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Remembering the Birthday of Juan Cortina, The 'Robin Hood of the Rio Grande'

Juan Cortina is a hero to some and a "border bandit" to others, but he was one of the first to stand up to the appropriation of land that was owned by Hispanic families for centuries.
Image: An illustration of the civil war in Matamoras, showing head-and-shoulders portrait of Cortina, facing left
An illustration of the civil war in Matamoras, showing head-and-shoulders portrait of Cortina, facing left in 1864.C. E. H. Bonwill / Library of Congress

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Almost two hundred years ago on May 16 a man who defeated the Texas Rangers twice, had a war named after him and is considered one of the first people to advocate for the rights of Mexicans and Mexican Americans on the Texas-Mexico border was born.

Juan Nepomuceno Cortina is seen, depending on who you ask, as a hero or a border bandit.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta is a retired professor of anthropology from Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Texas and a direct descendent of Cortina. He and his family see him as the former.

“I don’t like to think of him as a bad guy,” says Zavaleta. “I try to think of him as a patriot, as a defender, and oftentimes he’s described as a Robin Hood-type of figure, as a Zorro-kind of hero.”

During the summer of 1859 in Brownsville’s Market Square, Cortina witnessed a scene that led to what is known today as “The Cortina Wars.”

Brownsville’s City Marshall, Robert Sheers, arrested an elderly man who was a former ranch hand at Cortina’s mother’s ranch. Some versions of the story say the man was drunk and causing a scene outside at a local coffee shop in the plaza.

Dr. Jerry Thompson is a professor of history at Texas A&M International in Laredo, Texas and recently published a biography of Juan Cortina. He says Cortina saw Marshall Sheers begin to pistol whip and beat Cortina’s former worker.

“Cortina basically strode into the plaza and asked the Marshall, ‘Why are you doing this?’”, says Thompson. “Cortina whipped out his pistol and whether he fired one shot into the air, or just simply missed the Marshall, we just don’t know, but a second shot hit the Marshall in the shoulder, knocked him to the ground and he’s laying there bleeding while people watch.”

Cortina picked up the hurt man, put him on his horse and galloped out of town while people cheered; it was the first time someone stood up to the Anglo dominated establishment in Brownsville.

What happened to Hispanic families' lands?

It wasn’t just the physical abuse of the former worker that sent Cortina over the edge. The root of the problem dates back to the racism and discrimination that Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the region faced, and in particular how they were cheated from the land they had owned for centuries.

Most of the land along the Rio Grande, from Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico, was part of Spanish land grants that were given to the original settlers when the frontier was settled by José De Escandón in the 1700s.

The Spanish government wanted people to colonize and settle in the area and use the land for farming, agriculture and to raise animals.

Cortina and his descendant Zavaleta come from a family who received the Espírito Santo Land Grant, the largest land grant in the lower Rio Grande Valley, from Spain.

Dr. Maritza De La Trinidad is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She says the issue of land grants became problematic when areas along the region shifted from Spanish rule to Mexican rule and finally to the rule of the United States, when the U.S. inherited land from Mexico through the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

“The U.S. Congress struck down the original language and the original Article 10 which would have given Mexican people — about 110,000 people on the US side of the border — their property rights,” says De La Trinidad.

“But because they struck it, the treaty basically changed that and said, 'no these land grants will be adjudicated in court and it will be up to a court to decide who is the proper owner of these land grants,’” said De La Trinidad.

She said things became even more complicated in court because judges often ruled in favor of Anglo Americans. In many cases there was also a language barrier and because of that, Anglos would exploit the original Mexican and Mexican American settlers.

Thompson says the exploitation of the original Mexican and Mexican Americans goes beyond corrupt judges.

A click of lawyers, judges and politicians in Brownsville and Cameron County were conspiring to cheat Hispanic landowners out of their land. They would collaborate and challenge the deed in the courts, deeds that had been declared valid by the state of Texas. Thompson says the attorneys, as a fee, would take a percentage of the land from the landowners until there was almost nothing left.

“I went through all of the court records [from 1848 to 1861], all of the municipal records for Brownsville [and] county records, and I can only found one Spanish surnamed individual in all of those records, yet Tejano-Hispanics made up a majority of the population” says Thompson.

After seeing many family’s lands become smaller and smaller and Marshal Sheers beating his former worker, Cortina promised vengeance on certain individuals.

Officials in Brownsville were determined to arrest him, so Cortina prepared too. Thompson says Cortina began enlisting people to join his army.

“They were primarily the lower class and they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by joining Cortina,” says Thompson. “He’s joined by not only Mexican-Texans on the American side of the river, he’s joined by hundreds of people in Mexico. Even escaped prisoners from as far away as Ciudad Victoria rode north to join him, as did the remnants of a few small Indian tribes that were still in the Reynosa area.”

One of the reasons Cortina was able to draw in support and bring people from both sides of the border was because of feelings of resentment toward the U.S. after what happened with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. The U.S. took about half of Mexico, and that was still fresh for people in both countries.

“All of a sudden you’ve got a neighbor across the river that you perceive as being arrogant, abusive and in many instances unfriendly, so there was a deep resentment that Mexico had been humiliated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and a lot of poor people are going to take every opportunity to strike back,” said Thompson.

Cortina and his men created a hit list and went after people who had murdered Mexicans and Texans, but had gotten away with it. Things got so bad that Texas rangers were called into the Rio Grande Valley to stop Cortina’s army, but the rangers were defeated twice, so the U.S. government got involved by sending their Army down to the region and eventually drove Cortina into Mexico.

Once in Mexico, Cortina still led raids into the U.S. and was involved in various wars afterwards. He was eventually imprisoned in Mexico City, where he died on October 30, 1894.

Zavaleta said he acknowledges what Cortina did, but wants people to consider the controversial time period he was living in and hopes more people will learn about his story and view him as a hero.

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