An Outlaw’s Rhapsody: The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

As a kid, I would sometimes sit through an episode of The Brady Bunch, hoping beyond hope to get a glimpse of Marsha in her underwear. Unfortunately, that never happened. However, I do remember one episode that resonated with me. It was called “Bobby’s Hero,” which, for all of you keeping score at home, was episode 90 from season four. In it, Bobby develops a fascination with Jesse James. He writes a paper on the outlaw, and brings home a C+. But, worse than that, Mike and Carol get a concerned call from the principal. The Bradys discover that their youngest is worshipping a common criminal, one who built a reputation on shooting innocents in the back. The episode ends when the dire warnings of an old man prompt Bobby to have a nightmare in which his entire family is ruthlessly murdered by the black-clad Jesse James. Soon after, Bobby sees the error of his ways, and we end on the comfortable reaffirmation of our core family values.

The cynic in me says the reason I enjoyed the episode so much was because it was the only episode in which the entire Brady family gets gunned down. The only thing that would have made it any better would have been a close up of Greg’s brains splattered on the wall. But the quasi-serious academic in me can’t help but think that maybe there was an object lesson in there somewhere. After all, Bobby’s hero worship of Jesse James was hardly unique. Just about every culture and every time period has made a hero of its bygone outlaws. From Robin Hood to Bonnie and Clyde, outlaws turned folk heroes are everywhere. It makes no difference that an outlaw’s crimes fail to jive with their fame; they are heroes nonetheless. They undergo a strange alchemy that changes them from common criminal to champion of the dispossessed. As the poor and downtrodden masses, we identify with the romance the outlaw represents, if not his crimes. We thrill at the romantic adventure, the disguises, the escapes, the thumbing of our collective noses at those who hold power over us.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about that alchemical process lately, and it occurs to me that the one common denominator across all those different criminals turned folk heroes, is the power of art. A song – specifically, a ballad – can turn the vilest crime into an act of charity. When Robin Hood’s men usurp the spiritual authority of the church, as they do in the ballad “Robin Hood and Allan a Dale,” or murder a police officer, as they do in “Robin Hood and the Widow’s Sons,” the crime itself gets buried in a clever rhyme. What takes center stage is the hypocrisy of the Medieval Church, or the unjust oppression of bad government. We fail to see the horror, the aftermath, the other side of the ballad. Instead, we see a symbol of our own liberation.

Kenedy, Texas: June 12, 1901

Located about 75 miles south of San Antonio, Karnes County is a rugged, beautiful country made up of rolling hills and clear running streams and dense forests of mesquite and oak trees. Its large pastures are thick with Johnson Grass, making it natural ranching country, a life which appealed to the German and Mexican families who settled it in the early 1800s.

By 1901, it was a small, but thriving, community based on corn and cattle. German immigrants grew wealthy, while the Mexican immigrants of the day lived as renters on their ranches. And one of the largest ranches in the area belonged to W. A. Thulemeyer. He rented out a small corner of his property to two young Mexican men, Gregorio and Romaldo Cortez. Both were married. Gregorio had four children; Romaldo and his wife had none. Though Romaldo was the older of the two, Gregorio seems to have been the more mature. It was Gregorio who first made the decision to settle down (the two had for several years worked as itinerant ranch hands throughout South Texas, dragging their families along with them), and it was under Gregorio’s supervision that their corn crops prospered. And it was Gregorio who was fated to become a folk hero of the Texas-Mexico border.

Trouble came to the Cortez brothers on June 12, 1901. A few days before, an unidentified Mexican man had stolen a horse in adjacent Atascosa County. The sheriff in Atascosa had tracked the thief to Karnes County and asked W.T. “Brack” Morris, the sheriff in Karnes County, to pick up the trail. Brack Morris was a former Texas Ranger with a reputation for being quite handy with a pistol. In 1901 he was serving his third term as sheriff and knew nearly everyone in Karnes County. He’d gotten word that Gregorio Cortez had recently acquired a new horse and went out to the Thulemeyer Ranch with a translator to make inquiries.

Morris’ translator was a man named Boone Choate, who seems to have had a higher opinion of his knowledge of Spanish than he perhaps had a right to. They arrived at Gregorio Cortez’s house mid-morning and found a clapboard house set back from the road behind a small, split rail fence. Choate climbed down from the horse-drawn carriage the two men had ridden in on and hollered toward the house while Morris remained in the carriage.

Sensing trouble, Gregorio told Romaldo to go see what the men wanted. Romaldo went out to meet the men. Choate asked if Gregorio was at home. When Romaldo said that he was, Choate told him to get his brother and bring him out.

Romaldo turned to the house and said, “Te quieren,” which in Spanish is the familiar way to say, “Hey, get out here. These guys want to talk to you.”

Unfortunately, when literally translated into English, the phrase means “you are wanted,” which has an entirely different meaning to a police officer. This was the first of three disastrous mistranslations that put Gregorio Cortez on the path to folk hero status.

Gregorio came outside and stood in the yard behind Romaldo. Choate then proceeded to ask Gregorio about the mare he had recently acquired from another Mexican rancher in the area.

Unfortunately, Choate’s Spanish was not up to the task. Instead of using yegua, the Spanish word for mare, he used caballo, which means stallion. Gregorio was understandably confused. He didn’t own a stallion, and he told Choate as much. When Choate’s second translating mistake came back to Morris, it sounded to the ex-Texas Ranger like just another Mexican trying to get away with something. He dropped down from his carriage and ordered Choate to tell the two brothers they were under arrest.

Things get a little murky after that.

Apparently, Gregorio said something that Choate heard and translated as “No white man is going to arrest me.” An obvious threat, if you’re a cop about to the cuffs on somebody.

Later, at his trial, his lawyers said that Gregorio Cortez simply said, “You can’t arrest me for nothing.”

It’s not difficult to picture the scene.

The two brothers, realizing they were about to be arrested, got angry. “Why?” they shouted. “We haven’t done anything.” They were shouting. And Morris, who had no intention of taking any flak from a couple of poor Mexican farmers, went for his gun. Meanwhile, Romaldo advanced on the authorities, hands slicing the air in front of him like a wronged tragedian in a silent movie. Morris shot him in the mouth, wounding, but not killing, him. He then turned to Gregorio, fired, and missed. Gregorio returned fire, and his aim was truer. Morris fell to the ground, hit three times. And Choate doomed himself to villain status by turning and running to a hiding spot in the surrounding chaparral, leaving Morris to bleed to death on the road.

When the smoke cleared, Gregorio picked up the sheriff’s pistol, went inside his house, packed up the wife and kids, and loaded everything into the sheriff’s carriage and rode to Romaldo’s house.

What started out as a misunderstanding based on bad translation was now the murder of a police officer, resisting arrest, and theft of a carriage and two horses.

Gregorio Cortez had greeted the morning as a free man, but now the gallows was looming at his back.

After seeing to his family, Gregorio and Romaldo set out for the nearby town of Kenedy. Romaldo was feverish and fading fast, which left Gregorio with little choice but to deposit him with another branch of their family and set off on his own. He then began a nearly one hundred mile walk to the home of Martin and Refugia Robledo, who rented a home from a wealthy German rancher named Schnabel.

By all rights, Gregorio should have been safe there at the Robledo house. He had evaded several posses on the way, and was relatively sure that no one had tracked him through the rough country.

Unfortunately for him, the sheriff of Gonzales County, Robert M. Glover, was a very good friend of the sheriff Gregorio Cortez had just killed, and Glover was determined to get revenge.

While the other posses were busy wandering the countryside, Glover arrested the women in Gregorio’s family and interrogated them. Using what he learned from them, he organized a posse and headed for Schnabel’s ranch. Though the rumor was never supported with reliable testimony, it appears Glover and his crew picked up a bottle of whiskey on the way to Schnabel’s ranch and had themselves a bit of a wake for the dearly departed Sheriff Brack Morris. They were, in all likelihood, quite drunk when they converged on the Robledo house.

The approaching posse evidently made a great deal of noise as descended on the property, because Gregorio and Martin Robledo were outside, hiding in the brush, waiting for them.

The posse dismounted, with the exception of Glover, and charged the house. Glover rode around to the southeast corner of the property, and there he met up with Cortez. The two men started shooting at one another, and the battle went on until Cortez managed to hit and kill Glover. Cortez then hid, barefoot, in a briar-strewn field until the fight, which grew in legend to become the Battle of Belmont, was over. Then he quietly reentered the house, got his shoes, and fled.

Meanwhile, the posse had their blood up. They engaged the Robledo family and ultimately captured them, but not before Schnabel was shot in the face. He was killed instantly, and there is still some doubt as to who actually inflicted the fatal wound. Mrs. Robledo was charged with the crime, but convincing evidence was raised during the trial to suggest that the fatal shot actually came from another deputy named Tom Harper. But regardless of the cause of Schnabel’s death, the focus remained on Gregorio Cortez. He was now wanted for the death of two sheriffs, and every lawman in the state was itching to put a noose around his neck.

He fled to another friend’s house, where he was given a horse, saddle, and gun, and from there embarked on a mad dash across the state, bound for Laredo. Along the way, he became the subject of the largest manhunt in Texas history. At one point, a posse of three hundred deputies and conscripts (though contrary to legend, the Texas Rangers were not involved at that point) pursued him.

Cortez managed to elude them at every turn. For ten days he used tricks and courage and just plain luck to stay one step ahead of everybody before finally getting turned in by a friend to the Texas Rangers, who took him into custody without firing a shot.

Cortez was taken to San Antonio, where he was tried and convicted for numerous crimes. Despite multiple trials and attempts to lynch him, his death sentence was ultimately commuted by Texas Governor Oscar Colquitt. He was released from prison in 1913 and died three years later of pneumonia.

The Man and the Legend

It’s not hard to see why Cortez became a folk hero. After all, Mexicans living in South Texas, whether legally or otherwise, have long been treated like dirt by their white neighbors. For the thousands of Mexicans living in poverty, Gregorio Cortez was a shooting star. Here was one of their own making the assembled might of the white establishment look like a bunch of chumps. Like Robin Hood before him, he underwent an apotheosis at the hands of balladeers, who immortalized him in song.

Here is Hally Wood’s beautiful translation of “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez,” which I found in Americo Paredes’ book With His Pistol in his Hand:

In the county of El Carmen
A great misfortune befell;
The Major Sheriff is dead;
Who killed him no one can tell.

At two in the afternoon,
In half an hour or less,
They knew that the man who killed him
Had been Gregorio Cortez.

They let loose the bloodhound dogs;
They followed him from afar.
But trying to catch Cortez
Was like following a star.

All the rangers of the county
Were flying, they rode so hard;
What they wanted was to get
The thousand-dollar reward.

And in the county of Kiansis
They cornered him after all;
Though they were more than three hundred
He leaped out of their corral.

Then the Major Sheriff said,
As if he was going to cry,
“Cortez, hand over your weapons;
We want to take you alive.”

Then said Gregorio Cortez,
And his voice was like a bell,
“You will never get my weapons
Till you put me in a cell.”

Then said Gregorio Cortez,
With his pistol in his hand,
“Ah, so many mounted Rangers
Just to take one Mexican!”

There are innumerable variants of the story, and each embellishes some element of the manhunt. Gregorio’s flight became a vehicle upon which the Mexican folk ballads of northern Mexico and South Texas, a tradition collectively known as corridos, heaped tale after tale of daring do.

This process seems to have started relatively early. The newspapers of the day show a great deal of divisiveness about Gregorio Cortez and what his punishment should be. In some cases, such as with the San Antonio Express News, articles would run side by side, one calling for the immediate lynching of Gregorio Cortez, the other praising his resourcefulness, his courage, his pluck. Mexicans, and a few Anglos as well, took up the story and made Gregorio Cortez into a local god.

The corrido tradition surrounding Cortez became so elaborate, in fact, that by 1958 Americo Paredes was able to devote an entire book to separating Gregorio Cortez the man from Gregorio Cortez the legend. Paredes’ book, With His Pistol in his Hand, remains the finest treatment of the Gregorio Cortez story. In almost every respect, it is a fair and honest attempt to get at the truth of what happened during those ten days in June, 1901. And it is also a loving tribute to the Mexican musical tradition of the corrido.

But in my mind Paredes’ book does take the logical next step and connect the role of art in making heroes out of criminals. Look at Robin Hood, immortalized in songs, novels and movies. Look at the gangsters, bank robbers and rum runners of the 1930s immortalized by the pulp fiction industry and Hollywood. Bonnie and Clyde are no longer reckless psychopaths; they are Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway enacting a modern fable of true love pitted against the cold, indifferent world. Robert Ford, who shot Jesse James in the back (an act that arguably saved a good many innocent lives), is now reviled as a coward and an assassin, lumped in with the likes of the Sheriff of Nottingham and King John.

It seems, ultimately, that crime can pay…as long as you have a soundtrack.

The Narcocorrido: An Afterward

Somewhere out there somebody is saying, “Yeah, but…Robin Hood, he lived a long time ago. His crimes have been whitewashed by time and circumstance and political irrelevance. Today we know the Medieval church stood in the way of scientific progress and that it committed more sins that it helped to prevent. The Sheriff of Nottingham was a villain, through and through. He deserved to meet up with someone like Robin Hood and his Merry Men. And besides, none of that applies to us. All Robin Hood is these days is a historical abstraction, like King Arthur. Lighten up, man. It’s just a story.

Even Gregorio Cortez, whose biography is fairly well documented, is from another time. The players in his drama have been dead for more than half a century, right? What’s the harm in making up stories about him?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with having heroes, to be sure. People need heroes. And they’re going to look for them among their own. Not only do heroes provide the sense of adventure I craved as a boy, but they validate one’s way of life. For the Mexicans in the smoky cantinas of South Texas and Northern Mexico, Gregorio Cortez was a literal expression of what could be, of what any of them could be. Robin Hood represented the same thing to the oppressed lower classes in England. So heroes, as a Platonic form, are not bad. Far from it.

But there is a danger here, depending upon your point of view. Art, after all, is not static. Just as communities change, take on new systems of moral value and new economies, so too do the stories those communities tell. And today, a good part of the South Texas border culture is wrapped up in drugs and illegal migration and violence. Yes, there are still good and true people living along the border, but to paraphrase Thoreau, they are living lives of quiet desperation. They are surrounded by drug cartels that openly engage the government, that kill indiscriminately, that piggy back off the migrant worker’s illegal border crossing quest for a better way of life. The reality of life on the border is one of violence and fear.

And the corrido has changed to reflect this new reality. A new form of the folk ballad has emerged called the narcocorrido, or drug ballad. These are polka-based dance tunes that tell the story of drug runners and border criminals. They are extremely popular. Early examples of the form date back to 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, when the band Los Tigres del Norte took the Mexican music world by storm, that narcocorrido rose to prominence.

Today, nearly forty years later, the narcocorrido is a mainstay of Mexican music. The ballads its practitioners write and perform contain the exploits of real people. They describe real crimes. And they are making heroes of drug dealers in much the same way as earlier corridos made a hero of Gregorio Cortez.

Except that nowadays the bands performing narcocorridos can reach hundreds of millions of people.

Go anywhere south of the Rio Grande with a picture of Los Tigres del Norte or Rosalino “Chalino” Sanchez, and you won’t have to look very hard to find somebody who knows all their songs by heart.

The implications are frightening. Tempers on both sides of the border are short enough as it is. People become rabid when you start discussing immigration. Add to that the very real threat of drugs and organized warfare sponsored by drug cartels, and you might as well drop a lit match into a powder keg. It will take us years, maybe even several generations, to heal the mistrust that has risen up between the United States and Mexico.

The narcocorrido, I think, will help to deepen that mistrust, rather than help to heal it. Looking back on Gregorio Cortez, we can view his story within the context of the racism of his day, a factor that goes a long way toward mitigating his crimes. We can root for him during his adventures because our modern sensibilities tell us that he was treated unjustly, that he was made a criminal just because he was a Mexican living in an Anglo world. But we can’t say that about the hero of a narcocorrido. When he kills a Los Angeles policeman and flees back to a little village south of the border, thumbing his nose at American justice as he runs, we don’t get to couch his crime in terms of human rights and a demand for dignified treatment. All we can see is a worm eating its way through our moral bread basket. And with heroes like that, who needs villains?

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