The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary

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Poet, novelist, journalist, and ethnographer, Américo Paredes (1915–1999) was a pioneering figure in Mexican American border studies and a founder of Chicano studies. Paredes taught literature and anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin for decades, and his ethnographic and literary critical work laid the groundwork for subsequent scholarship on the folktales, legends, and riddles of Mexican Americans. In this beautifully written literary history, the distinguished scholar Ramón Saldívar establishes Paredes’s preeminent place in writing the contested cultural history of the south Texas borderlands. At the same time, Saldívar reveals Paredes as a precursor to the “new” American cultural studies by showing how he perceptively negotiated the contradictions between the national and transnational forces at work in the Americas in the nascent era of globalization.

Saldívar demonstrates how Paredes’s poetry, prose, and journalism prefigured his later work as a folklorist and ethnographer. In song, story, and poetry, Paredes first developed the themes and issues that would be central to his celebrated later work on the “border studies” or “anthropology of the borderlands.” Saldívar describes how Paredes’s experiences as an American soldier, journalist, and humanitarian aid worker in Asia shaped his understanding of the relations between Anglos and Mexicans in the borderlands of south Texas and of national and ethnic identities more broadly. Saldívar was a friend of Paredes, and part of The Borderlands of Culture is told in Paredes’s own words. By explaining how Paredes’s work engaged with issues central to contemporary scholarship, Saldívar extends Paredes’s intellectual project and shows how it contributes to the remapping of the field of American studies from a transnational perspective.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A major work of literary and cultural criticism, The Borderlands of Culture weaves together an insightful and thorough study of Américo Paredes’s career with sustained reflections on the larger lessons and contemporary contexts of his writing. This is an original, wide-ranging, and provocative piece of scholarship by one of the profession’s leading scholars of transnational literature.”—Gustavo Pérez Firmat, Columbia University

“This is a magnificent book. Ramón Saldívar situates Américo Paredes as the founder of an aesthetic and an epistemology for the world at large by those who dwell in the borders—not just the borders between Mexico and the United States but the borders of Western imperialisms. His years of research, personal acquaintance with Paredes, and passionate scholarship have produced a work of lasting value and one that will no doubt become a canonical volume of Latino/a scholarship.”—Walter D. Mignolo, author of Local Histories/Global Designs

Olga Nájera-Ramírez

“Beautifully crafted, thoroughly researched, and well documented, this is a remarkable and important book that will no doubt become a landmark volume in the fields of American Studies, Ethnic Studies, English, Chicano Studies, Folkloristics, Borderland Studies, and Transnational Studies. The reader can look forward to learning a great deal about Américo Paredes, the man, the artist, the writer, and scholar. Saldívar deserves much praise for this extraordinarily nuanced and comprehensive study.”
James Starling

“Saldívar provides a comprehensive study. . . . For historians, this book offers splendid insights into the intellectual formation of one of the finest scholars and interpreters of the borderlands experience. Saldívar provides many sophisticated and thought-provoking critiques of Paredes’ early work in fiction and journalism. . . . [I]ts clear organization and prose make this expansive work accessible and informative. However, it is the inclusion of Paredes’ own narrative of his life and the many excerpts from his body of work that, above all, make this compelling and informative reading.”
Ryan F. Long

“Saldívar’s work is of great value to scholars because it combines rigorous and insightful textual analysis with considerations of political and historical context in order to advance theoretical conclusions about memory, writing and identity whose relevance extends far beyond the borders of this particular study.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822337898
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2006
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 536
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Ramón Saldívar is Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Chair of the Department of English, and the Hoagland Family Professor of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. He is the author of Figural Language in the Novel: The Flowers of Speech from Cervantes to Joyce and Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference.

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Read an Excerpt


Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary
By Ramón Saldívar


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3789-8

Chapter One


Language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.-Walter Benjamin, "Excavation and Writing"

In the spring of 1986, I received a telephone call from Américo Paredes, asking me if I could take the time to read the manuscript of a literary piece he had written some fifty years earlier. Presumed lost, but in fact in storage for half a century at his family home in Brownsville, Texas, the manuscript and other materials had only recently been recovered from among personal papers and boxes that had just been returned to him. A request of this sort from someone as legendary as Paredes, who in his retirement was one of the most esteemed intellectualsof the day, brings with it a set of conflicting responses. Of course I would read it; but what was it that I had agreed to read? And what might I be able to say about it? A few days later, Paredes delivered to my office a copy of a 451-page manuscript of a novel entitled "George Washington Gómez: A Mexicotexan novel." He also showed me the original typescript, a mass of sheets of yellowed, crumbling newsprint paper. Caught in the middle of the chaos of an academic semester, it took me several weeks to clear a weekend to begin reading the manuscript. Once I started reading the piece, I devoured it and regretted not having started sooner. I found the novel to be, in the language of reviewers, a spellbinding page-turner. Marked as it was by the idioms, styles, and forms of a realist bildungsroman, formed by the impulses of early twentieth-century American and Mexican modernism, and shaped by the social history of the United States-Mexico borderlands, the novel proved both aesthetically accomplished and historically impressive. Over the following two years, Paredes showed me the manuscripts of more work, including two volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, another novel, a miscellany of prose, and snippets of memoirs and other personal writings that he himself described as "a family autobiography." He had composed all of these works between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s. Along with others who urged Paredes to publish immediately this fabulous amount of fortuitously recovered literary material, I realized that an enormously significant literary historical record had just become available with the retrieval of these manuscripts.

Working in song, story, and tale, Paredes first elaborated in the realm of the imaginary the social scientific analytical themes, topics, and problematics of what we now refer to as "borderland theory," "border studies," and the "anthropology of borderlands." For Paredes, history and the remembrance of history were categorically matters of social aesthetics, formalized as folklore, as vernacular local knowledge, and in the stories, legends, songs, customs, and beliefs of a particular place and time. In this project, I wish to contribute to an understanding of Paredes's place in the writing of the cultural history of the American western and southwestern borderlands and, more broadly, to the remapping of the field of American studies from a transnational perspective. Paredes's work represents this transnationality by urging a vantage point beyond the typical North-South axis of most border histories. More significant, it illustrates the experiential realities of living spaces beyond the nation, supplementing and sometimes even superceding both Mexican and American national imperatives.

Forging a Fatherland

The forces that gave rise to the cultural forms of the border region that concerned Paredes in both his literary and folkloric writings date from the sixteenth century. Spanish explorers and their indigenous and mestizo retinues moved north from the interior of Mexico and began the colonization of what is now northern Mexico, Texas, and the rest of the southwestern United States. These settlers brought with them their cultural traditions, religion, folklore, literature, and language. In one part of that broader colonial endeavor, with the establishment of the province of Nuevo Santander by José de Escandón in 1749, the present Texas-Mexico border region became a place where the cultural traditions of the old and the new worlds collided and created new social realities.

In this region, from 1749 to 1821, new forms of nation building were enacted as the founding Spanish American colonials learned first how to retain loyalty to a far-off European sovereign, and then later to shift allegiance as subjects of the Spanish monarchy to the newly proclaimed constitutional Mexican monarchy after independence in 1821. When their attempt to keep Mexico within the fold of a pro-Spanish monarchy failed after 1824, they experienced what it meant to become citizens of the early Republic of Mexico. In historian Manuel Gamio's celebrated phrase, Mexico was now deeply engaged in the project of forjando patria, or, "forging a fatherland." First imagining then enacting the political institutions required that the people there transform themselves from subjects of a monarchy to citizens of a republic; the Spanish American inhabitants of the borderlands in effect were also working out the cultural idioms and practical implications of citizenship. As colonial subjects of the Spanish monarchy, they found themselves under the authority of the monarch and were governed by his laws. As republican citizens, they now had a share in the power of the sovereign and the authority to formulate their own laws. Following from this substantial transformation, would their newly constructed political forms allow them to retain a notion of blood heritage as Spanish (not Mexican) subjects while simultaneously combining it with a new, freely chosen political allegiance as citizens of a Mexican (and mestizo) nation? Who was and who was not a subject citizen?

In the course of these transformations from monarchy to liberal democracy, after 1824 the former pro-monarchists now became centralist republicans. The republican opponents of monarchy became federalists (Bazant 8). Mexican sociologist Fernando Escalante has shown that despite these real differences between monarchists and federalists, liberals and conservatives, the imperative to consolidate state power was far more urgent for both than the need to create an effective citizenry and led to a high degree of accord on matters of law and sociability (372). As a consequence, while early Mexican constitutions created "a broadly based nationality that included all people who were born in Mexico or who resided in the country, were members of the Catholic Church, and were willing to follow Mexico's laws," the category citizen, and its "access to public office and the public sphere," was restricted to independent male property holders (Lomnitz 306). This difference between Mexican nationality and Mexican citizenship proved crucial. With unique access to what Jürgen Habermas has called the public sphere, that strange new kind of liberal modern space between civil society and the state in which discussion of matters of public concern could occur, the citizen not only superseded nationality and the individual Mexican national but also now represented the nation as a whole (Lomnitz 307). Moreover, if as Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt have maintained, "the public sphere is the site where struggles are decided by other means than war," (Negt and Kluge 1-2) then access to the social sites, institutional forms, and political practices on the part of the polity is fundamental to nation building. This is the sense in which Escalante refers to the project of Mexican nation building as the work of ciudadanos imaginarios, imaginary citizens (5-10). The creation of a new national identity required the complementary imagining for the citizen of a new role in the polity and new forms of action in the public sphere. All the while, and certainly by the mid-nineteenth century, especially among the intellectuals of this early republican period, many of these newly formed imaginary citizens also felt themselves becoming Americans, americanos.

In the northern tier of Mexican provinces, the frontier periphery of the new nation, isolated from "the nascent projects of national integration and state building unfolding in central Mexico," the residents of the region "became Mexican" nationals and citizens, at least nominally (D. Gutiérrez, "Migration" 484-85). However, because of the huge distances from the central seat of power in Mexico City, the people of northern Mexico remained isolated and acquired a fiercely independent sense of local autonomy. Thus, rather than identifying with the grand nation-building strategies of the ruling elites in central Mexico and their notion of an imagined integrated nation-state of Mexico proper, they acquired alternative forms of identity. Writing in the 1930s, the Mexican historian Manuel Gamio noted that "many inhabitants of rural districts in Mexico have little notion of their nationality or their country" (Mexican Immigration 128). What was true in remote rural Mexico was even truer in the borderlands, where the traditional power of the nation-state to regulate the flow of people, goods, and ideas remained relatively weak until the early part of the twentieth century. For this reason, David Gutiérrez argues, the inhabitants of these remote borderlands districts constituted themselves as a separate people, residing in a "third space," and "most probably ... identified themselves first as Catholics or Christians, second as members of intricate local networks of familial or kinship association," and only "last with their patrias chicas (their localities or regions)" ("Migration" 485).

To see the national allegiances of the inhabitants of the borderlands in exclusively Mexican, or American, terms is therefore misleading. Throughout the nineteenth century, but especially after mid-century, the inhabitants experienced the borderlands as a relatively coherent in-between region, a third space separate in many ways from Mexico and the United States (E. Young 5-11). As historians Samuel Truett and Elliott Young note, "Ever since the border was mapped in 1854, the borderlands have supported a complex web of historical relationships that transcended-even as they emerged in tandem with-the U.S. and Mexican nations" (2). Borders are political and ideological boundaries that produce differences used to forge unique national identities. In the United States-Mexico borderlands, however, "cultural and ethnoracial" communities came into being that gainsaid these differences and remained unified across the national boundary lines: while borders divided, the borderlands united the region (E. Young 7). By understanding the forces that impelled these contradictory divisions and unities of the borderlands, we can begin to have a sense of how transnationalism profoundly shaped the lives of those who lived on the border and forged the historical structures that continue to affect the contemporary world.

These transnational forces first emerged early in the nineteenth century, when the central government in Mexico City licensed Anglo-American colonists to settle the sparsely populated northern territories of Mexico, hoping to use them as a dividing buffer between Mexico proper to the south and the encroaching United States to the north and east. The northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas quickly attracted the most US immigrants, and soon they out-numbered the Mexican inhabitants (Holden and Zolov, "Manifest Destiny" 21). These Anglo-American settler colonials brought their own cultural traditions and political forms. Increasingly, however, they, too, saw themselves as Texans and joined in the larger Mexican national push for US-style federalism and greater control over local affairs. By 1835, the disputes between monarchist and republican Mexicans over whether to establish a centralist or a federalist regime eventually led beyond struggles in the public sphere to armed insurrection in the northern province of Texas.

Allied with their Mexican Texan neighbors, Anglo Texans rose in rebellion to drive out the centralist garrisons in the Texas region. Immediately, centralist forces led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna embarked on a punitive expedition to quell the uprising and keep Texas within the Mexican fold (Bazant 15). The expedition began brilliantly for Santa Anna when after thirteen days of siege, his forces annihilated the joint Anglo-Mexican Texan garrison at the Alamo in San Antonio, killing all of the men under arms in the final attack of March 6, 1836. Final victory eluded Santa Anna, however, as the campaign ended in disaster. Defeated and captured by an army of rebellious Texans commanded by Sam Houston on April 21, 1836, in exchange for his life and freedom, "Santa Anna signed a treaty granting Texas its independence and recognizing the Rio Grande as the boundary" between the newly independent Republic of Texas and Mexico proper (Bazant 16). This provision of the battlefield treaty establishing a border between the Republics of Texas and Mexico remained a fiercely contested matter, however, as Mexico subsequently rejected the agreement as having been made under duress and therefore invalid. Instead, Mexico claimed the Nueces River in central Texas as the boundary between the two republics. Texans regarded the Rio Grande, two hundred miles farther south, as the border.

In the aftermath of these nation-forging affairs, the present characteristic feature of the United States-Mexico borderlands was firmly established. With equal measures of ambition and idealism, enthusiasm and violence, hope and faithlessness, the region became an intricately refractory zone where different cultures met and clashed. A newly independent Protestant Anglo-Texan republic came up against a Catholic Spanish-Mexican mestizo nation, each thinking of itself as uniquely "American." Particularly after the United States-Mexico war of 1846-48-with the annexation of the northern territories of Mexico by the United States and the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending hostilities-former Spanish colonials and republican Mexicans residing in the conquered Mexican territories from the western border of Texas to the Pacific Ocean now became the first US Mexicans. No longer citizens of Mexico and with their citizenship contested and denied by many Americans, they were left without the juridical protection of either nation (Griswold del Castillo 68). They were the first of many generations of Mexicans to become US citizens in name but not in fact (see figure 2). For many of these border people, as Truett and Young explain, events of the mid-nineteenth century "marked the beginning of years of negotiation between colonial, national, regional, and global coordinates that were-despite the U.S. annexation of land and people-anything but fixed" (6).

Folklore and the Social Base

Isolated from the main cultural centers to the south, north, and east, the Texas-Mexico border communities that emerged from this history developed a way of life based on economic self-sufficiency, social interdependency, and formal family ties. Strict hierarchies of gender, kinship, caste, and class created a dynamic, internally complex world. Jovita González, one of the first Mexican American folklorists and historians of the twentieth century to investigate the social structures of these colonial border communities, points out that their isolation retarded their political development, fostered a spirit of conservatism, and created a patriarchal life structured as in serfdom ("Social Life" 47-48).


Excerpted from THE BORDERLANDS OF CULTURE by Ramón Saldívar Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: In Memoriam 3

Part I. History and Remembrance as Social Aesthetics

1. “The Memory Is All That Matters” 23

2. A Life in the Borderlands 64

Part II. Fictions of the Transnational Imaginary

3. The Checkerboard of Consciousness in George Washington Gómez 145

4. Transnational Modernisms: Paredes, Roosevelt, Rockwell, Bulosan, and the Four Freedoms 190

5. Paredes and the Modernist Vernacular Intellectuals: George I. Sánchez and Emma Tenayuca 226

6. The Borders of Modernity 241

7. Bilingual Aesthetics and the Law of the Heart 264

8. Border Subjects and Transnational Sites: The Hammon and the Beans and Other Stories 289

9. Narrative and the Idioms of Race, Nation, and Identity 318

10. The Postwar Borderlands and the Origins of the Transnational Imaginary: The Occupation-Era Writings in Pacific Stars and Stripes and El Universal 344

11. The Shadow and the Imaginary Functioning of Institutions 395

Conclusion: A Transsentimental Journey 432

Notes 439

Works Cited 477

Index 503

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