Bandido Chronicles: Juan Cortina
Unlike what some people think, not all Mexicans living in the U.S. jumped the border to get there. A lot of families can be traced back to the time when the southern states belonged to Mexico. For some reason, history text books don't go into detail about the assimilation of those Mexicans into the U.S. Some people seem to think that both Mexicans and Anglos lived peacefully, and the racial tensions between them is something recent. They couldn't be more wrong.
Juan Cortina, or "The Red Robber of the Rio Grande"
A Nation Divided
Juan Nepomuceno "Cheno" Cortina Goseacochea was born in 1824 to a wealthy cattle-ranching family in the northern Mexico. They had properties in the Rio Grande Valley that surrounded the cities of Matamoros and Brownsville. When the Mexican-American war broke out, Cortina was ordered by General Mariano Arista to form an irregular cavalry regiment in order to fight off the forces of Zachary Taylor. He led the regiment in a few battles and raids, but despite his efforts, Mexico lost.
Looking awesome doesn't win wars, but it should.
Mexico had now lost more than half its territory to the U.S., and the Cortina family property was divided. Most of their ranches were suddenly on the American side of the border. Cortina now lived amongst his most hated enemy, the American invader. Cortina then started working in escorting goods that passed from Mexico to the U.S. During one voyage, he got into a fight with one of the wagon masters and almost killed him. It's presumed that the fight broke out because of racial tensions, as Cortina and several Mexicans left the convoy the next day. Some time later, Cortina and his men started rustling cattle in order to sell them in Mexico.
Cortina started his bandit life because he considered the Anglos to be unfair and cruel. The new local authorities used loopholes and treachery to strip Mexican ranchers of their lands. In the words of Cortina himself, the new American lawyers and judges were "Flocks of vampires, in the guise of men," that robbed Mexicans "of their property, incarcerated, chased, murdered, and hunted them like wild beasts". Lawyers would build their careers on the misery of Mexicans.
"I never signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo" -Juan Cortina
The racial tensions were high as more Anglos moved in. There are a ton of examples to illustrate this. For example, in September 1854, the citizens of Seguin declared that Mexicans weren't allowed to reside or even enter Guadalupe County. Residents of Austin declared that Mexicans weren't allowed in the capital, and the authorities of Colorado and Matagorda counties evicted their Mexican population. It was that bad. Mexicans were now hunted down like animals in a land that was once their home. In 1857, Mexican workers that transported goods from city to city were constantly robbed or killed by a group of Anglos wearing sacks on their heads.
They did this because they claimed that Mexicans were stealing they're jobs.
Cortina fought the legal system that berated Mexicans, and became an important political figure in the south of Texas. He became a symbol of resistance against the Anglo dominance, and he defended Mexicans from being evicted from their lands. The tension escalated when the Cortina family ranch was attacked by a group of Anglos, which resulted in the murders of his wife and daughter. He and his mother escaped thanks to the help of the Karankawa. People can only be pushed so far before either breaking, or fighting back. Cortina fought back.
The Cortina Troubles
In the next couple of years, Cortina would fight the Brownsville militia, the Texas Rangers, and the United States Army. How many people can claim to have done that? It all started in July 13 1859, when Brownsville town marshall Robert Shears was beating up 60 year old Tomás Cabrera, one of Cortina's former ranch hands. Cortina was passing by and asked Shears to stop, and in a classical idiot move, he answered "What is it to you, you damned Mexican?" and kept beating up the old man. Cortina drew his gun and fired a warning shot, but Shears continued. Cortina then shot Shears in the arm.
He deserved it.
All bets were off. Some time later, Cortina occupied Brownsville with a gang between 40 and 80 vaqueros. Here he gave a speech, and I would like to share some of it to reveal Cortina's intentions.
[quote="Juan Cortina"]There is no need of fear. Orderly people and honest citizens are inviolable to us in their persons and interests. Our object, as you have seen, has been to chastise the villainy of our enemies, which heretofore has gone unpunished. These have connived with each other, and form, so to speak, a perfidious inquisitorial lodge to persecute and rob us, without any cause, and for no other crime on our part than that of being of Mexican origin, considering us, doubtless, destitute of those gifts which they themselves do not possess. (...) Mexicans! Peace be with you! Good inhabitants of the State of Texas, look on them as brothers, and keep in mind that which the Holy Spirit saith: "Thou shalt not be the friend of the passionate man; nor join thyself to the madman, lest thou learn his mode of work and scandalize thy soul."[/quote]
Two days later, Cortina and his men evacuated the city. The residents of Brownsville formed a posse called "The Brownsville Tigers", they chased down Cortina to his mother's ranch. The fight went on for some time until the Tigers routed. That same month, the Tigers and the Texas Rangers joined forces to defeat the "Cortinistas". They attacked the Rangers, but were defeated. The Federal Government sent General Samuel Heintzelman to track down Cortina. The Army settled in the previously abandoned Fort Brown, and from there they would coordinate attacks against Cortina. The Cortinistas were now in open war against the Brownsville Tigers, the Texas Ranger, and the Army. Several battles and raids ensued, the Cortinistas would attack with their battle cry: "¡Viva Cheno Cortina! ¡Viva la República Mexicana! ¡Viva México! ¡Mueran los Gringos (Long live Cheno Cortina! Long live the Mexican Republic! Long live Mexico! Death to the gringos!)!"
¡Viva Juan Cortina!
After some skirmishes, the Cortinistas were defeated in the Battle of Rio Grande City. In that battle, the Cortinistas lost around 60 men and much resources. They conducted a few raids after that, but they never could recuperate from the defeat. During the rest of his life, Cortina would conduct raids against wealthy South Texan land owners. But, I bet that after that, some Americans thought twice before beating up Mexicans.
The Later Years
Following that incident, Cortina put more focus into his political career back in Tamaulipas, Mexico. He was appointed military commander of northeastern frontier, and there he fought against the French in the Second French Intervention. He appointed himself governor of Tamaulipas during the war, and fought off the French from the capital city of Tampico. After the war, Cortina gained respect from the Americans, and was even invited several times to Brownsville as the guest of honor.
Oh sure, NOW you like me.
He would support Porfirio Díaz in his coup d'etat, but was arrested in 1876, as Díaz saw Cortina as a menace to his government. He would remain incarcerated in Mexico City until he was paroled in 1890. Cortina died on October 30, 1894. By many Mexicans, he was remembered as an influential politician, brave soldier and a bold fighter; but he will always be remembered in the U.S. as "The Red Robber of the Rio Grande".
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