This book was a very pleasant surprise. Much more engaging than I thought it would be. And I was happy to say I was never bored with it. I certainly see why UTSA thinks it has the necessary attributes to be a required work. It is a novel that details the historic struggle of Texas border towns around the time of World Wars I and II. For me, it served as a fresh perspective that readers rarely get from popular fiction.
The full title of this book is George Washington Gomez: A Mexicotexan Novel. So I am going to go with that genre: Mexicotexan. And after reading it, I really can’t think of another genre more fitting. It isn’t so much a novel about the struggle between the US and Mexico, but more just Texas and Mexico, although the white men and women in the fictional town of Jonesville being representative of most white Americans at the time cannot be ignored. At one point, Paredes depicts a family in Colorado and the man of the house makes it very clear, while remaining remarkably polite (sorta…ok not really…but I felt like he really tried), the he was not a fan of Mexicans. So while the novel focuses on the white Texans, the prejudice isn’t exclusive to just them. Also, the term “Mexicotexan” can apply to the novel’s main character, George. Sometimes he is Gualinto, and sometimes he is George. And then, sometimes he is Spanish, or Indian (Native American). He spends most of the story switching between identities depending on the situation and sometimes his mood. Perhaps Paredes called this a Mexicotexan novel because, when it comes down to it, the book, nor George/Gualinto, isn’t one or the other, but both.
This is also a coming of age tale that starts just before George is born and follows him into adulthood after he has a wife and is starting a family. The novel chronicles the life of a young Mexican male who is supposed to grow up to be a great man that helps his people, despite the extreme prejudices against him in this border town.
The massively over-arching theme of this story is one of identity. Gualinto’s father decides to name his son George Washington Gomez because he wanted his son to have a name that meant something because he desperately wanted his son to grow up and be a great man that would help his people. And with that decision, let the life-long identity crisis commence.
As I mentioned before, throughout the novel and his young life, George switches between being Mexican, and being Texan (for lack of a better term…”American” just didn’t feel right to me). At the same time, he seems to switch between being proud of his Mexican heritage, and being deeply ashamed. Sometimes he wants to identify (only) with his Mexican friends and classmates, and other times he holds onto opportunities to be distinctly different from them and be recognized as such. His family is often a significant influence in his decisions to switch back and forth. Sometimes he is fiercely proud of them and is therefore not only fiercely Mexican, but also ready to be fiercely violent towards Anglos. But other times, he is deeply ashamed of them and does not wish to be considered to be in their same category.
Another issues explored in this book is that of the educational system and how the schools in border towns handled children who mostly (or only) spoke Spanish upon going into school. The fascinating thing about the stories concerning George’s early education is that it wasn’t necessarily the Anglos who treated him terribly. Possibly the worst teacher he ever has is his first teacher who mercilessly taunts, tortures and abuses him in front of the entire class, and she is Mexican. Over time, George grows up and does well in his studies and goes off to college, just as his family would have wanted. But the road along the way is not without its struggles and tensions between the Anglo and Mexican students in the class, despite some well-meaning teachers who try to keep the peace.
The first thing that fascinates me about this book is that Paredes wrote it in the 1930s while in junior college, it wasn’t published until 1990. It is like the readers of the future get a real glimpse of what it was like for a Mexican male to grow up in a Texas border town before, during, and after The Great Depression. Paredes himself experienced the double life of American and Mexican culture growing up in Brownsville, Texas, the town that the fictional Jonesville was modeled after.
In 1958, Paredes published With His Pistol in His Hand which told the story of Gregorio Cortez and his issues with the Texas Rangers. Within the work, Paredes portrayed the Rangers in a negative light, which was pretty unheard of in the history of that organization. The Rangers also don’t come off too favorably in George Washington Gomez. The same year that With His Pistol in His Hand was published, Paredes was hired by UT Austin to teach, therefore forever altering the face of the curriculum. He would join the Chicano movement along with Tomas Rivera, and would found the Center for Folklore Studies as well as the Center for Mexican American Studies. Basically, this guy had a whole lifetime of achievements before his story was even published. He was 76 before his most well-known novel would ever hit the shelves. So it is never too late to write.
Next up: Gulliver’s Travels.