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date: 10 July 2020

Cortez Lira, Gregoriofree

(22 June 1875–28 February 1916)
  • Joseph C. Jastrzembski

Cortez Lira, Gregorio (22 June 1875–28 February 1916), cowboy and Mexican-American folk hero, was born in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, near the U.S.–Mexico border, the son of Roman Cortez Garza, a rancher, and Rosalia Lira Cortinas. In 1887 his family moved to Manor, Texas, near Austin. Two years later Cortez joined his older brother, Romaldo Cortez, in finding seasonal employment on the farms and ranches of South Texas. Some time in this period, Cortez married Leonor Díaz; they had four children. After eleven years as vaqueros, or cowboys, and farmhands, Cortez and his brother settled on a farm in Karnes County, Texas, renting land from a local rancher. Cortez and his first wife divorced in 1903, and in 1905 he married Estéfana Garza. They had no children and later separated.

At the time that Cortez and his family had immigrated to South Texas, Anglos had also begun to penetrate the region in increasing numbers, particularly with the arrival of the railroad. As political and economic power shifted to the newcomers, most Mexican Americans, like Cortez, lived as hired agricultural workers or as tenant farmers. Class and ethnicity relegated them to the bottom of a discriminatory Anglo-dominated Texas society. Thus, in 1901, when a horse was reported stolen by a “Mexican” and Cortez was known to have recently traded a mare, Sheriff W. T. Morris assumed there was a connection. The following blunders, Cortez’s flight from the law, and his subsequent arrest and trial transformed the obscure farmer into an enduring symbol of Mexican-American pride and resistance.

On 12 June 1901 Sheriff Morris and two deputies arrived at Cortez’s farm. Only one of the lawmen, Boone Choate, spoke Spanish, but he was far from fluent. Relying on Choate’s misinterpretations of Cortez’s idiomatic Spanish, Morris was led to believe in Cortez’s guilt and ordered his arrest. Cortez protested in words that Choate took to mean that he was resisting arrest. In the confusion that followed, Morris shot and wounded Cortez’s brother Romaldo and then fired at Cortez. Unscathed, Cortez returned fire, fatally wounding the sheriff. The deputies withdrew, and Cortez and his family abandoned the farm. Sending his wife and children ahead by road to the nearby community of Kenedy, Cortez hid in the brush with Romaldo. Later that night, Cortez slipped into Kenedy, left his wounded brother in the care of his family, and fled north on foot to evade a posse already combing the area.

When one of Cortez’s family members was later captured and intensely questioned, he revealed Cortez’s probable whereabouts. Using this information, Sheriff Robert M. Glover of Gonzales County and another posse surprised Cortez at the home of his friend, Martin Robledo. The posse attacked the house, and Cortez shot and killed Sheriff Glover and once more eluded capture. Heading south to the border with Mexico, Cortez picked up a mount at the home of another friend. After riding this horse into the ground, he found another and continued on his journey, all the while just managing to stay beyond the reach of numerous posses on his trail. When his second horse gave out, too, Cortez was some thirty miles from the border and safety. Mindful of the thousand-dollar reward posted for Cortez’s capture, Jesus Gonzalez, a local vaquero, recognized the fugitive and notified a party of Texas Rangers of his location. On 22 June 1901 Cortez, after a ten-day chase that had led scores of lawmen over 500 miles, was finally apprehended.

Immediately, Mexicans from both sides of the border began to subscribe to Cortez’s defense, an effort coordinated by members of the Mexican-American press of San Antonio. Nevertheless, a Gonzalez County jury, facing a gallery full of lawmen indignant at the death of Glover, found Cortez guilty of second degree murder for the death of a posse member named Schnabel and sentenced him to fifty years in prison. Other trials and convictions followed for the deaths of Sheriffs Morris and Glover and for horse theft. Troubled by conflicting testimony during the trials, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned all the verdicts, except for the conviction for Sheriff Glover’s murder. On 1 January 1905, after three and a half years of legal battles, Cortez entered the Huntsville penitentiary to serve a life sentence for murder. Efforts to secure his pardon commenced immediately. Impressed by Cortez’s demeanor during his incarceration, various law enforcement and prison personnel concurred. On 7 July 1913 Governor O. B. Colquitt pardoned Cortez, who soon afterward retired to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Cortez became involved in the Mexican Revolution and suffered a wound while fighting for the forces of Victoriano Huerta. Returning to Texas, he eventually settled in Anson, Jones County, where he died of pneumonia. In 1916, just before his death, Cortez married again, possibly to Esther Martínez.

Sensationalistic reports in the Anglo-Texan press avidly followed the doings of Cortez and his “gang” throughout his long ride. Soon after his capture anonymous balladeers composed corridos that cast Cortez’s exploits in the tradition of the border Mexicans’ conflict with the rinches, especially the despised Texas Rangers. In these ballads, Cortez emerges as the ideal man—skilled and self-assured yet modest and restrained—forced into flight by Anglo injustice. Struck by Cortez’s determination and conviction, even his pursuers grow to admire his fortitude, and, fittingly, they effect his capture through betrayal. In other variants, Cortez’s death results from poisoning, a last act of treachery that in no way invalidates his ultimate victory. Thus, Cortez the folk hero, symbolizing his people’s resistance against an unjust but ever-encroaching Anglo-Texas society, overshadows Cortez the man.

Bibliography

Drawing extensively on Cortez family interviews, Americo Paredes, “With His Pistol in His Hand”—A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1958), provides the most complete biographical information on Cortez and contains a comprehensive discussion of the corrido and its variants. See also Paredes, “The Problem of Identity in a Changing Culture: Popular Expressions of Culture Conflict along the Lower Rio Grande Border,” in Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border, ed. Richard Bauman (1993). Although it relies heavily on Paredes, Robert J. Rosenbaum, Mexicano Resistance in the Southwest: “The Sacred Right of Self-Reservation” (1981), places Cortez in the context of cross-border social banditry and conflict. David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (1987), is the best critical study of South Texas interethnic social relations.