At an early age, Américo Paredes was preoccupied with the inexorable passing of time, which would leave an imprint in his academic career. At twenty-three, he wrote:
And the seconds tick away into hours, the hours into years. Time glides by like a fox, scarcely seeming to move, yet traveling at a lightning pace…. I cannot withhold the march of time. I cannot live forever. I know that every moment I am living, I am also dying. I know that I shall pass from the world as a boat passes over the waters, scarcely stirring the waves by its passing. And with these thoughts do but hasten my end. And I am standing still.
Devoting his academic career to preserving and displaying Mexican-American traditions through thorough analysis and the recording of folk-songs, it is clear that Paredes kept his focus on beating back the forces of time and amnesia. Ilan Stavans correctly contends that Paredes “recovered memory through folklore.” As a matter of fact, Paredes brought this folklore to the forefront of academia during his tenure at the University of Texas. His work on Mexican-American folk traditions inspired a whole generation of Chicano scholars such as Ramón Saldívar, José Limón, and David Montejano. As we celebrate what would have been his 102nd birthday this year, I would like to take the time to reflect on corridos and how Paredes’ work still manages to counter the inevitable march of time.
The Mexican corrido developed historically from medieval Spanish romances, or ballads. Sung and written in eight-syllable, four-line stanzas with an abcb rhyme scheme, the corrido tradition began to supplant other folk-songs such as décimas, coplas, and versos by the late nineteenth century in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Northern Mexico. Corridos quickly became the most popular form of folk-song throughout this region. Within this context, most corridos were known for retelling local histories and events, focusing on individuals who extolled values the community held dear: honor, obedience to elders, and perhaps, most famously, resistance to Anglo injustice.
It is through corridos that, as a teenager in the Rio Grande Valley of Deep South Texas, Américo Paredes learned about the various societal conflicts that occurred between the Texas-Mexican and Anglo populace of the area. These events were precipitated by property loss, economic and social displacement, discrimination, and outright violence inflicted on Mexican-Americans. As Paredes quickly learned, although dispossessed of an official voice in political and social matters, Mexican-American Valley citizens were able to express, share, and record their history through corridos.
Nowadays, the corrido genre has evolved in form and content, and has spread in popularity across the United States and Mexico. In addition to this geographical expansion, corridos have shifted from elegizing border conflicts, to describing international and local events, praising the narco-trafficking lifestyle, or even singing about the whimsical. Indeed, the corrido has changed as borders have been blurred thanks to technological innovations that allow them to be widely disseminated on the Internet rather than the street corner or ranch house where the guitarreros (guitarists) would perform.
In the face of this evolving folk tradition, Paredes’ lessons still resonate today. He was one of the first folklorists who focused not only on the content of the song, but on its context: the public, the performer, and the purpose. Furthermore, Paredes astutely pointed out how humor and sarcasm upturned common stereotypes that ethnographers and folklorists reinforced by taking what their Mexican-American subjects said at face value. One recent popular corrido, performed by the Mexican group Los Tres Tristes Tigres illustrates these lessons. Titled, “La Jaula de Trump” (The Cage of Trump), it is a parody of an earlier well-known corrido by Los Tigres del Norte titled “La Jaula de Oro” (The Cage of Gold.) The parody alludes to the original material, which details in a somber tone the struggle of an undocumented immigrant in constant fear of deportation, trapped in the “golden cage” of the United States.
If we take into account the context of “La Jaula de Trump,” this corrido transforms itself from a simple parody to a subversive commentary of its contemporary political climate. As Paredes stressed, its subversive nature lies in its use of humor and sarcasm to undermine stereotypes and to comment on current events. When the song was released, Donald Trump’s campaign had capitalized on stereotypical representations of minorities to justify public policies. Los Tres Tristes Tigres appropriate these stereotypes, playing into a depiction of a determined border-wall jumper, exaggerating his traits in a Trump-like manner. Through the use of stereotypes, humor becomes a method of subversion and political criticism. The song therefore participates in the genealogical history of resistance that Paredes uncovered in his work.
As Paredes has shown us, resistance comes in many forms. If their content often explicitly expresses a political resistance, corridos also preserve alternative and performative moments of history, resisting the amnesia of time. Although folklore is, by its nature, constantly changing, contextual analysis helps to ground and decipher meaning across time and medium. After over a century of evolution, the corrido still serves as a vessel of expression, memory, and empowerment for the Mexican/Mexican-American community. Indeed, Paredes’ lessons are still very much relevant today.
Featured image credit: New border line wall by Steve Hillebrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.