Early Chicana / Tejana Folklorists of Texas
This past summer, Texas Folklife presented a guest lecture by Dr. Norma Cantu at the Austin Public Library. The lecture was part of our Stories Summer institute, which trains teachers on audio storytelling. Dr. Cantú provided a brief history and overview of folklore, including basic concepts and categories such as material folklore, as well as resources like the American Folklife Center fieldwork guidebook.
Dr. Cantu also paid homage to Chicana folklorists of the early 20th century, particularly women who wrote about Mexican American cultural practices on the Texas borderlands. These early folklorists presented their work in the form of novels, collections of plays, and local genealogical investigations. Several of them worked as public school teachers.
Among these early folklorists were Elena Zamora O’Shea, Jovita Gonzalez, Josefina Niggli, and Fermina Guerra. Guerra and Gonzalez were protégés of J. Frank Dobie, known for reviving the Texas Folklore Society during the interwar years. Jovita Gonzalez became the first Mexican American president of the society in 1930.
Below, we highlight some of the notable folklorists and books that Dr. Cantu discussed during her lecture.
Elena Zamora O’Shea (1880 – 1951)
Elena Zamora O’Shea was a writer and teacher from Hidalgo County. Her novel, El Mesquite is significant for its detailed depictions of Tejano folklife at the turn of the 20th century. Told from the perspective of a mesquite tree, the work is lauded for its detailed descriptions of foodways, folk songs and dance, as well as the intricacies of social relations in the community at the time.
Jovita Gonzalez (1904 – 1983)
Roma-born folklorist Jovita Gonzalez documented South Texas folk traditions. She taught in Corpus Christi public schools and wrote several books, including Caballero, a historical novel that takes place during the US-Mexico War. TAMU Press describes it as “a literary ethnography of South Texas-Mexican folklore customs and traditions as well as a feminist critique of rigid patriarchal culture.”
Fermina Guerra (1897 – 1988)
Born near Laredo, TX, Fermina Guerra was a teacher and folklorist. She was known for her depictions of rural life on the border. As a researcher during her MA work at the University of Texas, she documented the domestic activities of Mexican American women in these communities, as well as folk songs common to the region.
Josefina Niggli (1910 – 1983)
Novelist and playwright Josefina Niggli was born in Monterrey and grew up in San Antonio. Though she spent much of her working life in North Carolina, her works explored rural life in Mexico and the borderlands. She was known for her collection Mexican Folk Plays, which portray life after the 1910 Mexican revolution.