Border Skirmish

Late in a long and distinguished career, Américo Paredes published a novel he had completed fifty years earlier. Had George Washington Gómez been released in 1940 instead of 1990, it would have changed the course of Texas letters by marking the emergence of Chicano literature in the state thirty years before its birth. Paredes, who subtitled the work "a Mexicotexan Novel," was turned down several times by publishers who were uncomfortable with a plot that explored the relationships among Mexican, Mexican American, and Anglo citizens living along the Rio Grande Valley. Set during the "troubles" of 1914, a time of revolution in Mexico and racial tension in Texas, the beginning reads like a traditional western, as four Texas Rangers, those celebrated heroes of Walter Prescott Webb, ride through the Valley. But these Rangers are racists who are likely to shoot any Hispanics they come across. They eventually kill the father of the protagonist, George Washington Gómez, whose name reflects the mixed cultures of the border as well as his father's desire that he become a "leader of his people."

The novel's historical background touches upon events usually overlooked in Texas history classes. Guálinto, as Gómez is called by his family, lionizes Cheno Cortina, the instigator of the Cortina War of 1859, and Gregorio Cortez, the vaquero whose flight from the Rangers in 1901 became the subject of corridos that celebrated his courage. The turmoil of the time is similarly grounded in such little-studied events as the Plan of San Diego, a call for the establishment of a Republic of the Southwest comprising Mexicans, blacks, and Japanese.

While Guálinto finds pride in his heritage, he also yearns for assimilation into the Anglo world, and the tension between the two cultures drives the narrative. The boy proves to be an excellent student yet understands the irony of his situation: "In the schoolroom he was an American; at home and on the playground he was a Mexican." Outside of class he learns even harsher lessons. At a restaurant called La Casa Mexicana, which "was as Mexican as it could be without having any Mexicans around," Guálinto and his friends are denied service. Even the scene at his high school graduation satirizes Anglo dominance with a biting portrait of a windbag professional Texan historian named K. Hank Harvey, clearly modeled on J. Frank Dobie.

Because of the constant examples of Anglo hegemony, it is disappointing that Guálinto turns his back on his own culture and marries the daughter of a Texas Ranger. He becomes a most ironic leader, scorned by his former friends and family. Paredes, who died in May 1999, focused his whole career on the uphill struggle to assert the claims of border culture against those of the prevailing Anglo history. In George Washington Gómez he did just that, leaving behind a powerful critique of another side of race relations in South Texas.

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