"The Hammon and the Beans" is a great short story by Americo Paredes. Paredes is considered the father of Chicano literature. This story was published in 1939 and shows the life of a small town on the borderland. The story has political implications and although it seems to be an innocent story, it really says something important about hegemony and life in between cultures. The story takes place in "Jonesville-on-the-Grande", everyday America where whiteness, Jones, is the norm. The town surrounds Fort Jones, and the residents of the town live their lives by the bugles and shots fired in the Fort. Chonita is a young, Latino girl who begs for food outside the Fort's mess hall. She hears the soldiers yell, " 'Give me the ham!' 'Yeah, give me the beans!'" Well, Chonita learns to say, " 'Give me the hammon and the beans!' " and all the kids think she can speak English. The story is told in retrospect and we learn that Chonita dies, and the reader is led to believe by malnutrition or flu. Paredes implies that she dies from being part of a poverty-stricken minority group.
To be able to fully understand the story, the students will need a bit of background information about the way we think of people who live on the margin or border. As we discussed in our seminar, there is one model: the metropole v the periphery. The metropole is the city, the mainstream Culture, or those who were considered to have culture. The periphery is the country, the minorities who lack culture and are made to look ignorant and unsophisticated. By using this model, the periphery is always degraded, creating a desire to assimilate as quickly as possible. Ellis Island is a great example of this. Many coming assimilated so by the third generation, everyone blended in. The new model of the Borderland replaced this model. In the Borderland model, there is no periphery; instead of being either/or, one has more than one identity, and at different moments in life, one dominates over the other, and often these identities conflict. This creates the notion of culture being everywhere and accessible to all. The border is a metaphor for where two cultures intersect, and we leave with aspects of each. Many of my students live in this model.
We will then conduct a close reading of the short story. Students need to learn to decode text for hidden meanings. First students will learn that the title itself is Spanglish, which is a borderland language. The story starts with "Once we lived" invoking the fairy tale motif, hiding the political allegory. The purpose is to make the story seem innocent, when it is actually a story of dissent. Further, the opening words are retrospective - a way to recapture a forgotten past. In the second paragraph the flag is a very nationalistic symbol, a symbol of white America; yet, the Latinos internalize this value, again enforcing the power of hegemony or, put simply, our ability to internalize values that do not value our identity. The people in this town use the fort to regulate their day, as seen in the third paragraph. They don't stop to realize that it's not their own pattern, but the soldiers. We begin to see class separation when Paredes writes, "…afford to be old-fashioned and took siesta." In an industrialized culture, the ones with money can afford leisure. The only ones who can maintain the authentic culture are those with money. Paredes makes this comment for a reason. He finds this disturbing. The high wire fence that separates the fort from the town creates the metropole and the periphery. The school is named George Washington, national pride, and Marion the Fox was a revolutionary fighter. Paredes brings in Latino history when he mentions Aniceto Pizana, referring to one of the leaders of the plan of San Diego, a time in history not often taught in schools. This goes back to the separatist movement that called for an independent state in the Southwest of people of color. The movement affirmed unity. Around the time of this movement, 1910-1917, there was a peasant uprising in Mexico against Diaz. Zapata led this. In 1915-1917, someone went into New Mexico and killed 17 Americans, spilling over to San Diego in South Texas. The local paper simply called this "border troubles."
The kids in the story are on both sides of the fence, for they represent the borderland model. Chonita crosses the border to the back door of the mess hall to beg for food, alluding to slavery. When she imitates the soldiers in her "English", the kids look up to her. The actual phrase, "Give me the hammon and the beans!" is the language of entitlement. When she speaks this English phase, she can demand, yet she doesn't understand this because of her age. The narrator is the only one who doesn't seem impressed though. The voice changes as the narrator is now the voice of a man as seen when he says, "In later years…" When the narrator speaks of the doctor, the doctor's name again links to the revolution with the name Zapata. When we learn that Chonita died, the cause is ambiguous, yet we know it is from poverty. The doctor is a victim of hegemony when he says they lived like animals. This adds complexity to the picture, because now it is not just an us v them conflict. Class is added to the picture. We learn that Chonita's father was killed by being shot and hanged. This is the "brown" version of lynching, when rangering was committed by the Texas Rangers. The reference to the Olmito train again alludes to the plan of San Diego. The doctor is ironic when he says that in classical times, it was more humane to smash children against the wall then to bring them up in poverty. He also puts down the revolution when he talks about bandits. The second to last paragraph shows the two cultures mixing during the revolution. Paredes is redefining the American Revolution, making parallels to what happened in San Diego, Texas.
In the last paragraph, the narrator finally cries. It is important for student to figure out why. This is both positive and negative. He finally mourns Chonita's death, which is therapeutic. He also mourns the death of the old ways of life, because in a way, he imagines her as activist during the depression. But her death also represents lost possibilities, a revolution that did not happen. He mourns what might have been. The last word is not the little boy crying though; rather it is the fact that the story is being told as a genuine borderland culture that has a voice.