructive criticism at Yale in the 1970s.

It all seems like a very long time ago, but...Small world! We ran into one another later during the conference, and sat down on its final day to record the interview now available as an IHE podcast.

In the course of his research, Saldívar found that Paredes – who, in addition to his scholarly career, was a novelist, poet, and journalist publishing in both Mexican and American venues – had worked on a still more cosmopolitan canvas than even his admirers understood. This was thanks in no small measure to the U.S. military. Paredes, serving as a correspondent for the military newspaper "Stars and Stripes," had reported extensively on the changes in Japan following World War II, when he was stationed there. He also wrote about the occupation for a Mexican daily.

This experience of seeing a country being transformed from the intersection of two very different cultures (a country that had itself indulged imperial ambitions, given Japan’s history vis-a-vis China, Korea, and the Philippines before Paredes found himself stationed there) shaped how Paredes thought about nationality and identity. And all of this happened, needless to say, some decades before talk of “globalization” was commonplace – or discussions of “hybridity” made the politics of identity start to seem a lot more problematic. Saldívar’s reconstruction of this easily overlooked dimension of Paredes’s work finds in him a thinker not of nationality but of “ transnationality, a weaving back and forth of innumerable threads of all sizes and colors, across conceptual boundaries whose colors bleed and shade into each other.”

The podcast offers a good introduction to Paredes’s own life and work, and expresses some of Saldívar’s deep engagement with them. It could be time for others to start sharing that interest: a local ballad from the Tex-Mex borderland might yet be on the soundtrack of 21st century American politics.

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