June 22, 1875|
Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico
|Died||February 28, 1916
Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico
|Cause of death||Pneumonia|
|Occupation||Tenant maize farmer|
|Criminal charge||Horse theft|
|Criminal penalty||50 years|
Gregorio Cortez Lira (June 22, 1875 – February 28, 1916) was a Mexican American tenant farmer in the American Old West who became a folk hero to Mexicans living in South Texas. He was known for his ability to evade authorities as well as his impassioned words in court.
Cortez's parents were itinerant laborers who brought their family to Manor, Texas (near Austin) in 1887. That year, his brother Romaldo was charged with horse theft but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Another brother, Tomás, was also charged in a separate horse-theft incident, but received a pardon from Texas governor Lawrence Ross. Nevertheless, Tomás Cortez served time in the state penitentiary in the 1900s. The oral historian Richard Mertz discovered that he may have been involved in horse theft with members of his family during the 1880s. In 1889 he began working as a farmhand in various Texas counties, becoming familiar with much of the area. In 1890 he was wed, and the couple had four children. His wife divorced him in 1903. He remarried the next year and again in 1916. It is known that he spoke English and owned horses.
On June 12, 1901, while investigating a horse theft, Karnes County sheriff W.T. "Brack" Morris went to the Thulemeyer ranch outside of Kenedy, where Gregorio and Romaldo Cortez were tenant corn farmers, after learning that Gregorio had acquired a mare from a Mexican Kenedy resident by way of trade. After misunderstandings between Morris and the Cortez brothers resulting from poor translation by a deputy—in which Cortez was supposedly asked if he had recently acquired a caballo, or a stallion, and Cortez answered he had acquired a yegua, or a mare, a word which the deputy did not understand—Morris shot and wounded Romaldo, prompting Gregorio to shoot and kill Morris in self-defense. On his escape, Cortez stopped at the ranch of Martín and Refugia Robledo on the property of Mr. Schnabel. At the Robledo home Gonzales county sheriff Glover and his posse found Cortez. Shots were exchanged, and Glover and Schnabel were killed. Cortez escaped again and walked nearly 100 miles to the home of Ceferino Flores, a friend, who provided him a horse and saddle. He then headed toward Laredo, Texas.
Flight and capture
Cortez, now a fugitive from the law, spent ten days on the lam, repeatedly evading authorities (local posses and sheriffs, not Texas Rangers, as has previously been suggested, he was eventually arrested by a Ranger when he was turned in, and betrayed by an acquaintance), and at times aided by compatriots. The search for Cortez involved hundreds of men. A train on the International-Great Northern Railroad route to Laredo was used to bring in new men and fresh horses. During his flight, Texas newspapers were highly critical of Cortez, some lamenting that he had not been lynched. Popular hatred for Cortez among Anglo-Americans provoked violence against Mexican-American communities in Gonzales, Refugio, Hays, and other counties. However, admiration of Cortez by some Anglo-Texans increased as the search progressed, and the San Antonio Express touted his "remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit." Cortez was finally apprehended on June 22, 1901, when an acquaintance turned him in.
During those 10 days, Cortez was pursued by a posse that at times included up to 300 men. He traveled nearly 400 miles on horseback and more than 100 miles on foot. This was one of the largest manhunts in history. His story was symbolic of the struggles between the Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans in South Texas.
Trial, conviction, and exoneration
Immediately following Cortez's capture, his supporters began forming organizations to publicize the case and raise money for his defense. At his first trial (in Gonzales), he was sentenced to fifty years' imprisonment for second-degree murder. While appeals were being denied, a lynch mob of three hundred attempted to hang him. He was also tried and convicted in Karnes City and Pleasanton. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned all the verdicts. His last trial was in Corpus Christi in 1904, after which he began serving a life sentence. Efforts to have him pardoned began with his incarceration and finally succeeded in 1913, when governor Oscar Colquitt issued him a conditional pardon.
Post-prison life and death
Upon his release, he thanked those who worked for his freedom, joining the Huertist forces of the Mexican Revolution in Nuevo Laredo. Shortly after remarrying for the fourth time, he died of pneumonia. According to remaining family members, Gregorio was poisoned in his last meal and died in the family barn shortly after his release.
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Like many folk heroes who have acquired legendary status, many of the facts about his life have been obscured by time, embellishments, and the variation inherent in oral histories. According to legend, he was an excellent marksman and had a way with animals that allowed him to track and find them with uncommon aplomb, qualities which alleged to have helped him evade law enforcement. Legend also ascribes to him the values of respectfulness, temperance, and obedience, which are contrasted with his brother's laziness, disrespectfulness, and short temper. (In some versions of the story, his brother is called "Ramón".) Legends also dramatize his many narrow escapes, his humiliation of the Texas Rangers, and his impassioned courtroom pleas to simply be tried by the law of the land rather than prejudicially because of racist attitudes.
In song, literature, and film
The story of Cortez was popularized and disseminated through various ballads called El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez, starting as early as 1901. Writing in the 1950s, folklorist Américo Paredes exposed a wider audience to the legend with his With His Pistol In His Hand, originally published in 1958. The work angered a Texas Ranger who threatened to shoot Paredes. The legend was turned into the film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring Edward James Olmos, in 1982.
- Orozco Cynthia E., Cortez Lira, Gregorio, in Handbook of Texas Online.
- Rosales, F. Arturo. Pobre Raza! Violence, Justice, and Mobilization among Mexico Lindo Immigrants, 1900-1936. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999: 93.
- Afterword by Bill Crider. Elmer Kelton. Manhunters. Texas Christian University Press, 1994
- The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) (TV) on Internet Movie Database
- Paredes, Américo (1958). With His Pistol In His Hand. Austin: University of Texas Press. p. 275. ISBN 978-0-292-70128-1.
- CORTEZ LIRA, GREGORIO from the Handbook of Texas Online
- Has the lyrics to the corrido and their translation into English
- Karnes County, TX has a short article about Gregorio Cortez and the episode