Cheno Cortina: Vampires in the Guise of Men, Gringos, Robbed Mexicans of Their Property and Hunted Them Like BeastsTuesday, August 27th, 2013
Reviving our indigenous history.
Many call the Mexicans “immigrants” when in fact we are indigenous and native to the land we love and care for. Many of us put our lives on the line for this great Nation, and as such, we will remind the nation of our history that will never be forgotten despite the attempts to eliminate our history here.
By Juan Montoya
BROWNSVILLE – On the hot dusty afternoon of September 28, 1859, a band of vaqueros under the direction of a red-bearded leader known as Cheno Cortina rode into Brownsville to avenge what they saw as a history of abuses and usurpations by a cabal of newly-arrived businessmen, lawyers and speculators against local Mexican-Americans.
Their resentment and rancor was directed at a number of men who had made it an industry to dispossess the rightful owners of the land and – in concert with new U.S. judges and courts – driving them from their homes as the new authorities looked on.
The leader of this band – which held Brownsville for the next three days – was Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, the younger son of Doña Estefana Goceascochea de Cavazos y de Cortina, the matriarch of Cameron County, and a daughter of Jose Salvador de la Garza.
He was a lineal descendant of Blas Maria de la Garza Falcon, military captain and original settler of the town of Camargo, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande, and of Don Jose Salvador de la Garza, son-in-law of Blas Maria, also an original settler of Camargo.
Jose Salvador de la Garza was the grantee of the Espiritu Santo Grant, where the City of Brownsville is now located. “Cheno,” as Juan was known to his friends and family, was the son of Don Jose’s daughter, Estefana by her second husband.
Doña Estefana was one of the pioneer Latinas who came to South Texas.
“She was truly a very strong woman, and after her husbands died, she single-handedly ran the ranches that were on the original Espiritu Santo Grant,” Cavazos said. “One of her sons, Sabas Cavazos, became one of the largest land owners and most successful ranchers in Cameron County. Juan was more rebellious, but was more comfortable running the ranch with the other hands out in the llano.”
For many years, the land grantee ranch families tended to their crops and livestock on either side of the Rio
Grande. At the time, the river was not a border, but rather a geographic feature that provided water for crops and domestic use. But with the arrival of the U.S. military signaling the start of the U.S.-Mexico War in 1846 changed that forever.
Cortina, being of military age, 22, (he was born May 16, 1824) and a loyal citizen of what was then Mexico, did his duty to his native country and fought at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma – the first two battles of the Mexican-American War.. After the war was over and U.S. control was extended to the northern banks of the Rio Grande, he settled in his mother’s ranches and helped her administer their operations.
Cheno did not take to school learning and, though unlearned, he was by nature kindhearted, aggressive, spirited and brave. His nature – and his sympathy for the underdog – made him hugely popular with his fellows and the common people. It was his defense of one of these humbler ranch hands that set him at odds with the new authorities and ultimately culminated in his decades-long wars against whom he saw as oppressors to Mexicans in South Texas.
Among these newcomers who came to make their fortunes were names like Charles Stillman, Samuel A. Belden, Elisha Basse, Robert H. Hord, The Mussina Brothers, Richard King, Mifflin Kennedy and others. They quickly set out to make their fortunes, often disrespecting the rights of local Mexican-Americans.
Cortina issued pamphlets against them calling them :”Flocks of vampires, in the guise of men, Gringos” he wrote, robbed Mexicans “of their property, incarcerated, chased, murdered, and hunted them like wild beasts”.
As Prescott Webb notes in his book, “The Texas Rangers (pp. 175-176): “Not only were the Mexicans bamboozled by the (different Anglo political factions), but they were victimized by the law. One law applied to them and another, far less rigorous, to the political leaders and the prominent Americans. The Mexicans suffered not only in their persons, but in their property. The old landholding Mexican families found their titles in jeopardy and if they did not lose in the courts they lost to their American lawyers. The humble Mexicans doubted a government that would not protect their person, and the higher classes distrusted one that would not safeguard their property. Here, indeed, was the rich soil in which to plant the seed of revolution and a race war. High and low were ready to support a champion of Mexican rights, one who would throw off American domination, redress grievances, and punish their enemies; and just such a champion arose in the person of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina.”
And so the stage was set for the confrontation that would launch Cortina into the annals of border lore.
On July 12, 1859, Cheno had drunk his morning coffee at the Brownsville Market Place, and was riding home, at the corner of 12th and Washington streets, when he saw Robert Shears, the City Marshal, unmercifully beating on a drunken Mexican who had been a former servant at Cortina’s ranch. Webb tells the story:
“The unnecessary brutality of the Marshal causes Cortina to remonstrate, mildly enough in the beginning. Shears, exasperated at his interference answered with an insult that called for action. ‘What is it to you, you damn Mexican?’ Cortina promptly shot the Marshal in the shoulder took the Mexican behind and galloped out of town in the grand style of an American cowboy or a Mexican vaquero on a holiday.”
After that several clashes took place with the authorities in which Cortina was successful in putting to rout those who came to arrest him, not only the sheriff and his posse, but later even a group from Brownsville called the Brownsville Tigers, and later even the Texas Rangers. It wasn’t until Major Peter Heintzelman was sent with U.S. forces that Cortina was forced to leave South Texas and seek refuge into Mexico. His version of the events was recorded in his memoirs titled “Fifty Miles and a Fight.”
But when he and his men took over Brownsville, this illiterate “bandit” said:
“(…) 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.”
After he was chased into Mexico by the U.S. Army, Cortina continued to play an important role in the nation’s history.
His descendant Cavazos points to his presence fighting the French with Ignacio Zaragoza in Puebla (Cinco de Mayo), his rise to general in the Liberal Mexican Army of Benito Juarez, his presence at the execution of Maximilian in Queretaro, his service as military governor of Tamaulipas, and his support of Porfirio Diaz when he overthrew Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, Juarez’ successor.
He was an adroit political player, surviving the Imperial government of Maximilian, the Byzantine political changes in Mexico, and even the spillover of the Civil War, taking sides first with the Confederates, and later, with the Union. It was the internal politics of Mexico that eventually led to his arrest and imprisonment. Mexican presidents, especially Diaz, eager to soothe the wounded feelings of Cortina’s enemies in South Texas and anxious to placate the U.S. government, ordered his home imprisonment in Mexico City, where he died in 1892.
Even then, when his family tried to have his remains buried in the family cemetery in San Pedro, his political opponents objected and the project was shelved.
In life, as in death, the legend of Cheno Cortina continues to divide South Texans.