Américo Paredes is one of the most renowned Mexican American authors who created works that combine two great cultures and experiences of two nations. Paredes had a great poetic vision and devoted most of his professional life to perpetuating the beauty of his homeland and his people. He was a journalist, a poet, an educator, and “the founding Director” of CMAS (the Center for Mexican American Studies) (Limón ix). The poet considered political, social, and especially cultural facets of the world around him. Of course, it is important to analyze the political and social aspects of people’s lives, but it is essential to focus on culture as it shapes the way humans act, affecting their characters. The present paper will focus on one of his poems, “The Rio Grande,” where the author concentrates on an internal question of the balance between life and death, happiness and sorrow.
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In the first place, it is necessary to look into some details of Paredes’ life to understand his poetry. Américo Paredes was born in 1915, at the time of great social unrest when Mexican Americans fought for their equality and used violent means to achieve their goals (Limón 4). Notably, the fight for equal rights led to the spread of violence, and people had to overcome the outcomes of that movement until the breakdown of World War II. The future poet had eight siblings, but he still got a very good education due to his poetic talent and, of course, diligence (Medrano and Paredes 9). He left his native town Brownsville to get his degree and start his career as a journalist, poet, and educator (11). He often visited the small city which he really loved.
The poem in question was written when he was still in the city. Actually, the poem “The Rio Grande” was written in 1934 when he was only eighteen. Clearly, he was becoming an independent young man, but he remembered very well the days when he and his brother crossed a local river to spend the summertime with his uncle “like Mexicans, listening to the old people tell their stories” (qt. in Medrano and Paredes 12). Hence, folklore was an integral part of the poet’s work and life. Saldívar stresses that the poem is “like the articulations of history” for the young poet (7). It is one of the milestones in his life.
As has been mentioned above, the poem under consideration is not about political or even social life. It is very personal, and it reveals the poet’s ideas on life and death as well as the place of his motherland in his heart. One of the themes of the poem is the homeland. Paredes believes his homeland is something that carved his character, personality, and soul:
For I was born beside your waters,
And since very young I knew
That my soul had hidden currents,
That my soul resembled you, (17-20)
Thus, the poet stresses that the place where he was born affected his personality. Paredes uses a very evocative metaphor when he compares his soul with the river. Just like the area which combines traits of several cultures, his soul “had hidden currents” (19). The author notes that he also absorbed these traits and became a multilayer personality. It is noteworthy that the poet also mentions the importance of returning to one’s roots or “wanting to turn back” (4). Clearly, the poet emphasizes that returning to one’s homeland gives an individual hope, joy, and strength as well as helps people understand who they are.
More so, motherland has a certain ability to cure, and the poet addresses the river: “Drain my soul of all its sorrow / as you drain the countryside” (15-16). Again, a metaphor is used to compare the way homeland can cure people’s souls and rivers drain the land. It is also possible to compare the river with the mother who tries to protect her child.
Personification helps create this image, and the poet addresses the river: “While your currents swirl and eddy, / While you whisper, whimper, mourn” (7-8). It is the mother who comforts a child and mourns when her baby is in trouble. Likewise, the river stood for the mother. These lines are quite interesting in terms of the use of literary devices, as the author uses alliteration. The use of sound ‘w’ creates a particular feeling of whirling, swirling and twisting of waves as well as life itself.
Another important theme is the theme of life. The poet sees life as a road with many whirls and trials or ordeal. Again, the author uses a metaphor to compare the river with a human being as the author addresses the river:
So you wander down your channel
Always on, since it must be,
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Till you die so very gently
By the margin of the sea (9-12)
The river is assigned one of major human characteristics to wander. Lots of thinkers keep saying that people live until they stop moving. Of course, people also die and this quality is also assigned to the river. It is important to note that the author reveals his ideas concerning life in the poem. For Paredes, life is certain ordeal which ends when a person dies. The river (just like a human being) has to live a life “With its sighs and its rebellions, / Yet compelled to travel on” (23-24). Again, personification is used to reveal the idea of the nature of human life. Notably, it is not clear what or who the poet is depicting in this part of the poem. The line between a person and a river, reality and unreal world is completely blurred like life itself which can hardly be seen as it is rather experienced.
Of course, a teenager (the poet was only 18) could hardly know about ordeal. The poem reveals troubles of the entire nation. The poet heard loads of stories about numerous trials of people living in the area. Thus, attention to folklore is manifested in the poem in question. The reader can feel experience of several generations in these several lines.
Finally, a theme which appears in many works of the author and is central to the present poem is concerned with death. Death is seen as something inevitable. Importantly, it is not regarded as horrible injustice or unbearable grief. The author once concluded: “It is useless that I fret against the inevitable” (qtd. in Medrano and Paredes 30). The poet accepts the way the universe is governed and he even sees beauty and comfort in it. He finds consolation in the idea that he will inevitably die. Again, the poet wipes the line between the river and his life (or rather death):
Till at last your dying waters,
Will release their hold on me,
And my soul will sleep forever
By the margin of the sea. (33-36)
At the end of the poem, it is unclear where the river and the poet are. The blurred line makes the reader think of the end of everything. Death is depicted as the major goal of existence. The poet seems to wait for the end which will bring peace to his soul.
In fact, the poem bears a very important philosophic message. The poet invites the reader to contemplate. He shares his ideas on life and death. It is possible to state that the poem answers an internal question concerning the meaning of existence. For Paredes, it is life itself. The poet believes that people as well as the rest of the universe have to move on and live. Troubles and even trials are simply a part of people’s existence and they should be addressed without sorrows or mourning.
In conclusion, it is necessary to note that the author reveals his ideas on life and death incorporating experience of several generations. He makes use of such literary devices as metaphors and personification as well as alliteration. These tools help the poet draw a picture of his world where there is no difference between the river and a human being. They are seen as different manifestations or particles of the universe. Importantly, the poem can help the reader answer numerous questions which haunt him/her. Life and death are stages of people’s existence and people have to gratefully accept the rule. The poet teaches how to live a life without unnecessary sorrow and grief.
Limón, José E. Américo Paredes: Culture and Critique. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012. Print.
Medrano, Manuel, and Américo Paredes. Américo Paredes. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2010. Print.
Paredes,. “The Rio Grande.” The Water and Culture Reader. Southlake, TX: Fountainhead Press, 2011. 609-610. Print.
Saldívar, Ramón David. The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.