HIS LAST NAME MEANS “WALLS,” and Américo Paredes devoted his career to breaking down the walls that have hindered his fellow Hispanics. His 1958 book, With His Pistol in His Hand, ushered in an era of revisionism by refuting mainstream, Anglo-dominated histories of Texas. In it Paredes analyzed a corrido, or border ballad, immortalizing Gregorio Cortez. In 1901 Cortez killed the Karnes County sheriff in self-defense, but being Mexican, he was vilified, hunted down, and jailed. Paredes’ exhaustive research proved Cortez’s innocence and also debunked the “pseudo folklore”—long expounded by academics such as Walter Prescott Webb—that depicted Mexicans as cowardly and cruel while exalting Texans, especially Texas Rangers, as a righteous and superior breed.
He was born on September 3, 1915, to a ranching family in Brownsville. As a child he learned corridos from cowboys on both sides of the border.
After junior college, he was hired as a reporter for the Brownsville Herald and also wrote poetry, essays, and a novel about “Mexicotexans” titled George Washington Gómez. It went unpublished for fifty years.
A self-taught guitarist, he performed professionally with his first wife, singer Chelo Silva, eventually amassing a repertoire of some five hundred songs.
Enlisting in the Army in 1941, Paredes worked for its newspaper, Stars and Stripes, covering the Pacific Theater and, later, the trials of Japanese war criminals. In 1948 in Tokyo he married a woman who was also the product of two cultures, the Uruguayan-Japanese Amelia Nagamine. They had four children.
Returning home in 1950, he enrolled at the University of Texas, where he became the first Mexican American to receive a Ph.D. His dissertation was With His Pistol in His Hand; UT, recognizing its importance, published it in 1958 after futilely pressuring him to soften its tone. Paredes joined the faculty that year. In 1982 the book was made into a movie, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring Edward James Olmos.
By the late sixties, Chicano activists had discovered Paredes’ book, making him an underground celebrity. Later his many official honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor awarded to foreigners by the Mexican government. In 1995 Austin musician Tish Hinojosa dedicated a song to him, “Con Su Pluma en Su Mano” (“With His Pen in His Hand”).
After retiring in 1984 at age 69, he continued to perform and write. He died in Austin on Cinco de Mayo, 1999.