Culture • José E. Limón
In the classroom and the campo, he finds common ground between Anglos and Chicanos.
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IN 1972 JOSÉ E. LIMÓN switched his graduate studies at the University of Texas from English to anthropology so that he could study Mexican-American culture under Americo Paredes. That same year, he helped Paredes create UT’s Center for Mexican-American Studies, the nation’s first program of its kind. In May of this year, shortly after Limón published his well-received third book, American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture, to good reviews throughout academia, Paredes died. His achievements were so far-reaching, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever match his impact on Mexican-American studies. But Limón, his first real protégé, stands at the forefront of the field.
Limón was born in 1944 in Laredo; when he was ten his father, a butcher, moved the family to Corpus Christi. In 1964, after attending Del Mar College in Corpus for two years, Limón transferred to UT-Austin. He earned a B.A. with a double major in philosophy and English and a master’s degree in English, then decided to pursue a Ph.D. in English, planning to return to Del Mar to teach.
Limón became a grader for Paredes, a professor of English and anthropology who was the first Mexican American to earn a doctorate from UT. Though he had read Paredes’ groundbreaking 1958 book, With His Pistol in His Hand, the first work to discuss Mexican-American culture from the perspective of the Mexican side of the hyphen, he knew little else about the man. But Paredes was seeking students to follow in his academic footsteps, and Limón—an SDS member who had co-founded the leftist Mexican-American Student (later Youth) Organization in 1966—caught his eye. So Limón switched fields, getting his doctorate in cultural anthropology and folklore in 1978, and hasn’t looked back since.
“I had always been Mexican American in my identity, but the idea that one could think, research, reflect, and write in the area of Mexican-American culture was something new,” he recalls. “Dr. Paredes was the only one doing it.” The Center for Mexican-American Studies, with Paredes as its director and Limón as his assistant, was designed to offer only double majors (such as English and Mexican-American Studies). Initially it offered perhaps five such majors, a few undergraduate courses, a small research program awarding grants to professors, and an equally small post-doctoral program. Today there are dozens of courses and about forty majors, and its research programs are well funded. Graduates of the Center have gone on to successful careers at other colleges, including UCLA, Stanford, and Berkeley.
While completing his dissertation, Limón taught at UT-San Antonio from 1975 to 1978. After a year at UCLA, he taught at UT-Austin before moving to the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1987. Paredes and his protégé were barely speaking by then, but the chill thawed after Limón returned to Austin to join the English department in 1990, and Paredes read several chapters of American Encounters before his death. It is the most recent of three books—each more provocative, less academic, and more accessible than the last—on which Limón’s reputation rests. His 1992 Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican-American Social Poetry amplified Paredes’ work on corridos, Mexican topical ballads from the border. But he broke new ground with Dancing With the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas, published in 1994. This book uses the Tejano legend of a web-footed devil who spends an evening partying with dance hall patrons and then disappears as a metaphor for how working-class Rio Grande Valley Chicanos wrestle with their cultural identity while learning to live with contemporary influences like drugs, divorce, the media, and growing class divisions.
In his surprisingly optimistic American Encounters, Limón weaves together anthropology, pop culture, history, criticism, folklore, and Freudian psychology to discuss what Anglos and Chicanos have in common in “Greater Mexico,” Paredes’ original term for anyplace with people of Mexican descent. Limón finds those commonalities strongest in Texas. He argues that as members of the Confederacy, early Anglo Texans were under siege, socially and economically, by the North, and thus could empathize somewhat with the Mexicans they were subjecting to similar discomforts. At the same time, the Anglos were trying to learn cattle ranching from the Mexicans, so their determination to dominate them was tempered with respect. Citing cowboy ballads, with their themes of love and lust for Mexican women, as an early example of the process, Limón argues that Anglo culture began reaching out to Mexican Americans consistently in the fifties via movies like High Noon (in which Gary Cooper’s Marshall Will Kane is less moved emotionally by his wife, played by Grace Kelly, than by the town madam, Katy Jurado’s Helen Ramirez) and Giant (in which the couple portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, Leslie and Bick Benedict, enforce a conciliatory “new social arrangement” with Chicanos), as well as Marty Robbins’ country hit “El Paso,” whose singer dies in the arms of the “Mexican girl” he loves.
“These works are uttering that which perhaps cannot be uttered in everyday real life,” Limón says. “The idea of two people getting to know each other without conceding anything about themselves, and especially with the Mexican not conceding, because they’re the ones that would have to concede the most to gain entrance. They show the possibility of something that was already there in the 1836 Constitution, the possibility of a bilingual, bicultural Texas.” More recently, this border-blurring impulse has been addressed in works like John Sayles’s 1996 Lone Star (through the relationship between Chris Cooper’s Sheriff Sam Deeds and Elizabeth Peña’s Pilar Cruz) and Cormac McCarthy’s 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses (with the “Mexicanized” John Grady Cole), and embodied in the pre-scandal political career of Henry Cisneros.
“I define Texas in the book using the reality and the metaphor of marriage,” Limón says. “All marriages have ups and downs, and like a marriage, these relationships could come apart, depending on political forces and how willing people are to keep the conversation going. I don’t describe it as equal yet by any means, but there is a conversation here. I give no credit to California, where it’s more like a battering relationship. Somehow, in Texas, there has always been this willingness to talk.”
Limón returns to this theme in the book he’s now finishing, Neither Friends Nor Strangers: Anglos and Mexicans in the Literary Making of Texas, in which he pairs authors from each culture. His first chapter discusses the historical romance novels of Jovita Gonzalez, a folklorist whose fiction he admires, and Dorothy Scarborough, whose The Wind is about the Anglo settling of Texas. He discusses his mentor, Paredes, and J. Frank Dobie, who was the first to teach Tex-Mex subjects at UT—two witnesses to the fading of Texas cattle culture—and then analyzes how Larry McMurtry (from Hud through the Houston trilogy) and UT English professor and novelist Rolando Hinojosa (The Valley, Rites and Witnesses) depict the contemporary Texas that replaced it. His final chapter is devoted to Cormac McCarthy. The book promises to add considerably to the very dialogue it discusses.