Américo Paredes didn’t look like an insurrectionist. Raised to be modest, formal, and genteel in public demeanor, he was always impeccably groomed and well-appointed in suit and tie and glossy, black-framed glasses. He looked more like a bank clerk than a man bent on taking aim at the reputation of Texas’s most esteemed writer.
Born in Brownsville in 1915, Paredes was the descendant of an old Mexican family with Spanish Sephardic roots that had migrated to New Spain in the late sixteenth century and was part of the expeditions led by José de Escandón that settled such towns as Mier, Reynosa, and Laredo in the eighteenth century. He was a Brownsville Junior College graduate, a World War II veteran who spent time in Japan and China, and a late-blooming scholar who, upon his return from the war, completed his undergraduate degree in 1951, at age 36, at the University of Texas at Austin and proceeded immediately to graduate studies in English and folklore.
As the second Mexican American to receive a PhD from UT, he might have been expected to keep his head down, pay his dues, play the game, and try to advance slowly but surely along the academic track.
But Paredes had something else in mind. He wanted to take on one of the most famous and beloved Texans of his day—the folklorist J. Frank Dobie, a onetime UT lecturer, widely published newspaper and magazine writer, and author of dozens of books, such as The Longhorns, Tales of Old-Time Texas, and Cow People. Dobie bootstrapped himself into the role of Texas Man of Letters—the late author and filmmaker Bill Wittliff described his mentor as the first writer to show that Texas was as legitimate a place to write from as “anywhere on Earth”—and influenced such writers as Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.
A new and excellent anthology of his work, The Essential J. Frank Dobie (Texas A&M University Press), edited by Steven L. Davis, the curator of Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections, is an eye-opening reminder of why Dobie loomed so large in Texas letters for so long. (Full disclosure: I contributed a blurb for the book.)
In short, Dobie was an imposing figure for a newly laureled Mexican American scholar to target. But Paredes was settling an old score. And he planned to do so with an unusual weapon: his dissertation.
Paredes had a long-simmering dislike of Dobie. In the 1930s, when Paredes was a young man, Dobie, fresh from a long sojourn in Mexico, showed up in Brownsville to give a talk on his travels. Paredes attended the event, and the image of this Anglo, whose Spanish was poor at best, proffering his expertise on Mexico stuck in the younger man’s craw. Later, as a proofreader at the Brownsville Herald, Paredes was assigned to edit Dobie’s columns, and he resented what he felt were Dobie’s patronizing characterizations of Mexicano Texans.
Paredes’s animus can be seen in one of his early works, George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan Novel, written in 1940. Late in the story, harking back to Paredes’s first encounter with Dobie, a character named K. Hank Harvey, “the historical Oracle of the State,” fresh from a trip to Mexico, addresses the main character’s high school graduation, giving a speech “interspersed with random carambas and ojalás.”
Harvey is described as possessing “a Santa Claus physique and a kindly, slightly vacant face,” exhorting the students, in a lengthy oration, to “never forget the names of Sam Houston, James Bowie, and Davy Crockett . . . remember the Alamo.” Harvey goes on to remember the valor of Texas forefathers who “rose on their hindlegs and demanded independence . . . and forever erased Mexican cruelty and tyranny from this fair land,” concluding with the charge, “Girls and boys, I give you the world, it is at your feet as young Americans and as Texans.”
Yet as sure as Paredes thought his aim was, he couldn’t pull the trigger just yet. He reportedly didn’t think Washington Gómez was good enough to publish, and it languished in his proverbial desk drawer for half a century. (In 1990 the book was put out by Houston’s Arte Público Press, to great acclaim.)
But in 1958, Paredes finally got to take his first shot at Dobie in public, when UT Press published his doctoral dissertation under the title With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. A work of folklore and cultural anthropology, the book examines the corridos (border ballads) that commemorate the 1901 case of Gregorio Cortez, a Mexicano Texan farmer who was falsely accused of stealing horses. When authorities attempted to arrest Cortez, he shot the sheriff who had just shot his brother. Cortez then fled, leading Texas Rangers and other emissaries of the law on a ten-day pursuit and killing another sheriff in a second gun battle before being arrested by the Rangers, who were notorious in the day for meting out anti-Mexican violence with impunity—and to widespread public approval.
Paredes’s book is a uniquely eclectic assemblage of oral history (including interviews with members of his own family), contemporary accounts (the whole saga was covered in salacious detail by newspapers across Texas), court documents, historical interpretation, and literary analysis of the corridos that recorded the tale and its memorialization. If Dobie popularized Texas folklore, Paredes expanded the frame of the stories it could contain and how we might understand their meanings.
With His Pistol in His Hand was also the first rigorous published account of the bloody upheavals that occurred in the Rio Grande Valley and borderlands region between 1900 and 1920. Little or no history had been written of this period. Even T. R. Fehrenbach’s 1968 Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans devotes only a few pages to this ignominious chapter of the state’s story.
Recent historians such as Benjamin Heber Johnson, William D. Carrigan, and Monica Muñoz Martinez have established that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Mexicano Texans were murdered and lynched in a spasm of ethnic cleansing and land dispossession, many with the complicity of the Texas Rangers. A 2016 exhibition at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, “Life and Death on the Border, 1910–1920,” explored this period.
Paredes’s family had experienced this violence, and his father was said to have ridden on “a raid or two with Catarino Garza,” a Mexicano Texan “seditionist” of the era. In the book’s dedication, Paredes wrote of his memories of “all those old men who sat around on summer nights . . . talking in low, gentle voices about violent things; while I listened.”
In his book, Paredes scourges “that great Texas liberal” Dobie and, even more vociferously, Dobie’s friend, the Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb, for their blithe romanticizing of the Rangers. At one point, Paredes cites Webb’s racist justification of Ranger atrocities against Mexicans from his 1935 work The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense. “Without disparagement,” Webb wrote, “it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe.” After which Paredes acidly comments, “Professor Webb does not mean to be disparaging. One wonders what his opinion might have been when he was in a less scholarly mood and not looking at the Mexican from the objective point of view of the historian.”
Paredes indicts Dobie in the book for his lazy embrace of Ranger heroes and, perhaps most chillingly, for his reply to a question Dobie imagined someone putting to him in 1936: What theme of Texas life has been most movingly and dramatically recorded? To which Dobie replied: “I should name the experiences of Texans as prisoners to the Mexicans.” Elsewhere, Paredes points to Dobie’s 1952 account of the capture of the “bandido” Cortez for the Austin American-Statesman, in observance of the anniversary of the legendary episode. Paredes lets Dobie’s own writing expose him. Dobie, Paredes wrote, used insulting mock dialect when he quoted someone’s description of Cortez’s interior monologue: “I cannot walk more. I find ole house and nobody there. I fall on floor and I am sleep when I hear, ‘Hands up.’ Now I am here for feefty year for keel man that I do not keel.’ ” (Ironically, Paredes published his own ill-considered version of Tex-Mex dialect in his 1935 poem, “The Mexico-Texan.”)
When the University of Texas Press was considering publishing Paredes’s dissertation as a book in 1957, press director Frank Wardlaw asked the author whether his aspersions against Webb and Dobie could be excised. Webb was then serving on UT Press’s editorial board and, according to Wardlaw, supported the book’s publication. (There’s no evidence that Webb asked Wardlaw to intercede on his behalf.) Wardlaw told Paredes that Webb regretted his omission of Mexican voices from his book, citing his inability to speak Spanish as the cause.
Paredes later said that if he had agreed to make all of the requested changes “there would be nothing left but a pretty story.” Still, after negotiations he did make some adjustments, though the final version of the book included brutal criticisms of Webb. When the book was published, it received no promotion or marketing support, all but guaranteeing it would be ignored. Even so, a former Texas Ranger soon showed up at the Press offices looking for the whereabouts of Paredes, by then an assistant professor of English at UT, to “shoot the sonofabitch who wrote that book.”
Despite its initial fate, in the late sixties With His Pistol in His Hand went on to become a beacon of the nascent Chicano movement in California and Texas. It also became a seminal text for the emerging field of Chicano/a studies, eventually inspiring works by scholars and Paredes mentees, such as José D. Saldívar and José E. Limón, as well as a musical homage from Tish Hinojosa, another protégée. In 1982 the book was made into a feature film starring Edward James Olmos, one of the few doctoral dissertations to ever be so adapted. (With His Pistol in His Hand is now in its nineteenth printing. I have a first edition my mother bought upon its release; I remember seeing its burnt-orange-tinted cover, with an image of a furtive vaquero holding a pistol, around the house, long before I read it.)
The book is prophetic for its focus on the borderlands as a landscape of ongoing, sometimes violent cultural conflict, as witnessed most recently at various immigrant holding facilities and the Walmart massacre in El Paso. Its genre-crossing quality as literature, interweaving folklore, memoir, history, popular culture, and anthropology, helped to establish a uniquely mestizo literary formula that was adopted by important later Texas writers, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, in her Borderlands/La Frontera. Eventually, Paredes himself became a beloved fixture at UT, which had never before (and hasn’t since) seen the likes of this guitar-playing, corrido-singing, history-testifying folklorist and English literature scholar.
Dobie’s reputation did not fare as well. After Paredes offered his withering critique, the Texas Man of Letters’ lone star began to lose some of its shine. Larry McMurtry, in his notorious 1981 inquisition on the failings of Texas literature, “Ever a Bridegroom,” excoriated Dobie as a “Holy Oldtimer.” And the flourishing Chicano movement dismissed him as paternalistic at best, and racist at worst. In the decades since, Dobie has been more often referenced than actually read.
But Paredes’s longstanding indictment of Dobie is worth reexamining, especially considering that Paredes himself eventually did so. As recently as this spring, I heard a prominent Chicano scholar cite Paredes in dismissing J. Frank Dobie as anti-Mexican. A more nuanced reading of Dobie, evidenced in Steven L. Davis’s recent anthology, suggests otherwise.
You don’t have to love all of Dobie to love Dobie.
In addition to his best-known works on rattlesnakes, mustangs, Longhorns, lost mines, cowboy culture, and the like, there’s another deep current in Dobie’s writing that evokes the Mexicano worlds he experienced in his youth and pursued throughout his career. Though he was no postmodern code switcher, for an Anglo who did most of his writing before the civil rights era, he seemed to make an honest, if flawed, effort to understand Mexican culture, which he knew firsthand.
Born in 1888 in the South Texas brush country, near present-day George West, Dobie as a young man dealt frequently with Mexicanos, some of whom worked on his family’s ranch, which was once part of a Spanish land grant, complete with the ruins of an old fort. “I cannot remember my first association with Mexicans,” he writes in the introduction to his 1935 work Tongues of the Monte, “for I was born and reared in a part of Texas . . . where Mexicans were, and still are, more numerous than people of English-speaking ancestry.” The book is an account of a horseback journey in Mexico he undertook on a Guggenheim fellowship—the same one a young Paredes saw him recount in Brownsville—with tales of vaqueros, sierra vistas, and visits to Don Pedrito Jaramillo, the famed and still-honored curandero of Falfurrias.
In stories threaded through many of his books, Dobie, who was known to many by a Spanish nickname, “Pancho” (a particularly galling detail for many Chicano critics), spent his life trying to find his way into the Mexicano soul, even if some of the episodes he recounts are awkwardly related or tin-eared.
I first connected with Dobie’s legacy through my maternal line, the Lopez-Velas. My mother told me that as a child she remembered Dobie, in a crumpled khaki suit, sitting on the porch of our family’s grocery store in Cotulla, between San Antonio and Laredo, just over the “Meskin” side of the railroad tracks. According to her, Dobie would spend long evenings with my abuelo Leonides, who spoke no English, and his compadres, smoking a cigar, listening to their stories amidst copitas, recording them with a stubby pencil in a little notebook.
“Where do you get your stories?” Dobie once wrote that people asked him. “I look for them, lay for them, listen for them, hunt them, trail them down, swap for them, beg, borrow, and steal them, and value above rubies the person who gives me a good one.”
As a kid, I sought his work out, wondering which story might’ve come from my abuelo or my abuelo’s amigos. In my favorites of his books, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver, Tongues of the Monte, and A Texan in England, I found a Texas revealed as a great human epic, from its indigenous origins and Mexican colonization and settlement to the arrival of people from all over the world. In works like Tongues of the Monte I saw a deep compassion and curiosity for the Mexican alma. He revealed a Texas that was a storied landscape of astounding transformations.
Like Paredes, who in the seventies described a “Greater Mexico” consisting of “all the areas inhabited by people of Mexican culture—not only within the present limits of the Republic of Mexico but in the United States as well,” Dobie seemed to be reaching toward something like a “Greater Tejas,” which spanned, at least, from the Sierra Madre to the Hill Country. He fashioned himself as an aspiring freethinker who sought to connect the hardscrabble life of old Texas with mythic human themes and the uncertain destiny of humanity itself.
And even before Paredes attacked him, Dobie was showing a side of himself that might have merited kinder treatment. Dobie was fired in 1947 from his longtime teaching position in the UT English department for volubly advocating for the desegregation of the university. He had already successfully integrated the Texas Folklore Society, helping to elect novelist and folklorist Jovita González as president of that organization. And he became the first major public figure in Texas to denounce the smear tactics of U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy and the proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, earning him the unfriendly attention of the FBI.
In short, even by the time Paredes wrote his lacerating critique, Dobie seemed to be evolving, however slowly, however imperfectly. As he himself had once written, “If during a decade a man does not change his mind on some things and develop new points of view, it is a pretty good sign that his mind is petrified and that he need no longer be counted among the living.”
Steven L. Davis, in his 2009 biography of Dobie, relates that in Dobie’s personal copy of With His Pistol in His Hand, just a few pages from one of Paredes’s aspersions against him, he inscribed a comment in the margin next to a particularly incisive observation by Paredes, who wrote, “One notes that the white Southerner took his slave women as concubines and then created an image of the male Negro as a sex fiend. In the same way he appears to have taken the Mexican’s property and then made him out a thief.”
Dobie wrote alongside: “Just about the truth.”
And he wasn’t the only one to change his mind. No one knows when they buried the hatchet, but Alan Paredes, Don Américo’s son, remembers his father and Dobie appreciating each other’s company on numerous occasions, even maintaining a correspondence. He recalls joining his parents for a barbecue at Dobie’s ranch outside Austin and seeing his dad and Dobie chatting and having drinks. (There was no such rapprochement with Walter Prescott Webb.)
Still, in an interview conducted by the scholar Ramón Saldívar, near the end of Paredes’s life, Paredes described Dobie as “a lovable old fraud [laughs], as far as Mexican materials were concerned.” Perhaps he intended to emphasize the “lovable” part of that statement. Paredes’s biographer, Manuel F. Medrano, suggests that Paredes tempered his ire for Dobie late in his life, quoting him as saying that Dobie “wasn’t such a bad guy. Sometimes we feuded as far as Mexicans were concerned, but not in an offensive way.” A far cry from his youthful excoriations of the “Oracle of the State.”
After Dobie’s death, in 1964, Paredes composed a corrido in his honor (the lyrics of which, alas, appear to be lost to time) and sang it while playing guitar at a memorial observance at the Texas Folklore Society.
Perhaps there was something inevitable about the conflict between these two men and their ultimate conciliation. One can see their long-acknowledged animosities as long-unacknowledged affinities, their shared interest in stories of ordinary people testifying to mythic truths in a frontier land. Both possessed the insight to see the personal as mythic and to see myths as emblematic of a people’s history.
Dobie likely never knew a Mexican American who was as rigorous in his scholarship of folklore and history as Paredes. Perhaps Paredes never knew an Anglo as deeply curious about the legacy of Mexico in Texas, no matter how much Dobie got wrong. That tension frames much of the energy and discovery of Texas historiography of the past fifty years. Hostility toward Dobie remains somewhat endemic in Chicano circles, but perhaps it’s time for everyone engaged with Texas history to credit both men for their respective audacities.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Best Enemies.” Subscribe today.