Howard True Wheeler (ca 1896-1968) wrote Tales from Jalisco, Mexico, a 562-page tome of more than 200 folk tales collected from all over Jalisco, including many from Chapala, published by the The American Folklore Society in 1943. It is clear from the introduction of this book that Wheeler conducted fieldwork in Jalisco “during three months of the summer of 1930”, ignoring the “purely literary tales” in favor of collecting genuine folk tales from all over the state. Wheeler thanks the pioneering feminist Dr. Elsie Crews Parsons “whose assistance made possible the expedition”. Parsons herself definitely visited Chapala in 1932, and it is possible she had been there earlier.
Wheeler was born in California in about 1896 and served, while still a young man, with U.S. forces during the first world war. He gained an A.B. from the University of California and, in 1928, an M.A. from Stanford University. He then taught for a year at Mountain View High School before beginning his doctorate studies, also at Stanford. The 1930 fieldwork in Jalisco, “as a representative of the American Folklore Society”, was intended as the basis for his doctorate dissertation.
At the time of the 1930 U.S. census, Wheeler was living with his wife Geneva in Mountain View, Santa Clara, California. He was appointed to the faculty of the Romanic Languages department at Stanford in October 1930 and was awarded his doctorate in 1935.
Wheeler started work as a language teacher in 1934 at the Santa Rosa Junior College and remained at that institution until 1942 when he was dismissed (or at least his contract was not renewed) as a result of a much-publicized staff-room brawl involving a coffee cup. According to newspaper reports at the time, Wheeler threw a cup of coffee at a fellow instructor, Otto Carl Ross, because Ross referred to President Roosevelt as a communist. Ross denied this and claimed he was only “criticizing the Administration’s farm policy” when “the next thing I knew a coffee cup came flying through the air.” According to Wheeler, the coffee cup missed Ross by four feet; according to Ross, it hit him in the head. News reports said that Wheeler was prepared to go to court to obtain reinstatement, but it is unclear if he ever actually did so.
Wheeler’s summer in Jalisco collecting folk tales in 1930 proved to be a valuable one, not only for Wheeler’s own doctorate studies, but also for a number of other authors. His impressive collection of Jalisco folk tales has been the basis for several works by the children’s author Verna Aardema (1911-2000). Aardema’s stories, based directly on Wheeler’s collection, include The Riddle of the Drum: A Tale from Tizapán, Mexico (1979), the beautifully-illustrated story set on the south side of Lake Chapala, and Borreguita and the Coyote: A Tale from Ayutla, Mexico (1991).
Tales from Wheeler’s book were also woven into Michael Mejia’s short story “Coyote Takes Us Home”, included in Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith’s anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (2010). Mejia teaches creative writing at the University of Utah, is the Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review and the author of the novel Forgetfulness. He discussed the genesis of this story in this interview.
Wheeler collected at least 13 folktales in or near Chapala and 11 near Tizapan el Alto. His contribution to documenting and preserving Jalisco’s oral history and folklore deserves to be more widely remembered.
- The Stanford Daily. 1930. Research Worker Back from Mexico to Join Faculty. The Stanford Daily. Volume 78, Issue 2, 2 October 1930.
- Healdsburg Tribune. 1934. Instructors at Junior College Are Scattered. Healdsburg Tribune, Number 212, 11 July 1934.
- Oakland Tribune. 1942. “Professor Claims His Victim Called F. R. a Communist.” Oakland Tribune, May 13, 1942, p 13.
- Clovis News-Journal, New Mexico. 1942. May 13, 1942.
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Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).