A rich critical study of the literary legacies bestowed by the late Américo Paredes (1915–1999), and the intellectual paths he created as a distinguished folklore scholar and one of the forebears of Mexican American Studies.
Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Thirty-Four
Several biographies of Américo Paredes have been published over the last decade, yet they generally overlook the paradoxical nature of his life’s work. Embarking on an in-depth, critical exploration of the significant body of work produced by Paredes, José E. Limón (one of Paredes’s students and now himself one of the world’s leading scholars in Mexican American studies) puts the spotlight on Paredes as a scholar/citizen who bridged multiple arenas of Mexican American cultural life during a time of intense social change and cultural renaissance.
Serving as a counterpoint to hagiographic commentaries, Américo Paredes challenges and corrects prevailing readings by contemporary critics of Paredes’s Asian period and of such works as the novel George Washington Gómez, illuminating new facets in Paredes’s role as a folklorist and public intellectual. Limón also explores how the field of cultural studies has drifted away from folklore, or “the poetics of everyday life,” while he examines the traits of Mexican American expressive culture. He also investigates the scholarly paradigm of ethnography itself, a stimulating inquiry that enhances readings of Paredes’s best-known study, “With His Pistol in His Hand,” and other works. Underscoring Paredes’s place in folklore and Mexican American literary production, the book questions the shifting reception of Paredes throughout his academic career, ultimately providing a deep hermeneutics of widely varied work. Offering new conceptions, interpretations, and perspectives, Américo Paredes gives this pivotal literary figure and his legacy the critical analysis they deserve.
- Chapter 1. Radical Hope
- Chapter 2. Asian Américo
- Chapter 3. The Folklorist
- Chapter 4. Cultural Studies
- Chapter 5. Tracking Culture
- Chapter 6. Valor Civil
Américo Paredes (1915–1999) became and continues to be the foremost U.S. literary and cultural studies intellectual of Mexican ancestry, a figure who focused his creative and scholarly efforts largely on the cultures and peoples of what he called "Greater Mexico." By that he meant "all of the area inhabited by people of Mexican culture—not only within the present limits of the Republic of Mexico but in the United States as well—in a cultural rather than a political sense". He was also one of the primary founders of the institutional academic enterprise called "Mexican-American studies." It is therefore not surprising that his work has been the subject of much scholarly commentary, most focused on his fiction and mostly of article length, but not entirely.
In what follows I offer an extended analytical treatment of most of Paredes's work—scholarly and creative—and thus join three other book-length assessments. Serious intellectual and social issues surrounding Paredes's or any intellectual's work are not automatically settled forever when the scholarly growth reaches any particular plateau, especially when one is in honest and serious disagreement and debate with some or even all of that scholarship, or notices that certain issues have not been fully addressed. Moreover, a leading critic of Mexican-American cultural studies, the late Juan Bruce-Novoa, once suggested that, as of 1994, all commentary about Paredes was uncritically reverential toward this body of work and its author. If true, I offer the present work as a continuing corrective intervention in Paredes studies. I began this book in the early 1970s as Américo Paredes's graduate student, specifically Chapter 3, and gradually added to it as more of Paredes's early and forgotten work was retrieved and published in the 1990s, until I began to see the coherence of a possible book. While some of what follows in these chapters will no doubt show my admiration of Paredes and much of his work, other parts of it will clearly demonstrate my critical discomfort with certain other aspects of his writing.
My general thesis is that previous treatments of his work have not closely examined many of the specific contributions, but also the contradictions, in the Paredes corpus. In each chapter that follows I hope to show just such previously unrecognized or underappreciated contributions, as well as contradictions.
The accessibility of academic writing to a more general though intellectually literate public has become much more important for me in the later stages of my career, and I have been trying to make amends with my last book (1998) and now perhaps this one. As part of that accessibility, I have tried to lend sharp and, I hope, clear focus and critical argument to some specific key issues, even as these foci broach larger questions in such areas as literary ethics, scholarly genealogies, folklore, transnationalism, and cultural studies that were also of concern to Américo Paredes, or that his work raised, and that have either been ignored or not specifically addressed in the extant scholarship on his work. Since I am interested in focusing on these specific issues, I have not addressed other parts of his work that seem to me not as central to my concerns, or I have done so only tangentially.
As I discuss the specifics of the chapters that follow, my preliminary introduction to these areas and genres will also take on a chronological structure that corresponds to different significant periods in Paredes's life; these also occur in the context of a Mexican-American social history, with some emphasis on Texas, where he spent most of his life. These periods and some of his biography have been well known to Paredes scholars and even to the lay public at least since 1980, when I offered the first public overall interpretation of his life and work, also the subject of later work. Nevertheless, for new and, especially, younger readers, a brief rehearsal of these historical and biographical periods may be helpful, together with my delineation of the specific concern of each chapter. For a far more detailed biography than is warranted here, I refer the reader to Saldívar, López-Morín, and Medrano, and for more detail on the historical context, the reader may consult a host of excellent histories. Indeed, though these recent histories fully inform and flesh out the account that follows, it is highly probable that those of us who write on such matters—including these historians—acquired our first sense of this history from "The Country," the first chapter of Paredes's classic work "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero, as many younger students continue to do today.
Américo Paredes's ancestral family was part of the Spanish settlement of what is now southern Texas and parts of northern Mexico in the mid-eighteenth century as part of Spain's last extension into the Americas. Ranchers and agriculturalists, these Euro-American settlers coming from central New Spain subdued or integrated the indigenous populations and established a society of small to large ranching settlements with three major towns: Laredo to the west, San Antonio to the northwest, and Matamoros to the east and to the Gulf of Mexico—defining and governing the internal settlement, although the Nueces River offered a kind of natural boundary as well.
Despite being a trading society, it remained relatively isolated even after becoming part of the new Republic of Mexico in 1821, until encountering the expanding and imperial power of the United States in the years 1826 to 1848, marked by two decisive events: first, the war for independence and the formation of the Republic of Texas from 1836–1848, a successful war against a Mexican central authority that had permitted these rebels with Anglo-Saxon origins in the United States to first settle in what is now the central and east Texas, but who now in their independence also claimed the largely Mexican southern area to the Rio Grande as well; and, second, the eventual military invasion and political-economic incorporation of the area into the United States as part the U.S.-Mexico War supporting the Texas claim, and the formal annexation of Texas into the Union in 1848.
More U.S. citizens then began a gradual expansion into the previously all Spanish-Mexican, now legally southern Texas, although even with the military violence of the wars and continuing, sporadic ethnic violence, there developed largely what historian David Montejano calls a "peace structure" between these two groups sharing a common ranching culture—but one marked by a gradual erosion of Mexican land ownership.
This erosion, as well as a corresponding erosion of Mexicans' civil and human rights, intensified toward the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth with the introduction of large-scale crop agriculture—agribusiness—to the area led by a new kind of Anglo-American, largely midwestern farmers with no attachment to the peace structure. This new agribusiness was built on the exploited labor of Mexicans, who at the same time were being racially segregated and socially marginalized—particularly, but not exclusively, in public education. We must also add another major component to this mix—namely, the entrance of thousands of largely destitute Mexicans from national Mexico across the Rio Grande into south Texas and other parts of the United States. Many were fleeing the repressive dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911) and the terrible vicissitudes of the prolonged revolution against him from 1910 to 1920. For Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, in southern Texas, and for most of those living elsewhere in the United States, second-class status became the order of the day, although they did maintain some controlling presence in interesting sectors of southern Texas such as Brownsville, Starr County, the Laredo area, and parts of San Antonio.
It was perhaps this sense of continuing presence in these areas, together with the experience of marked social subordination that sparked the armed Mexican-American insurrections of 1915–1916 by los sediciosos, a group operating under a revolutionary manifesto called the Plan of San Diego. If 1915 is a watershed year, then we may speak of its aftermath as extending through the Second World War. Some would argue that the violence of that unsuccessful and bloody insurrection led Mexican Americans, especially their leaders, to seek other routes to social equality. Principal among those was the formation of a series of civil rights organizations, including the still very active League of United Latin American Citizens, better known as LULAC, a group akin to the NAACP. Such efforts were based on the emergence of a small, entrepreneurial middle class, itself a harbinger of a coming structural change. This is not to say that ethnic and ethno-nationalist, left-of-center efforts keyed on labor ceased to exist, as Emilio Zamora has shown us. Zamora also tells us of the continuing role of a resistive and critical Mexican-American culture in this conflicted arena, a culture that others have discussed and that included newspapers, education, and literature, but perhaps centrally folklore, including ballads of heroic Mexican Americans resisting the Anglos, known as corridos.
Here we may take momentary leave of such a delineated, cursory history and take up our principal subject, Américo Paredes, because his story begins precisely in 1915 with his birth and subsequent upbringing in Brownsville, Texas, in a largely Mexican-American–dominated town, but one not at all physically and psychologically far from the continuing social inequities felt by most Mexican Americans elsewhere in Texas, particularly the neighboring counties in what was then coming to be called "the Lower Rio Grande Valley." Paredes would grow into young manhood with such sensibilities, including a sharp sense of anger at inequalities, even while experiencing a stable and culturally nurturing home and social life in Brownsville that included a public education, which was not always available to Mexican Americans in other parts of Texas.
This combination of sensibilities and welcome privilege, together with that ineffable and unpredictable quality sometimes called "the muse," led the young Paredes into the spheres of intellect and creative writing, even though he might well have become something else, such as a lawyer. That was the chosen profession of the Mexican-American central protagonist of his first major literary work from this period, who also gives the novel its title: George Washington Gómez: A Mexico-Texan Novel, a work that speaks out of and to the south Texas history noted above. Together with Caballero: A Historical Romance—coauthored by Jovita Gonzalez and Eve Raleigh—the novel has become a foundational text of Mexican-American literature, especially its Texas lineage, and as such has drawn the most scholarly critical work of any of Paredes's other intellectual and creative labors, including "With His Pistol in His Hand."
I join these efforts in Chapter 1, titled "Radical Hope," with an assessment of this body of criticism and my own critical sense of what I take to be a more interesting and compelling argument offered by this early novel, informed by the work of literary critic Anne Lenne Cheng and philosopher Jonathan Lear.
The next major phase of this history—which is to say, the period including and following the Second World War—brought significant changes to the Mexican-American community in Texas. In part these changes resulted from extensive and largely male participation in the U.S. armed forces in all services and all theatres of the war, but other factors entered into expanding civil, political, educational, and economic opportunity, including the growth of a middle class. Yet this expansion would never have been achieved without continuing struggle in the civil and political arena, including a resurgence of ethnic militancy in the 1960s known as the Chicano movement, in emulation of the black civil rights and militant efforts of that period.
Paredes played a paradoxical role during this latter historical period. As with so many others, he joined the army, but toward the end of the war, and thus did not fight but did serve in the army of occupation in Japan. Although one might have expected an immediate return to the United States at the end of his tour of duty, he chose to remain in Japan and other parts of Asia for almost six more years. During this time in Asia, principally in Japan, he continued to write, principally journalism, but also a series of short stories that explore the relationship of Americans, including those of Mexican origin, to Asians, primarily the Japanese. This Asian period, and these stories, are the focus of Chapter 2, "Asian Américo," where I argue that this period and its relationship to what was going on in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, especially Texas, may be at once more simple and more complicated than his previous critics, principally Ramón Saldívar, have made them out to be.
Paredes returned to the United States in 1950 but kept his distance from the ongoing practical processes of social change among Mexican Americans. Rather, and now hearkening to the muse of scholarship which he had also practiced as early as 1942, he embarked upon an intensive academic career, studying at the University of Texas at Austin (BA 1951, MA 1953, and PhD 1956) and later joining its faculty. As his academic specialty he chose the professionalizing field of folklore studies, and as his principal subject, folklore—theory and method, but also the folklore of what he soon came to call "Greater Mexico," with a decided emphasis on southern Texas. Among his principal published work from this period, which would extend to 1990, is the ballad study "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero, based on his doctoral dissertation and a series of articles on the Mexican-American joke form.
In Chapter 3, "The Folklorist," I revisit these two bodies of work, on balladry and jokes, to argue that they merit a critical evaluation in explicit relationship to the field of folklore as that discipline was gaining momentum and status in the academy—an evaluation that they have never really received. "With His Pistol in His Hand" and, by implication, Paredes's broadened scholarly formation as a ballad scholar have been largely overlooked for what they most manifestly are: namely, a ballad study produced by a figure who critically, comprehensively, and with great subtlety commands yet goes beyond the international ballad scholarship and theory of his time, a command acquired in a few short years of intense study. By somewhat contrast, Paredes's work on joke narratives now seems limited given recent theoretical and historical approaches to joking behavior in culture and society that were not fully available to him at the time of his writing in the early sixties, or so I shall argue.
In our time, which for me extends from ca. 1968 to our present moment, Mexican America has gone through paradoxical changes. Mexican Americans of a third generation or later continue to experience some upward mobility, although in measured terms, with most still in a working-class status albeit in semiskilled and skilled occupations. Mexican Americans also experienced much greater political participation, including the election of Mexican-American mayors in two major cities: San Antonio, Texas, and Los Angeles, California. Of more specific significance to the present argument, such an expansion of opportunity was predicated upon a gradual, if also measured, greater access to higher education.
The increased access to higher education that began in the 1960s had another long-term effect that directly involved Américo Paredes and his work. As a direct outgrowth of the militant Chicano movement of the 1960s, we saw the creation and development of Mexican-American studies, including cultural studies. In the early development of Chicano cultural studies, "With His Pistol in His Hand" was discovered and quickly became the beginning point and model, or standard, for the enterprise, but less as a work on academic folklore and more as a history of cultural resistance, even as the author himself began to take on the aura of scholar-hero and foundational figure. For example, in an early and influential collection of articles of Chicano literary criticism published in Maynard Mack's then-definitive "Twentieth Century Views" series, Paredes was invited to author the opening essay, "The Folk Base of Chicano Literature". However, since then and in our time, Paredes's presence in a thriving Chicano (and now Chicana) cultural studies seems to have been set aside, especially with regard to folklore work.
In Chapter 4, "Cultural Studies," I explore this contradictory relationship with Paredes to argue that Chicano/Chicana contemporary cultural studies has neglected Paredes's work at a cost, overlooking the experience of everyday life and vernacular culture. This evasion is not surprising, since, I will also argue, it also affected the development of cultural studies in general, from its inception in the early work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, and the formation of the Birmingham School in Great Britain in the early 1960s, at the same moment that Paredes's own brand of cultural studies was emerging.
Yet even though younger Chicano-Chicana cultural studies scholars seem distanced from it, such vernacular culture continues in the present day. Américo Paredes died in 1999, almost living to see the twenty-first century, and quite aware of the new fundamental technological and cultural changes that were taking place, which some have called "postmodernity." Necessarily, Mexican Americans have also entered into such a new cultural milieu, as I have argued elsewhere.
If, by definition, the postmodern works in idioms of pastiche, intertextuality, and emergent transformations, my final, substantive Chapter 5 takes up the field-based analysis—the ethnography—of two major instances of such an everyday and present-day Mexican-American vernacular culture—instances that were paradoxically generated by the influence of Paredes's scholarly work. Echoing the material of Chapter 3, these are what I shall call the new Mexican-American joke form and a popular, mass-media musical transformation of the ballad of Gregorio Cortez.
Finally, and before a closing farewell, I review Paredes's entire career under the rubric of the "public intellectual," evaluating his uneven participation in the salient public affairs of his time, principally as these concerned Greater Mexico, to which he devoted most of his intellectual career. This inquiry will also consider the parallel careers of other intellectuals of Greater Mexico, such as Jovita González, J. Frank Dobie, and Aurelio M. Espinosa.
Much has now been written about Américo Paredes and the work he produced for a good potion of the twentieth century. He deserves every bit of it and more. In the six chapters that follow, it is my hope that the reader will obtain an alternate and, I trust, fresh and illuminating sense of Paredes's contributions to a host of significant intellectual, political, and cultural issues. Indeed, I hope it may also have the effect of stimulating even more assessments of the important work of this scholar, writer, and intellectual who spoke so substantially to Greater Mexico with erudition, eloquence, and passion.
According to literary historian John-Michael Rivera, in 1845, on the eve of a momentous shift in the histories of both Mexico and the United States, John O'Sullivan, the American editor and founder of the Democratic Review, broached what he called "the Mexican question." O'Sullivan used the phrase to label the debate concerning the imminent expansion of the United States westward into Mexican territory, an expansion he certainly favored since he also invented the phrase "Manifest Destiny." For him there was indeed no question that mixed-race Mexicans were neither racially nor culturally fit to possess such a western dominion, and therefore it was providentially intended to belong to the United States—a generalized American opinion that provided a cultural grounding for the coming war against Mexico in 1846.
The phrase continued to be used to name the issue of annexing all of Mexico into the United States after the American victory and occupation in 1847, and before the issue was settled in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Yet, along with other influentials, O'Sullivan was opposed to the annexation of most of what is now the Republic of Mexico. Senator John C. Calhoun, for example, also opposed such a total incorporation on racial-cultural grounds similar to those of O'Sullivan, saying, "Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? … I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions". In this fashion "the Mexican question" was historically defined as a still discernible U.S. attitude toward Mexicans in general, but perhaps more so toward Mexicans living in the United States, in much closer proximity to white America. The toxic residue of such xenophobia can be traced to the present. The raging debate on Mexican immigration and views such as those articulated nightly on Fox News is one very recent, and very public, example, as is the only somewhat more benign recent exclusion of Latinos by Ken Burns in his PBS documentary on World War II.
Yet, against such racism and other forms of social marginalization, Mexican Americans have also broached our own "Mexican question," which is: "How are we to define ourselves and make our way in such an American society?" Over time these two intimately related questions have been addressed within this community in different ways; indeed, one such public answer may be seen in the recent nationwide demonstrations by Mexican immigrants and their supporters, the latter including many Mexican Americans, now U.S. citizens, but also in the strong critical reaction that Ken Burns received from the Latino intelligentsia. Both reactions, it should be noted, are premised on the decisive contributions that Mexicans and other Latinos have made to this country. But the question has also been addressed by a historical and present-day lineage of Mexican-American intellectuals and artists. Among the latter, no figure is more important than the late Américo Paredes, especially in his early novelistic writing.
Américo Paredes as Novelist
Until recently, Paredes's most important work was thought to be "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero, his study of the heroic corrido, a Mexican-American balladry of resistance to Anglo America, and the subject of Chapter 3. In terms of critical commentary and influence, that work may now be superseded by his novel George Washington Gómez: A Mexico-Texan Novel, recovered and published in 1990. The latter has become, in Marco Portales's words, "the master … narrative produced by a Mexican-American writer so far". Though written in the 1930s and '40s, the novel was not published until 1990. This long hiatus was itself possibly a racist effect of O'Sullivan's version of the "Mexican question." Through its many different and complex characters, the novel articulates different and compelling positions on the Mexican question(s), positions that continue to be efficacious in the present moment.
This capacious work has drawn significant critical commentary, principally from Mexican-American literary intellectuals, but others as well. Acts of cultural interpretation are themselves acts of culture and politics, and so the readings of these critics—their varying points of view on this novel—must themselves be seen as responses to the Mexican question interpretively intertwined with the text of the novel.
Very understandably, these commentaries have focused on the novel's central protagonist, George Washington Gómez, the Mexican American from whom the book takes its title, and his coming-of-age development from 1915 through the Second World War. In the novel this character is more often than not known by his nickname "Guálinto," and I shall therefore mostly use this name as well, later changing it to "George," as the character himself does toward the end of the story.
After reviewing the Guálinto/George-centered criticism, I will offer an alternative view of the character Guálinto, but also focus on the largely overlooked figure of Guálinto's uncle Feliciano, whose character, in my estimation, offers a far more nuanced, complex, and far-reaching response to the Mexican question(s). The work of Anne Anlin Cheng on racial mourning and melancholia will be of the greatest assistance in making this distinctive case, as will philosopher Jonathan Lear's concept of "radical hope." Let us first review the novel and its extant critical commentary to chart its different responses to the Mexican questions.
Set in what today we would call the Lower Rio Grande Valley (hereafter "the Valley"), which is also to say the most southern border between the United States and Mexico, George Washington Gómez (hereafter GWG) begins in 1915, at the moment of Guálinto's birth. In the novel's opening scene we also meet his mother, María, his grandmother and sisters, as well as his father, Gumersindo, and his uncle Feliciano García, Maria's brother, all living in a rural area of the Valley. Gumersindo has brought an Anglo doctor from town to assist in the birth.
All of the novel's critics almost necessarily pay close attention to this scene. After debating on a proper name for this child, the family finally decides on "George Washington Gómez" because his parents, at least, believe the name of a great American leader is very appropriate for a son whom they hope will be a "leader of his people." The Spanish-speaking grandmother, however, cannot pronounce "Washington," saying instead "Guálinto," which then turns out to be the boy's very Mexican-sounding nickname, although he will still be known by "George." Thus we have the named beginning of what will become the central issue in the boy's development: Will he be "Mexican" or "American"? Even with this possible nickname, Uncle Feliciano, a proud Mexican American and anti–Anglo-American, is very unhappy with the name "George" and wanders off, quietly singing a corrido as if in protest. Later Feliciano will foreground the name "Guálinto," although in the end the name will not prevail.
Feliciano has fought the Americans in armed conflict in the 1915 violent revolt of the sediciosos against racist and vicious Anglo-American authority in the Valley. Indeed, in the novel's first sentence we meet the Texas Rangers, who "at first sight one might have taken … for cutthroats. And one might not have been wrong". At the same time, for national Mexicans in northeastern Mexico, life is also being violently defined by the Mexican Revolution, during which many Mexican nationals crossed over into nearby Texas to escape the violence and Porfirio Diaz's oppression. Guálinto's father, Gumersindo, is one such figure who has come to the United States, eventually marrying into the García family. By contrast, Feliciano traces his origins not to recent immigration, but to the older Spanish/Mexican ranching culture of the Valley, which is why he participates in the sediciosos revolt. He survives the insurrectionist war, but in reprisals against all Mexican-origin civilians, the Texas Rangers kill Guálinto's noncombatant father, Gumersindo. The loss of his father and the post-1915 Anglo-American dominance of the area play pivotal roles in the formation of our young protagonist.
After Gumersindo's death, Feliciano moves the family to the nearby town of Jonesville for their safety and stability. In the city, Guálinto's formation will occur as a necessarily antagonistic dialogue in his consciousness between his Mexican cultural origins and the now competing cultural force of Anglo-American dominance that is rapidly becoming institutionalized in the Valley, especially in the educational system.
The novel takes several twists and turns, and adds many more characters, but as Guálinto comes to maturity in Jonesville, he eventually becomes a seemingly fully assimilated American subject after attending the University of Texas at Austin, becoming a lawyer, marrying an Anglo-American woman, and securing employment in Washington, DC. By then he is going by the name "George," and as a climax to this seeming track of assimilation, he seems to develop a classical ethnic self-hatred, which he freely voices in one of his infrequent returns to the Valley, even as he has a recurring dream upholding this very ethnic identification.
On what appears to be his final trip to the Valley, he learns that some of his old friends and high school classmates, led by an outspoken woman named Elodia, are organizing to contest Anglo-American political and social dominance in the Valley. At a dinner party in a restaurant, they attempt to persuade Guálinto/George to stay in the Valley and join their cause. He refuses, later saying to his uncle, "They're a bunch of clowns playing at politics. And they're trying to organize yokels who don't know anything but getting drunk and yelling and fighting … Mexicans will always be Mexicans". During this trip we also discover that he is a covert agent for the United States, gathering intelligence on possible seditious activities. The novel ends with a bitter parting between Guálinto and his uncle as Guálinto, now firmly "George," leaves the Valley for what appears to be the last time.
The Novel and Its Critics
Even though George seems to have become the assimilated subject exemplar, two major critics appear to reject total assimilation as the novel's final outcome as they attempt to retrieve some form of a left-critical, culturally resistive, and emancipatory possibility in Guálinto's fraught life.
For José Davíd Saldívar, all of Paredes's work is "a critique of the cultures of U.S. imperialism". It is, he continues, a "counter-discourse to the homemade nativist discourses of U.S. imperialism" as "[Paredes] articulates the experiences, the aspirations, and the vision of a people under occupation". GWG is central to this critique, which Saldívar locates exclusively within the character of Guálinto. One evening, right before the teenaged Guálinto goes away to college, he happens upon and is invited into a domestic, working-class Mexican-American party with dancing to conjunto music, often identified as the quintessential, deeply border Mexican, working-class music and dance. It is a moment that Saldívar reads as one of cultural resistance. For this critic, in this "wonderful scene … young Guálinto relishes his mestizo/a working class culture by dancing to the local accordion-driven music of South Texas." He continues:
Here Paredes dramatizes that, for Chicanos, norteño music is synonymous with a vernacular working-class consciousness. In Guálinto's embrace of conjunto, he subtly shows how his hero's place (late in the novel) was with his local mestizo/a working class… . In the novel, conjunto polka music becomes a political ideology by stressing local characteristics, by representing vernacular music, and by confirming everywhere the multiple dynamics of Chicano/a identity and nonidentity.
I disagree. The "wonderful" dance scene is much more an affirmation that Guálinto is, indeed, not relishing a local cultural identity. Rather, it seems a prelude to his decisive assimilation once he leaves for the university. A more careful reading of the scene reveals that Guálinto, emulating Peter, thrice turns down the invitation to join the dancing, first saying, "I—I can't dance", then protesting, "But, I can't dance", and finally saying, "I really must go". And leave he does, refusing "all exhortations to dance," as John Moran González has also noted. Moreover, as González further notes, a more comprehensive reading of this "wonderful" scene clearly indicates that for Paredes, "the working class culture out of which conjunto emerged offered no vision of communal resistance, but only leisure-oriented entertainment that fostered unfocused male violence and unregulated female sexuality". When the working-class crowd—especially a dark, sexually attractive young woman named Mercedes—invites him to come back any time, Guálinto replies, "I must go … but I will come back." Later that night, safely in his bed, he thinks,
Yes, he would go back to her. These were his people, the real people he belonged with. His place was among them… . He would marry Mercedes and live on the farm. He would go back. Tomorrow night he would go back. He never did.
While conceding the obvious—namely, that at the novel's end Guálinto has acquired a manifest, assimilated and colonized, "solid bourgeois and modernist identity," Saldívar critically continues to try to save the novel as "resistance literature" by way of a now infamous dream recurrent in George's mature life.1 Saldívar then only partially quotes George's fantasy/dream, which I quote here in full because it is so central for all of these critics.
He would imagine he was living in his great-grandfather's time, when the Americans first began to encroach on the northern provinces of the new Republic of Mexico. Reacting against the central government's inefficiency and corruption, he would organize rancheros into a fighting militia and train them by using them to exterminate the Comanches. Then, with the aid of generals like Urrea, he would extend his influence to the Mexican army. He would discover the revolver before Samuel Colt, as well as the hand grenade and a modern style of portable mortar. In his daydream he built a modern arms factory at Laredo, doing it all in great detail, until he had an enormous well-trained army that included Irishmen and escaped American Negro slaves. Finally he would defeat not only the army of the United States but its navy as well. He would recover all of the territory west of the Mississippi River and recover Florida as well. At that point he would end up with a feeling of emptiness, of futility. Somehow, he was not comfortable with the way things ended. There was something missing that made any kind of ending fail to satisfy. And he would stop there, to begin from the beginning a few days later. But he had outgrown those childish daydreams long ago. Lately, however, now that he was a grown man, married and with a successful career before him, scenes from the silly imaginings from his youth kept popping up when he was asleep. He always woke with a feeling of irritation. "Why?" he would ask himself. Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep fighting battles that were won and lost a long time ago. Lost by me and won by me too. They have no meaning now.
It is, Saldívar says, "precisely at this stage … that we realize Paredes's cultural deconstruction. For his recommendation in the narrative is not to solve the crisis of the hero's identity politics but to proliferate and intensify the crisis by having George's 'I' dissimulated through a recurring fantasy and daydream." Thus this critic seems intent on locating and stressing the moments of Guálinto's seeming resistance, one response to the Mexican question, but based on a misreading of the dance scene and in his understanding of Guálinto's dream states as a "political 'phantasmatic' of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands" that "continually haunts and contests the borders that circumscribe George's construction of a stable identity."
Like José Saldívar, Ramón Saldívar also finds critical potential in Guálinto's dream crisis, but in a more complex manner. As we have already noted, from the outset—which is to say, from the moment of Guálinto's birth—this protagonist is a figure interpolated initially into traditional Mexican culture, but more specifically for Saldívar, Mexican-American folklore, and principally the corrido, the Mexican-American ballad of resistance, with its warrior-hero protagonist in violent conflict with the Anglo oppressor. Guálinto's dreams, says Ramón Saldívar, constitute "alternative public spheres"; though "latent and repressed," "the fact of their continued existence, even if only in the attenuated forms of daydream and fantasy signals the possibility of their emergence as critique in other, more opportune historical eras".
Such a future emergence, however, presupposes a paradoxical negation as this critic offers a gendered and feminist analysis. Guálinto's dreams are of armed resistance, textually best represented by the corrido and its heroic, male, warrior-hero protagonists, now "filtered through the related but diminished form of corrido-inspired narratives", presumably such as the dream. However, both the corrido and any such subsequent forms "could not but be proscribed by ethical and political limitations". The corrido "identifies the community and represents it in monologically male terms" and therefore, "to the extent" that such forms of resistance "continue to be articulated within uncritical, male-dominant, gendered discursive systems, and hence with the limits of such systems, their own viability as enunciations of liberation will remain, inevitably equally in doubt". Thus, if I understand this argument correctly, Guálinto's dream recollections of the now-attenuated corrido tradition paradoxically represent a now gendered, progressive step forward, though articulated "poignantly" in the "failed utopian vision at the end of the narrative". Ramón Saldívar further argues that "the sublimation of the possibility of historical agency into the political unconscious does not represent the end of praxis, but only its transference into an unspecifiable future"; though George now appears as an almost wholly assimilated subject, "social categories are not static; they are conditions that people may traverse. But traverse to what end? George Washington Gómez concludes with that open question and its horizon of unresolved possibilities".
As critic, however, Ramón Saldívar does not leave this novel historicized as it is with its chosen plot and open, fraught ending. He wishes to imagine a kind of "future" closure to the "open question." Such a closure, he seems to say, is provided by the Chicano movement, beginning in the 1960s, although he is clearly more interested in its later phase, "at the end of the twentieth century," when the questions of gender and sexuality became much more salient. Although, he admits, that while
we are not able to specify in satisfyingly concrete and definitive terms the nature of a completed Chicano and Chicana subject position through the figure of George Washington Gómez … the Mexican-American subject Paredes imagines in George Washington Gómez exists on an unstable ground of double negations. Yet through these self-negating subject-effects, we can glimpse the future of the past through which Chicana and Chicano subjectivities would one day emerge into real history …
If I am understanding this formulation correctly, Saldívar seems to be saying that the "Chicano" and "Chicana" identity that emerged out of the cultural politics of the sixties is the better—indeed, almost ultimate—response to the Mexican question. Although it receives no articulation in the novel itself, in the character of George, or, more precisely, in George's dream, Paredes provides the negating staging ground for a future and positive Chicano and Chicana identity, a kind of "always darker before the dawn" argument.
A later critic also reads this story of youthful development and its assimilated ending as a structural outcome that indeed paradoxically completes the traditional structural development of the bildungsroman. In such a completion, the subject is brought into harmony with a new and also developing history of Mexican-American culture change and assimilation; however, in agreement with both Saldívars, and also with most of the other critics, Johannssen too turns to the famous dream sequence as "the only thing left of Guálinto, and it persists as a reminder of his cultural past … a kernel of hope in an otherwise profoundly pessimistic tale of cultural destruction".
In disagreement with such a "kernel of hope" reading, Mendoza does not see any utopian progressive politics somehow emanating from Guálinto's vexed life into our own time, the so-called future in the present. Rather, he thinks that Ramón Saldívar does not pay full attention to the perhaps utopian but positive possibilities that are actually present in the text. Anticipated by Garza-Falcón, Mendoza shares Ramón Saldívar's feminist preoccupation, though in a far more specific manner as he focuses on the resistive stance taken by Elodia and her friends in the restaurant scene toward the end of the novel when they, and especially Elodia, denounce George's assimilated stance, calling him a vendido sanavaviche (sellout sonofabitch). That, as a woman of that time and place, Elodia uses such an expression further marks her rebelliousness.
For Mendoza, "the emerging, organic model represented by Elodia offers an alternative vision that has its analog in the labor movements of South Texas and their examples of collective action and female leadership". He continues to lend emphasis to the female leadership of such collective action: "Through [Elodia's] active pursuit of change in political social relations, we are reminded of that which Paredes does not name but we know to be nonetheless true: that in this era there were many women who were organizing and speaking on behalf of other women and for all the residents of Greater Mexico".
Women are also of central concern to a later critic. Focusing on Guálinto's mother and sisters, and also somewhat anticipated by Garza-Falcón, González much more fully examines this novel's gender representations, concluding that "Paredes's public sphere interpretation of the corrido's anticolonial value rests upon the removal of tejanas from the anticolonial struggle altogether … a process repeated by the absence of gender analysis … in … George Washington Gómez …". Somewhat qualifying his criticism of Paredes, however, González also valorizes Elodia "as a postcolonial alternative to outright capitulation, either politically or culturally," noting that she and her husband, Antonio Prieto, have established a Mexican restaurant "as a counter-representational enterprise and safe haven for political organizing." Moreover, in a particularly astute observation, González notes that it is Elodia who runs the business while Antonio, who plays guitar and sings, is relegated to entertaining the customers by singing "old corridos," a musical genre thus now "fallen from its heroic heights". González goes even further: "Elodia figures the repressed utopian possibilities for anticolonial resistance by Texas-Mexican women not otherwise acknowledged by the narrative".
Both Mendoza and González may be overestimating the scene in the interest of extracting an "alternative" politics, be it a collectivist, feminist, radical or "counter-representational" politics, even by analogy. First, it needs to be carefully noted that the scene does take place in a restaurant that Elodia and her husband Antonio Prieto own; that is, since growing up with Guálinto, they have become members of the Mexican-American petite bourgeoisie, "raking the money in," as Paredes has one of their friends say. Second, they and other of George's old friends have invited him to the meeting to persuade him to speak on behalf of one of their candidates for political office—indeed, a city council race. That is, they are engaged in the most conventional, if necessary, electoral politics within the prevailing party system governing the political fortunes of the very small town of Jonesville, but certainly not anything approaching radical labor action, as Mendoza implies, nor, in González's case, does such an electoral action seem encompassing enough to be "a post-colonial alternative to outright capitulation, either politically or culturally." And yet, these two critics, preceded by Garza-Falcón, do remind us of the way in which Mexican-American women have taken a decisive role in contemporary U.S. politics as yet another response to the Mexican question, some such as Secretary of Labor Hilda Solís on the Democratic left; others such as New Mexican governor Susana Martinez on the Republican right; neither, however, radical, although Solís might be construable as a "postcolonial alternative."
For Mendoza and González, a certain Mexican-American left radical alternative is at least intimated by Elodia and the restaurant scene, namely the activities of the radical Mexican-American Communist Party activist Emma Tenayuca. In 1930s San Antonio, Texas, she truly did propose a radical, labor-centered path for the then mostly working-class Mexican Americans, many of them women. Tenayuca also makes an appearance in another commentary on George Washington Gómez by John-Michael Rivera. Rivera evokes Tenayuca not in relationship to Elodia, but through the figure of a little girl named Chonita in another of Paredes's fictions, a short story called "The Hammon and the Beans," where Chonita offers a mocking, childish verbal "resistance" to Anglo Americans. Rivera argues, however, that Chonita and, by extension, Tenayuca fail to communicate with the greater Mexican community, and therefore concludes that "the only language Mexicans can understand by the end of the story is that radicalism in South Texas is, in fact, a loose signifier that holds no real meaning for their peoplehood". But a young boy in the story does admire Chonita. Though she "dies in the story, her radical spirit lives within the memory of one individual, a young boy whose nostalgic consciousness desires Chonita to lead the Mexican people out of economic and racial oppression in South Texas". Rivera then links this story to George Washington Gómez, for like George, "brown radicalism haunts only the individual boy, in his dreams …" such that in the end, for both the boy and for George, "Mexican peoplehood … is fleeting and partial, only realized in the dreams of the unconscious individual, not the collective".
Paredes himself tells us that the novel gestures toward yet another position on the Mexican question, that associated with the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and, after World War II, the American GI Forum. Formed in 1927–1929, and restricting membership to U.S. citizens, LULAC stressed educational attainment, learning English, and civic participation in U.S. culture, politics, and the legal system as the best means for bringing about social equality for Mexicans in the United States, while eschewing radical or nationalist programs. Yet many have criticized LULAC as favoring blind, patriotic, U.S. political integration and total assimilation, including distancing itself from Mexican culture, especially the speaking of Spanish, a criticism of LULAC voiced by Américo Paredes himself. Indeed, Paredes explicitly points to LULAC as one of his models for his negative construction of George as an assimilated subject—that is, a potential member of LULAC. As I will argue in Chapter 6, the record, however, suggests otherwise, and I think Paredes erred with respect to this organization, as some later critics of this group continue to do. I will do so in Chapter 6.
Mexican Questions, Mexican-American Answers
Viewed through these various critical prisms, George Washington Gómez becomes a kind of compendium of the different positions taken historically and contemporaneously by Mexican Americans on the Mexican question.
We may recall that Paredes's novel opens with a radical possibility—the insurrectionist, ethnonationalist violence of the sediciosos—but then forecloses such violent insurgencies and their presumed aftermath as a viable option after 1915. In similar fashion, as seen through the implied figure of Emma Tenayuca, a radical labor option is also not viable after the 1930s, and certainly not after World War II, although trade-unionist activity will always have some strong presence, as evidenced most prominently by Cesar Chávez, but by others before him as well. As Emilio Zamora has eloquently shown, older and more encompassing forms of radical labor activity among Mexican Americans in Texas did speak directly to the Mexican question with strong cultural affirmation. Yet, though they occurred during the historical period of GWG and in the Valley, the novel does not admit of these, including no representations of such activity—an odd omission.
Thus, beyond the conservative, conflicted George, the novel seems to leave us with only Elodia and George's other classmates as a materially evident alternative possibility. As I have noted, I think Mendoza, González, and others overread these characters in the direction of radicalism and protofeminism, although González does offer a more tempered understanding of Elodia and her friends as also akin to members of LULAC. Such an identification would certainly represent a historically consistent and very productive alterative, as I suggested in my earlier discussion of LULAC, but only if Paredes had developed her more fully and made this LULAC identity much more explicit, which he does not except insofar as he has extratextually (and wrongly) identified George as a kind of LULAC figure.
As we have seen, Ramón Saldívar creatively extracts yet another and utopian position on the Mexican question, namely that of an imagined ethno-nationalist Chicano and Chicana movement in a future beyond the novel, especially in its feminist dimensions. It is a generous and creative reading of George's dreams, but in my view the novel itself simply does not offer any warrant for such a "progressive" projection. Moreover, even if we were to accept such a projection from a dream into the future, here too there are potentially serious limitations. While the movement made substantial contributions, principally in academia and the arts, its primary influence has remained there—especially when we recall that even at its height, its general influence beyond academia and the arts was minimal. In California, where the movement was strongest, David Hayes-Bautista estimates there were "fewer than thirty thousand … in the movement, out of a Latino population of close to two million… . The vast majority of Latinos at that time did not even wish to be called Chicano." I know of no such estimate for Texas, but based on my personal experience in the movement there, I would estimate an even wider disparity in participation, with an even stronger mass unpopularity of the term Chicano. Ethnonationalism of the sort imagined by the Chicano movement—including its "postnationalist," gender-progressive stages, as imagined by Saldívar—simply has not resonated within Mexican America as a whole.
Thus to the degree that we concentrate on George in his mostly manifest waking moments, the novel still leaves us with an overall reading of political pessimism. For Hector Perez, "this novel's overall vision … seems to be that major, significant social change is unaccomplishable… . For Chicanos, then, there is no way out of this labyrinthine social construction according to this novel's naturalistic scheme of things." Perez clearly is not including George's assimilation as a form of "significant social change." In similar fashion, and also ruling out George as an acceptable option, González concludes that "ultimately, the historical tragedy of Paredes's work is precisely his inability to imagine an anti-colonial paradigm that would address questions of social justice within the Texas-Mexican community as well as between that community and Anglo-Texans".
Therefore, with his centrality, it appears that George, even with his vexing dreams, seems to offer the one narratively foregrounded option for Mexican Americans, which appears to be a total political, structural, and cultural assimilation—a choice that, as Ramón Saldívar says, "one could reasonably make". Obviously such totalistic assimilation is not at all a popular option with many of the novel's younger readers, and none of its Mexican-American critics, yet a form of social change is undeniably one response to the Mexican question, perverse though it may be for many.
Mourning and Melancholia
Before leaving George to this seemingly assimilated fate in which is embedded "a kernel of hope," one senses an alternative possibility for him in which the dream sequence and other aspects of his life are more what they seem manifestly to be: psychoanalytically revealed symptoms of what Cheng has called the "melancholy of race," and less "kernels" or launching points for what are really the political/cultural ideological hopes of the novel's critics. It is clear that the dominant critical view of George is, in Cheng's language, one of grievance rather than grief. Without exception, the critics' disavowal of George is based on his failure to become a true leader of his people in the arena of politics and civil rights, articulating and seeking redress for his people's grievances. But drawing on Freud's work on mourning and melancholia, Cheng encourages us to take a closer look at George's more complicated psychological existence as one of grief which culminates not in mourning, but in racial melancholia.
For Cheng (after Freud), melancholia, unlike healthy mourning, is the condition of losing a source—a love object—of potentially sustaining affirmative identity, but one not achieved because said object also disappoints in some profound sense. The obligatory love for the object and its loss overwhelm the subject who cannot express his/her profound resentment, leading to an internalization of this resentment so as to define the subject's ego with consequences of depression, but also aggressive symptomatic behavior. Cheng correlates this relationship to the sense of loss incurred by racialized communities subjected to racial injuries great and small in their history and everyday existence. But "loss" here must also have reference not to materiality, but to the loss of self-esteem, to failure, and to the cultural transmission of such loss generationally.
While Cheng recognizes the dangers of focusing on racialized psychological loss rather than material grievances and redress, she thinks it important—and I agree—to explore the resulting complicated psychical dynamics of such loss. Only by such exploration and "working through" can such subjects move toward a greater and healthier maturity, both the individual subject and the racialized community. This is not the utopian "future in the present," but a long-term project of analysis and introspectively focused development of racial subjects even as they also address their racialized materiality in the realm of grievance.
By such measure then, is it possible to see George as a melancholic subject? We may be able to improve upon Cheng's fascinating effort to move Freud into U.S. racial relations if we recall that Freud was principally concerned with the individual subject, especially in relation to the "family romance." In this instance, it is possible to trace the conjoined vectors of family and race but also nation in the emergence of George's melancholia by recalling scenes of instruction in the novel that have escaped careful attention.
Early on, George's most manifest loss is his father, Gumersindo, an agricultural laborer, who has drawn critical attention principally in his role as the person who does not wish George to be told the circumstances of his death, which produces the conflict and resolution in George's relationship with his uncle. But the novel tells us more about him. From the beginning he is foregrounded as a different and lesser racial and national species-being. When a Mormon missionary comes to the Valley preaching the "brotherhood of men," Feliciano has this critical thought: "It was all very well for Gumersindo, who came from the interior of Mexico to be taken in by such talk. But a Border Mexican knew there was no brotherhood of men".
Feliciano's caustic comment underscores the perception that what he calls the "Border Mexican" has of Mexicans from the interior—which is also to say Mexican immigrants. Elsewhere Paredes labeled such immigrants fuereños (foreigners), and not just to the United States, but to the native Spanish-Mexican population of south Texas—the Border Mexicans—with their long-standing presence in the area. Echoing Feliciano, in his scholarship Paredes suggests that the Border Mexicans saw these new immigrants as transients and outsiders because they had no historical roots in the land and no stake in the ongoing struggle with the gringos. Adding to this negating perception, the novel describes Gumersindo as someone who is trying to learn English, who is like a "sheep", who likes his Anglo bosses, and who came from Mexico to "find work and peace". Of course, ironically, he is killed by the Texas Rangers not fighting with his pistol in his hand, but as a coldly executed prisoner. Until the very end, George does not know how his father was killed, but he surely knows that Gumersindo was from the interior of Mexico and not a border Mexican. "When you were little," Feliciano tells him, "you used to ask about him, and we would tell you stories".
Other than George's experience with the educational system (in the realm of grievance), the critics have paid little attention to the more foundational and precise source of George's unsettled, conflicted, psychological condition, which feeds into a continual questioning of his Mexican identity. I suggest that George's melancholia is set in motion by his awareness of his father's sociocultural status, an awareness probably reinforced during his childhood by seeing thousands of poor immigrants entering the area after the Mexican Revolution began in 1910. It is an awareness of one's father now gone, but also of a non–border Mexican who disappoints George, even though he is gone, and through this awareness passes on to George a sense of racial stigma. In the predominantly Mexican-American Brownsville of that time (and today), Guálinto's "Mexican-ness" should not be a source of anxiety unless, of course, it is the stigmatized Mexican-ness of the poor, laboring, and probably darker fuereño, the outsider both to border Mexicans and Anglos.
There are more than hints of this condition during George's early years, although they recur throughout, perhaps climaxing in the famous dream, but not beginning there. In one telling scene, the young boy thinks his home is an enchanted place, especially a lush banana grove in their backyard. Yet we are told immediately that "night changed the world," and ghostly apparitions, fear, and death abound. The novel then vividly describes a world of social violence surrounding the little boy as Mexicans kill each other in "a vomit of murders and gun battles." The violence is attributed to the town's "stormy politics," but there were undoubtedly other causes as well, premised on a new and difficult social reality.
Young George is coming to consciousness specifically at a time in the 1920s when Jonesville, right across from Mexico, fills with new and impoverished Mexicans leaving the ravages of the Mexican Revolution. The boy is exposed to such people and such violence. When his mother tells him that before his birth he was in heaven with the angels, he reacts in a style and scene anticipating Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra. The boy
… was silent, thinking. Thinking, thinking. If I was up there, I ought to remember, just like I remember I was in the banana grove yesterday because I was. I was born but I don't remember that either. And she says I was up there. Was it me? … Maybe it wasn't me at all. Maybe it was somebody else. Maybe I'm somebody else! A cold emptiness settled into his stomach. Familiar objects suddenly looked strange to him, as though he were out of his body and looking at himself and all other things at a distance. Strange, terrible questions surged inside of him, questions for which he had no words, no concrete form, so that they floated around in his head like little clouds. Why am I? Why am I not somebody else? … A numbing loneliness seized him and he felt like crying out. Then, for a moment he almost grasped and put into solid thought the vague and desolating questions which floated inside his head. But as his mind reached out to hold unto them they dissolved like spots before his eyes.
What, one needs to ask, occasions such manner of emotion and thought in an otherwise seemingly happy, nurtured child? Placed where this internal monologue occurs, in the immediate narrative context of endemic Mexican violence, I suggest that George is experiencing a displaced and unnamed psychic disequilibrium; that he is being haunted by his father—both loved as a father and repulsed as a poor, passive, and stigmatized Mexican immigrant now represented by thousands like him now entering Jonesville, the Valley, and the United States. In short order they will give the United States its own racial sense of the "Mexican," but also haunt all Mexican Americans. "Why am I not somebody else?" the boy asks.
Later, as a teenager, in a moment of anger, the melancholia becomes manifest as Guálinto blurts out: "My father was just an ignorant Mexican!". As he incorporates his father's identity into his own still weak ego, the result for this individual subject at this moment of childhood is the onset of "a wide range of complicated, conflictual, interlocking emotions: desire and doubt, affirmation and rejection, projections and identification, management and dysfunction" that will perdure. Such a condition is itself a response to the Mexican question for so many Mexican Americans in the twentieth century and today as walls against immigrants become mirrors for "natives". To paraphrase young Guálinto, as we reach "out to hold unto them they dissolved like spots before" our eyes.
For this subject the melancholia continues into adulthood. Even his lashing out against "Mexican yokels" is itself a telling overstatement of the condition that is more often than not expressed as depression: "Somehow, he was not comfortable with the way things ended. There was something missing that made any kind of ending fail to satisfy". Or, as Schedler suggests, George is less a wholly assimilated subject and more a modernist Mexican-American figure, "divided between outer mask and inner consciousness, producing a pluralistic representation of identity divided along multiple axes". But racial melancholia is a double-edged sword and can also target the dominant authority, hence the "dream" of resistance deferred, as well as, more interestingly for me, his relationship to his Anglo wife. As he gazes at her asleep in bed, he thinks not in romantic idioms of love for a lovely wife. Instead, "she was rather plain, and some of her lower teeth were crooked, but she had beautiful hair … blond hair … naturally straight and lank and she had a long Anglo-Saxon face. A horse's face his mother once said …". Such melancholia worked through over time may give way to a healthier state of affairs, though that is never achieved in this novel. Paredes did, however, hint at a different ending that perhaps would envision such a state.
In all of this, we must not forget that George is not the only principal character in the story. All of these conclusions—assimilationist, ethno-nationalist, radical leftist, utopian "future" Chicano, feminist, naturalistic, tragic, LULAC, or melancholia—markedly overlook another key figure in the novel who might furnish a totally different alternative to the Mexican question, a figure also in grief, but one who chooses mourning over melancholia and thus offers a kind of radical hope.
At the very end of the novel, the now assimilated though psychologically fraught George sees his uncle Feliciano for what might be the last time. As he gets ready to leave the Valley, George fully acknowledges his complicity, not only with the U.S. government, as a secret agent spying on border Mexicans, but with American culture as a whole and his disdain for all things Mexican. Feliciano's reaction is both wry and bitter.
"I'll tell you," his uncle said. " This is one of those when I wish I believe in another life, in a life after death."
"Yes. Then I could look forward to seeing your father in purgatory or limbo or wherever it is that Mexican yokels go. We could sit down and have a good long talk about you."
George smiled. "I didn't know you had a sense of humor," he said.
"I don't," his uncle said.
Thus, Feliciano literally and symbolically has the last word in the novel. George has become a big success, yet Feliciano's disappointment knows no depth, a disappointment possible only because he himself continues to be a repository—neither a dream, nor a brief restaurant scene—but a narratively living, breathing, well-developed, yet flexible repository of a different set of values.
Present from the beginning at Guálinto's birth and naming, Feliciano, his maternal uncle, has a clear and major role in his nephew's already well examined development. As Guálinto's father, Gumersindo, is dying after being shot by the Texas Rangers in the 1915 uprisings, he makes Feliciano promise that he will never reveal the circumstances of his death to the boy because he does not wish him to become bitter toward Anglo-America and thus not succeed within that world to become a "leader of his people."
After Gumersindo dies, one of Feliciano's two principal, well-developed, and intertwined roles in the narrative will be to assure Guálinto's success, beginning with moving the family to safety in the town of Jonesville. The move will also bring him into much closer proximity to the cultural forces of capitalist modernity that are coming to the Valley, including an Americanizing educational system that will ironically contribute both negatively and positively toward making Guálinto a "leader of his people." But moving to a predominantly Mexican-American town has another outcome, giving Feliciano access to the economic, political, and cultural resources he needs to provide for his family's general well-being, even as these same resources produce a second distinct signification for Feliciano.
Withdrawing from his insurgent past and creating a new public persona, Feliciano initially takes a job as a bartender in a saloon, but from there he makes great socioeconomic progress, including owning a grocery store and buying a home and rental properties as well as some farmland. In addition to his own hard work, entrepreneurship, and financial astuteness, his progress is also assisted by forging connections with the local political machine and engaging in some contraband smuggling from and to nearby Mexico. Finally, although he has sexual liaisons, he does not marry—as one might think he could—so as to provide maximum support to his immediate family and, centrally, Guálinto.
Feliciano's success has been treated with keen skepticism by some critics. According to Mendoza,
In his need to protect his family and provide the economic and social stability that will facilitate George's emergence as an intellectual and leader, Feliciano secures the way by functioning as a power broker between Anglos and Mexicans and participating as an elite in the capitalist economy… . Feliciano exercises privilege and authority over other Mexicans; he becomes a functionary of the new economic and political order. Feliciano's privilege is further evident in his ability to reacquire land in the period that closely follows the deterritorialization of Mexicans from their land …
And, indeed, Mendoza further accuses Feliciano of acting as a model for his assimilating nephew. "George's ultimate emergence as a traditional intellectual of the hegemonic order … follows a pattern set for him by his uncle and is symptomatic of the problem of individualism and leadership that characterizes this period of an emergent middle class in the Mexican-descent community". Mendoza is fairly alone in this negative assessment, yet while other critics see Feliciano in a more positive light, none seem to give him his full due in his response to the Mexican question. Schedler concludes that "by the end of the novel, Feliciano has become a fairly well-off, middle-class landowner with two houses and his own farm". But earlier, he also notes that Feliciano "takes on the character of the corrido hero, at least at the beginning of the novel", clearly implying that at the end Feliciano is no longer heroic. Following Schedler, Ramón Saldívar also notes that Feliciano is "the true inheritor of the warrior tradition," but he does not significantly explore Feliciano's role after the defeat of 1915.
A more sustained exploration would clearly suggest that Feliciano could be reasonably construed as a warrior, although he becomes such in what Gramsci famously called the "war of position," and no longer the literal "war of maneuver" of 1915. Johnson notes that during the 1915 insurgency Feliciano refused to kill innocent civilians, and "whereas … Guálinto ultimately turns his back on his own people, Feliciano survives as a respected small businessman and farm owner" who is "ultimately the most admirable character in the book …" For his part, Perez concludes that Feliciano "learns to function in the community's economic and political system while maintaining his 'Mexican' sense of self" such that, "to the extent that Feliciano counters assimilation into the new 'Anglo' culture by cultivating his organic borderlands roots, he lives out the spirit of the corrido tradition." Thus, "Feliciano seems an intelligent, rational, forward-thinking, practical person if not an outright admirable figure".
Garza-Falcón comes closest to my developing argument. For her, Feliciano "represents Mexicanos who formed part of the resistance, either overtly or by maintaining their identity and culture despite the hostile surroundings," as he goes "to great lengths to maintain even inner resistance, making accommodations to preserve his life and that of his family". Such a seeming and yet resistive accommodation is in the name of a larger and historical interest. Indeed, Feliciano "learns to manipulate the system for his own benefit and perhaps even to wear a different public face in order to fulfill hopes dreamed long before the Anglo occupation … Fulfilling that dream requires money, education, hard work, and cunning". As Garza-Falcón astutely notes, quoting from the novel, "There were many factors in Feliciano's increasing prosperity—hard work, luck, Judge Norris and the Blue Party, Santos de la Vega. That, and his mother's fierce determination to regain for her children something of what had been lost to her grandparents when the Gringos came." Thus we also now learn that history, memory, and social practice stemming from Feliciano's mother were very instrumental in the formation of his being, even as we are led to appreciate Paredes's protofeminism:
Her parents had only dim memories of their own as to what life was like before the Delta became part of Texas, but they passed their parents' memories down to her generation. This is why her children had learned to read, write, and figure at the escuelita in San Pedrito and why she had saved what little money she could throughout her life, a nickel or a quarter at a time.
An escuelita was small, informal school often created and sustained by Mexican-American parents who wanted their children to learn formal Spanish and at least some math and penmanship, although they also offered cultural and historical instruction on Greater Mexico. They were often taught by educated locals or teachers brought in from Mexico. Although the children might attend the formal Anglo-American public schools, their parents wanted them to have this additional training, especially since the segregated public schools too often were inadequate, and certainly did not teach formal Spanish, indeed discouraged it. By the late 1950s these schools were fast disappearing as parents gained more confidence in the public schools or enrolled their children in Catholic schools.
Such an escuelita would likely have been available in 1920s Jonesville, but Guálinto's family, with Feliciano in the lead, decides to enroll him in public school. The town and the schools, after all, were predominantly Mexican American, and it is as if even the strongly ethno-nationalist Feliciano recognizes that his nephew should have the best education possible if he is to succeed in the new world coming, including learning English well. Some critics point to this schooling as the source of Guálinto's eventual assimilation and thereby hold Feliciano complicit. I would contest the point. For all of its flaws, the local educational system prepared the boy to attend a major university, but it also fostered a critical outlook on society with enabling teachers such as Mr. Darwin, who admired students like Guálinto "who do not always agree with the textbooks".
As Guálinto gets ready to leave for Austin on the eve of his high school graduation, he is angry because he wrongly believes that his uncle ran away to Mexico during the 1915 insurgency rather than fight the Rangers. Together with his own bad experiences with racist Anglos in the nearby Anglo-dominated town of Harlanburg who refuse to let them attend a graduation party, Guálinto is actually in a fever pitch of angry cultural pride and resistance reinforced by having to sit through a racist commencement speech by a professor from the University of Texas at Austin, a man named "K. Hank Harvey" (more on the latter in Chapter 6). In high anger he initially resolves not to go away to UT-Austin, as he had been planning to do, as if that was the ultimate way to reject the Anglos. He later changes his mind, but we can only conclude that the school system in itself has done little to attenuate his sense of ethnicity.
Feliciano deserves a large measure of credit for fostering his nephew's formal education, but he can also be credited for Guálinto's sense of native cultural pride. His cultural upbringing also succeeds in retaining his loyalty—occasionally fraught though it may be—to his people. As most critics note, such pride is fostered by a vernacular, folkloric culture based on the heroic corrido, but they are also correct that it is Feliciano who has inculcated such border folklore into Guálinto's formation. When Guálinto and his friends are turned away from the graduation party because they are Mexican, they drive home while singing a heroic corrido led by a boy named Antonio Prieto who plays the guitar. Yet, there is another kind of education that Feliciano is also well-equipped to provide, one that critics have wholly overlooked. Guálinto himself observes that "the parlor was full of books, newspapers, and magazines all in Spanish. They were his uncle's reading matter … his uncle read a lot. Through each and every volume of books famous and books unknown … Feliciano had read with the grim resolution of educating himself".
Thus, up to the moment he leaves for Austin, Guálinto has not gone over to the other side, and Feliciano has everything to do with the boy's continuing cultural loyalty. The unwelcome transformation into the assimilated, though fraught being he becomes occurs in Austin, far away from Feliciano and his ancestral culture.
His concern for Guálinto's education does not exhaust the whole of Feliciano's narrative being, for we can grasp his full alternative plenitude only if we put him in deep relationship to other significant facets of culture: family, region, history, and political economy. Feliciano is a man who never loses his psychological connection to a past of resistance, although such a path is no longer practically nor politically possible, and he has the wisdom to recognize this reality. He is also prudent and wise enough to recognize that an Anglo-driven, racist, and economically exploitative modernity has come to the Valley and all of South Texas, and that the only serious task for Mexicans now is to figure out how to live and prosper under such conditions. Conventional politics may be part of the answer, but by no means is it central. Indeed, it is far more telling that Feliciano has the wisdom to purchase land and start a small subsistence farm precisely in critical counterpoint to the massive Anglo-driven agribusiness that is starting to envelop the Valley. Yet Feliciano's virtues, forged in history by people like his mother, become far more socially meaningful and collective when they are viewed in intimate relationship to his region and community in the present. That is, he forges his admirable significance in relation to what Raymond Williams might call his "effective" community. Williams is referring to a modernizing yet still rural England, where communities of "a local kind" can "survive in older terms, where small freeholders, tenants, craftsmen and labourers can succeed in being neighbors first and social classes only second." Such an effective community "must never be idealized, for at the points of decision, now as then, the class realities show through. But, in many intervals, many periods of settlement," continues Williams, "there is a kindness, a mutuality, that still manages to flow".
Such, I think, was and is the case within the Mexican-origin community in Jonesville-on-the River, in the Valley, indeed in South Texas, "now as then," even while living within and coming to terms with an Anglo-driven and racist modernization, and often precisely because of it. For again, I insist with Williams that one must not idealize, for "it is a matter of degree, as it was in the villages before and after enclosure. When the pressure of a system is great and is increasing, it matters to find a breathing-space, a marginal day-to-day independence, for many thousands of people." As the new economic system "was now in explicit and assertive control … community, to survive, had then to change its terms". Nowhere is this community affiliation more evident than in Feliciano's close relationship to his field hand Juan Rubio, to whom he will bequeath half of the farm after George disowns his future inheritance.
As we have seen, in response to the Mexican question that initiated our efforts, George Washington Gómez and its critics offer us several possibilities, and we have noted their pros and cons. But the critics invariably construe such possibilities within overtly political, collective, and public groups and programs, such as los sediciosos, LULAC, labor radicalism, the Chicano movement, and so on. Johnson, for example, links Feliciano with LULAC as if to give him greater social significance, even though LULAC never appears in the novel. In our politically narrow criticism, we overlook the possibility of a mode of critical existence that need not be tied to a political position and agenda, but yet may turn out to be the most fundamentally political in the ancient Greek sense of the polis.
Who, then, is this man for whom the term "admirable" recurs among most of critics, now including myself? Nothing more or less than an exemplary socially and economically competent, well-educated, deeply cultural Valley Mexicano who, though now having to live within and make use of "Anglo" modernity, nevertheless always remembers his essential opposition to the racism and exploitation of some—indeed, many—Anglos. For he has also discerned that not all are such, beginning with Judge Norris, who initially provides him with support when he decides to move his family to town. Feliciano becomes a constellation of alternative and resistive lower border Mexican social, psychological, and cultural values, willing to bend but not break, a flexible repository that is able to live well within the storm of modernity—admirably well—by himself partaking of its benefits, reminding one of Manet's Steamboat Leaving Boulogne. Indeed he occupies the most resilient, creative, and encompassing "political" position of all, perhaps another example of what philosopher Jonathan Lear might call a figure of "radical hope."
In his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, Lear focuses on the life of a man named Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation, who lived through the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth beyond the First World War. As such, Plenty Coups was witness to monumental events in the life of his nation, of which two were especially critical: the disappearance of the buffalo and the end of Crow warfare, especially against the Sioux, both having everything to do with the inexorable advance of the United States. These endings, particularly that of warfare, precipitated a fundamental cultural crisis, for it meant not merely some sort of material attenuation but the loss of the very deep cultural concepts that gave life meaning for the Crow people. While hunting was important, much, if not all, of Crow life centered on the warriors in battle, particularly the practice of counting coup, or striking an enemy with a coup stick before actually fighting him. So fundamental was this loss that Plenty Coups would say that after they lost their hunting and warring lifestyle, for the Crow, "nothing happened."
Yet, in a marvelous, subtle analysis combining Aristotle and Freud, Lear shows us that something did indeed happen for the Crow beyond mere physical survival. Although obviously no longer the continuation of the old culture, in another sense the Crow culture continued to be efficacious through a process and symbol wholly unlike that of the warrior. As if in anticipation of the crisis, at a young age Plenty Coups had a vision. This was not an ordinary, individual, Western kind of dream, for the Crow "had an established practice for pushing the limits of their understanding: they encouraged the younger members of the tribe (typically boys) to go off into nature and dream. For the Crow, the visions one had in a dream could provide access to the order of the world beyond anything available to ordinary conscious understanding".
In Plenty Coups's dream, this cultural process gives forth imagery foretelling the demise of the buffalo and their replacement by American grazing cattle, even as a fierce Four Winds knock down all of the trees. But one tree is left standing, and in it is a key Crow cultural symbol—a chickadee—who provides Plenty Coups with a model for dealing with the coming crisis. At the furthest remove from the image of the strong and fierce warrior, the little bird is interpreted by a strong voice in the dream as being
least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom … is a good listener… . Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the chickadee listening to their words. But in all of his listening he tends to his own business and yet never misses a chance to learn from others. He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself …
As this scene of instruction concludes, the voice says,
The lodges of countless Bird-people were in the forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one person is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee person. Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-coups. It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.
Thus Plenty Coups begins to imagine and think his way through the crisis in full knowledge that after the Four Winds, life for the Crow will never be the same, and it is precisely under these conditions that a new way must be imagined. And, lest the reader take this to be an individualistic solution, Plenty Coups "recounted his dream in public," and the tribe "incorporated the dream into its own self-understanding … as the Crow used dreams cooperatively". Lear argues that the Crow then held to what he calls "radical hope," by which he means having the deep hope that, even among the wreckage, something good will come for the Crow because of their cultural ideals. More specifically, it is "the hope that if they followed the wisdom of the chickadee (whatever that would come to mean) they would survive (whatever that would come to mean) and hold onto their lands (whatever that would come to mean)." They would do so in ways that would allow the Crow to flourish, remain together, and articulate their identity in new ways.
Above all, radical hope resides in believing that goodness awaits even when the present does not at all guarantee it. But how did Plenty Coups's culturally sanctioned vision lead into cultural practice, and in what forms? The Crow could not totally imagine their future either short or long term, but under Plenty Coups's leadership, and over time, certain steps were taken to assure the ultimate good for the tribe. Even though they could no longer be warriors, through astute politics in the U.S. Congress they managed to hold on to a sizeable portion of their ancestral lands. Some, including Plenty Coups, adopted Catholicism. They also turned to farming, learned English, built a college, fought in the U.S. military, produced a cadre of lawyers, and even became entertainers. Lear notes that "in 2005 the Crow hip-hop group Rezawrecktion won the Native American Music Award in Los Angeles".
Feliciano had his own chickadee, but she was not a bird. Recall "his mother's fierce determination to regain for her children something of what had been lost to her grandparents when the Gringos came." Though her parents had only dim memories of what life was like before the Delta became part of Texas, they had passed their parents' memories down to her generation. This is why her children had learned to read, write, and figure at the escuelita in San Pedrito, and why she had saved what little money she could throughout her life, a nickel or a quarter at a time." Note that Feliciano's mother was determined to regain "something," not an idealistic everything, and also that this regaining was to be done out of memory, indeed, but practically, by reading and writing and figuring "a nickel and quarter at a time," all lessons learned by Feliciano.
Amidst the early-twentieth-century wreckage that the Anglos—as well as a corrupt Mexican state across the river—brought to the Valley, we may see Feliciano, like Plenty Coups, as another figure of radical hope. Both men may be said to be in mourning over the loss of their respective racialized traditional communities, but as Cheng reminds us, after Freud, "mourning is a healthy response to loss; it is finite in character and accepts substitution (that is the lost object can be relinquished and eventually replaced)." Initially, almost nothing assures Feliciano of success in the new environment, but he eventually succeeds, even as we know that he remains Mexican-American through and through, and intimately loyal to his Valley community. Like Plenty Coups, he too becomes an exemplary figure for his community, as indicated by his acquiring the honorific "Don". He reminds us of Grandpapa in Carson McCuller's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the critically overlooked, successful, and honorable black farmer who holds his own in 1930s racist South while most of the other alienated characters are floundering about for a "solution" to racism and exploitation. In all of this, of course, Feliciano is the most fundamental of foils to the errant George. As Paredes says, "Once I started writing, Feliciano, Guálinto's uncle, for example, became more and more important. Toward the end of the story, I think, he's a much more appealing character than Guálinto Gómez".
In my estimation, Feliciano's "appealing character" is an alternative to the other paradigmatic ways of responding to the Mexican question. Some might argue that his very age makes him such a figure only for the past, but I would propose that he can also be seen as an exemplary figure for ongoing social life for Mexican Americans, certainly in the Valley but possibly everywhere. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that Feliciano's example has been emulated by many Mexican Americans in the Valley and elsewhere as well. As Ramon Saldívar acknowledges for the real, present-day Valley, "Only in the last generation or so, at the end of the twentieth century, have Mexican-Americans regained control of some of the civic, social, and educational institutions of the region that they lost after 1848". I would respectfully disagree, only to replace his "some" with "most, if not all." For even though they may not have read this novel, its wise author, in crafting Feliciano, may have been projecting his own radical hope that his people—in the Valley and elsewhere—would be capable of producing many such figures, and that over time a community's radical hope would take on greater reality if Feliciano's example was followed and expanded, as it has been. Critics of this novel have paid too much attention to George and conventional politics, including trying to extract a political "future" out of that morass. Feliciano and the vibrant regional culture and radical hope that he signifies offer a much better focal point for understanding how to continue to be Mexican in America.
“Américo Paredes: Culture and Critique is itself central to any in-depth study of folklore and of Paredes himself.”
Bulletin of Spanish Studies
“Professor Limón is an amazing, powerful critic, and therefore this book is provocative, probing, perceptive, and at times polemical. This is a ground-breaking piece of intellectual work, exhibiting many brilliantly articulated arguments that are deeply original and profound.”
María Herrera-Sobek, Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Academic Policy, University of California, Santa Barbara