Although Gregorio Cortez was born in 1875 in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, his roots are grounded in South Texas and the soil of the Rio Grande Valley, which was part of Tamaulipas until 1848.
No other name causes more consternation in conventional Texas Ranger folklore than Gregorio Cortez, a hard working vaquero. Sadly, opinion rests on two opposing views. To most Anglo Texans of the time, he was a criminal.
In contrast, to Mexican-descent people, he was a folk hero, defending their dignity by resisting oppression. Regrettably, present-day Mexican-descent Texans are generally unaware of his story. However, what exactly did he do to earn such a reputation?
To answer the question, the following article summarizes the incredible narrative of one of the most fascinating personalities in the Texas chronicle. There are three parts: the incident, the chase, and the trial.
First, however, some background. South Texas in 1900 consisted of two worlds: (l) mainstream Texas Anglo society, and (2) Mexican-descent Texans, occupying the lowest social status. For example, Spanish-surnamed Texans in many counties weren’t allowed to serve in juries until 1954 and were denied front door entry to public buildings (i.e., the county courthouse).
This was also a time in rural Texas when cattle rustling was blamed on “Mexicans”. Usually, a vague police report is all that lawmen needed to intimidate anyone who looked Mexican. Next, came interrogation (typically included torture), whereby the suspect was forced to admit guilt. That seems to have been the expectation on June 12, 1901, Karnes County, Texas.
Gregorio Cortez, his brother Romaldo, and other family members sat on the front porch of Romaldo’s house. As they chatted, a horse and buggy carrying the sheriff and a deputy acting as interpreter drove up to the house. Without motive, the lawmen implied that Gregorio had stolen a horse. Cortez strongly denied the accusation; words were exchanged, resulting in tragedy.
The question is, could the incident have been avoided? In my view, the answer is yes. Frankly, the deputy wasn’t qualified to translate. He may have known some Spanish words, but that wasn’t enough.
For example, the deputy made two critical errors in his informal interrogation. First, he unintentionally set the wrong tone of the conversation by asking if Cortez had traded a horse to a man in town. To that, Cortez answered “No” and he was right. In fact, Cortez had traded a yegua (mare) not a caballo (horse). (Both terms were well known to Mexican-descent and Anglo ranchers alike. To confuse the two Spanish words was not only inexcusable, but laughable!)
Second, already uneasy by Cortez’ first response, the interpreter evidently followed-up his question by hinting that Cortez would be arrested if he didn’t cooperate. It was after this attempted intimidation that Cortez asked the deputy, “¡Porque me va arrestar, si no he hecho nada?” (Why would you arrest me, if I’ve done nothing wrong?)
Although the deputy didn’t fully understand what he heard, he took Cortez’ words as a statement of defiance. When pressed by his boss for an answer, the deputy more or less relayed the following wrong message to the sheriff, “No white man (gringo) can arrest me.”
Unwilling to accept what he took as insolence, the sheriff pulled out his gun, firing at Gregorio. He missed and hit Romaldo instead. In self-defense, Gregorio drew his own gun, and his aim was deadly. Cortez had only one choice; run for his life and so he took flight toward Laredo.
Stopping at a friend’s place in Gonzales County, he faced a posse led by the Gonzales County Sheriff. Again, shots were fired, and Cortez killed the sheriff. Cortez was now a wanted man for killing two Anglo Texas sheriffs.
In short, the pursuit took ten days and covered over five hundred miles. Cortez walked (sometimes barefoot) about 120 miles. He also rode over 400 miles on two different mares. During that time, Cortez outfoxed his pursuers by cleverly hiding his tracks and changing direction. Meanwhile, in responding to criticism of their inability to catch Cortez, the Texas Rangers and local sheriffs complained to the Governor that they needed help to defeat the Cortez “gang.”
Displaying puro vaquero dry wit, Cortez coolly observed, “Tantos rinches en busca de un solo Mexicano.” (So many Rangers trying to catch only one Mexican). Lawmen used every means at their disposal. Yet, in spite of the latest technology (railroad, telegraph, and telephone), Cortez eluded his pursuers, that at times numbered over 300 armed men. On June 22, having stopped for a rest, he was betrayed by an acquaintance who admitted he had done it for the $1,000 reward. (Oddly enough, the betrayer received only a token of the money.)
Expectedly, the trial quickly crushed rumors fueled by inflammatory news reports. No, Gregorio Cortez wasn’t leading a gang as authorities had widely (and wildly) described. He travelled alone during his flight. Exposing poor police work and some deaths attributed to friendly fire, there was more than enough testimony to embarrass local sheriffs and damage the inflated reputation of the Texas Rangers.
Equally important, the trial served as a podium to air out pervasive injustice toward Mexican-descent Texans. Openly, most Anglos and English language newspapers attacked Gregorio Cortez. His detractors expected a quick trial and then a hanging. In fact, a San Antonio newspaper complained to its readers that the Texas Rangers should have lynched Cortez immediately as was then their custom.
Worse, the negative newsprint labeling him a bandit and sheriff-killer fiend caused indiscriminate Anglo violence against Mexican-descent Texans. The worst reprisals occurred in Gonzales, Refugio, and Hays Counties where several innocent Mexican-descent ranchers were killed, accused by lynch mobs of being in Cortez’ “gang.” His innocent brother Romaldo died mysteriously while in custody. Cortez’ family, including his three-year old son, was jailed for months without being charged.
Yet, a number of Anglo Texans condemned the ruthlessness used against Cortez and learned to admire his intellect, wisdom, and ingenuity. Serving time in several county jails as he went through the process, jail officials initially hated him. Though, born with a natural charm, they became his friends. Admirers included the Texas Governor and members of his staff.
Following three separate trials, he was found guilty and sent to prison. By now, Gregorio Cortez had many supporters, including two influential San Antonio Spanish language newspaper editors. Appeals were filed. Eventually, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned all the convictions. After his pardon in 1913, he moved to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. He died while visiting in Anson, Texas (near Abilene), at age 40, February 28, 1916.
In summary, the saga of Gregorio Cortez is much larger than an incident dealing with a reported stolen horse. His trial and publicity punctured the bigotry blanket enveloping Mexican-descent Texans. In retrospect, his tenacity represents a singular act of courage against absolute law and order power wielded and often abused by 19th and 20th Century Texas Anglo county sheriffs and Texas Rangers.
Only Gregorio Cortez himself can describe the essence of his ordeal when he said during his trial: “Self-defense is allowed to any man. It is in your own law, and by your own law do I defend myself. I killed the sheriff, and I am not sorry, for he killed my brother. He spilled my brother’s blood, which was also my blood. And he tried to kill me too. I killed the sheriff defending my right.”
(Writer’s note: For a detailed, well-researched version of the story, read “With his pistol in his hand” by Américo Paredes. This may also be a good time to learn about Jovita Idar, Jovita González, Juan Cortina, Catarino Garza, J.T. Canales, and others who courageously fought for the dignity of Mexican-descent U.S. citizens.)