Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Saga of Gregorio Cortez....


Chill is the fellow on the right
      There are thousands of tales about conflict, heroism, cowardice, hubris, and you name it, pertaining to Texas.   Inflation of stories, larding on of elements to an event that actually didn't happen just that way....well, that might be one of our characteristics.   Chill Wills, I think it was, said it best though when he pointed out, "The reason we make up such cock and bull stories is to entertain the ladies and children, of course, but it's also because the Truth about things that happen in Texas, nobody believes anyway."
     There is something to that observation.  One of those events occurred in the nineteen-aughts, in and around the Rio Grande, the Rio Nueces, the Rio San Antonio, the Rio San Marcos, and the Rio Guadalupe.  All of those rivers rather define what is the northern part of  southern-most Texas, if you will.  This particular tale must be one that is known and understood in order to be a "real, live Texian".
     It deals with a number of personalities.  Some are Mexican/Spanish.  Some are Czech, and others are Polish, and the rest are Heinz-57/Anglo.   All those lines remain to this day in the area with towns named Floresville, Shiner, Karnes City, Kenedy, Nixon, Goliad, Victoria, Laredo, Benavides, Oiltown, Three Rivers and George West, Tilden, and such.   These places lie west of Corpus Christi and south of San Antonio.
     The story points up, for those who want to paint Texas bad, the ethnic bigotry of the non-Spanish speaking Texans.  Ironically, much of the area lies within that zone where the Irish and some English Roman Catholics settled during the pre-Republican and Republican period in Texas (1836 - 1846).  Those folks came and settled into a formal "Colony" known as Colonia de San Patricio....the famous Roman Catholic saint who drove the snakes from Ireland.   Although English-speaking, they sided with the Mexican centralist forces when they invaded Texas during the Centralist pogrom and purging effort under President - General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.   The business they did frequently was conducted in Matamoros, to the south.

     As the years went by, and as the dust settled from various wars and dust-ups...such as several range-wars and transportation disputes between teamsters...four or five major ethnic groups made an easy to sometimes testy interrelationship.    The family of Gregorio Cortez was a social unit that is hard to describe.  There were colonial Latins to had lived in the area from the time of the Spanish domain.  The Cortez's were not among that group.  The patriarch did originate in Matamoros, so it is possible that he might have been, and perhaps his wife as well, of those Spanish settlers who moved in and established Matamoros (Santa Maria del Refugio, originally) in the mid-1700s.   That would have made them part of the Escandon colonisation group.

    But such is conjecture.    It is known that Gregorio Cortez Lira was born on the 22nd of June, in 1875....about the same time as Pancho Villa, a thousand miles to the west.   Gregorio's father was, supposedly, an itinerant farm labourer who worked around Manor, Texas (near, and just east of Austin, Texas).   He had brought his wife and children up in 1887.   These are known facts, although El Gringo Viejo disputes them to some degree. 
     It was my pleasure to have encountered a person who was supposedly a relative of Gregorio's....a very old man, back in the Summer of 1967.  In those days, El Gringo Viejo was working a Summer job with the Institute of Texian Cultures, collecting ethnic and historical data for the ITC's cultural museum to present during the World's HemisFair the next year in San Antonio.
     Although I had some rough familiarity with the Gregorio Cortez legend, some old pictures, and some words from a wise old Latin Texan....who demonstrated his nepotic, by-blood relation to his Tio Gregorio....filled in a lot of holes left by the lore of the tale.   What is related from this point is a melding of the "common knowledge" after some filtering out of things that are obviously untrue, and mixing that with other scraps, tidbits, and that series of conversations I had with the "Viejito" (little old man) in Normanna  Texas, a few miles north of Beeville, Texas.
     While it may be the case that Gregorio's father was an itinerant farm-labouror during the 1880s, he either had or acquired some resources.  He and another close relative bought a small tract of land near Kenedy and Karnes Karnes County...for the raising of corn and flax.   When events began to catch up with Gregorio just after the "incident", it was said of him in the newspapers and barber shops that he was known to have been a long time horse thief, involved in organised crime.   Such could not have been the case, in that Gregorio, to state once again, was born in 1875, leaving little time to become a serious, organised horse thief in the 1880s.
     What is true is that older brothers Romaldo and Tomas were "chiflados" (bums, pranksters, and crooks) who actually were involved in midnight horse ranching.   Both had served time in the Texas prison system for rustling.   Had it been 20 years earlier, there would have been a 20 per cent chance that they would have been hanged, Mexican - Anglo - or Negro...with or without trial.
     Gregorio married in 1890, at the ripe old age of 15.  He and his wife had four children.   For some reason that I have not been able to establish, Gregorio and his wife divorced after 13 years of marriage, possibly because of the stress brought on by the "incident" which took place a little less than two years before the divorce.   Gregorio married shortly after that divorce, and then again in 1916 shortly before his death at the age of 41 years.

     The Cortez and Lira clan, which produced Gregorio were essentially white Latins...with little or no Indian ancestry.  Gregorio himself could read and write in both the English and Spanish languages.   He spoke English easily, as though an Anglo, and was even known to be eloquent.  He had musical ability in terms of singing, guitar, and accordion.
     Among his characteristics was the fact that he was always respectful.  He was not known to be a carouser or womaniser.   He was also considered to be a magic-man with horses, mules, and donkeys.....a "horse whisperer" of some sort.  He had a magic way of calming a mare during difficult delivery of a foal or breaking a horse to saddle simply by talking to him/her.   According to my "little old man" informant, he declared that all the rich folks would call on Gregorio when they had problems with their livestock, as if he were a veterinarian.
     Anglo and Latin alike thought of him as being similar in appearance to his brothers, but totally unlike them in terms of adhering to moral and legal standards.   He generally dressed well, and with a little flair, and could team a freight wagon and conduct it with ease.   He also farmed the acreage that his father had.

THE EVENT:    So, one day, the Sheriff of Karnes County, W.T. Morris arrived at the corn farm of the Cortez family, wishing to enquire concerning the purchase of a mare from another Mexican fellow back in town.  Sheriff Morris's deputy, an Anglo, was conducting the interview in Spanish, which he spoke relatively well.   But he asked Romaldo, in Spanish, if he had the horse in question, to which Romaldo responded that he had not bought or come into possession of any horse, only a "yegua".
     The deputy turned to the Sheriff and declared, "Cortez is lying.  We know he has the horse, and he says he doesn't."   The problem was that the deputy did not know that Romaldo had used the word "yegua", which means "mare".   The Deputy used the word "caballo" or horse for any and everything equine, and he thought that Romaldo was spinning gibberish in a sarcastic, evasive way.
     The Sheriff moved towards Romaldo to subdue and arrest him, at which time Romaldo withdrew.  The Sheriff tried to detain him by pulling his pistol, at which time Romaldo was shot and seriously wounded.  Gregorio then drew to defend his brother and killed Sheriff Morris with one shot.   The Deputy declared this sequence to be accurate.  He also said that Sheriff Morris had begun to turn his pistol onto Gregorio, and that Gregorio's reaction was instinctive and not premeditated
     In any regard, Gregorio disarmed the Deputy, and went on the lam.  In that he had punched cows and worked throughout the area and was very familiar with the hollows, draws, arroyos, brakes, and meadows...he managed to avoid a posse of over 300 local law enforcement.   He gained some cover from the homes of friends....even a couple of Anglo families who knew him and could not believe anything beyond his explanation....covered for him and provided him provision.
     Gregorio finally made it over to a place in Laredo, Texas where he had friends and cousins.   He might have been thinking about jumping the Rio Grande, but the fact that he had taken the route to the west seems to negate that notion....Had that been his intention, he would have moved more to the south or southwest, also territory with which he was very familiar.
     Telegraphed reports chronicled Gregorios odyssey to all major newspapers throughout the United States and the Republic of Texas.  Fervor against and in favour of the accidental desperado simmered and boiled over on both sides.  And before the wise and liberal commentator declares...."Sure, the unbridled racism of Texans guaranteed a short rope and a long fall." be aware that the story true Texas style....much more complex. 
     Poor Gregorio, probably in order to confuse the constabulary, had first ridden to the  north to Gonzalez, Texas where he encountered a friend by the name of Martin Robledo (the Anglos called him Roy).   Robledo was the chief caretaker and lived on the farm of a Mr. Schnabel, a man of German extraction.  There, once again, there was a confused encounter.   Supposedly Mr. Schnabel had gone out to calm Sheriff Glover who was the chief lawman for Gonzalez County.  A shot was fired, some say from the posse, killing Mr. Schnable, then more shooting, and Gregorio had, after the smoke cleared, managed to have killed himself another Texas Sheriff.   It should be noted that no forensic matching was done on the bullet that killed the Sheriff.
     Gregorio faded into the night, and then walked literally 100 miles to the house of a friend by the name of Ceferino Flores who loaned Gregorio mount and tack.   And that was the way he made it to Laredo, travelling mainly at night.   As mentioned above, sides were drawn, but in no way did all the Latins support Gregorio, nor did all the Anglo-types support the lawmen.  For instance, after a short stay, Gregorio was ratted-out by a "friend", a Mexican fellow, to a Texas Ranger.
     It is true that various people caused pointless low-grade violence and vandalism that was truly suffered by a small but significant group of Latins in Refugio, Gonzalez, and in Hayes, just outside of San Marcos, Texas.   A few dumbo Latins railed about how it was time to "liberate Texas" once and for all from the Saxon invaders....but a peculiar thing happened.   The present day Mexican-American leftist activists do not like to listen to this fact, nor do those who might prefer that all Spanish surnamed people return to Spain....but the fact is a peculiar calm came over the sainted Republic of Texas.
     Newspapers that had been calling for exoneration of any lynch-mob that
Governor Joseph Draper
was brave enough to hang Gregorio Cortez and "get it over with" during the pursuit, began to suggest that orderly judicial process should take place, due to the complexities of the case.   The Governor of Texas, Joseph Draper Sayers let it be known that this particular case was to be treated with decorum and deliberation.

    Gregorio Cortez, during his entire detention and processing was courteous and deferential.  He understood the gravity of his situation and the damage he had inflicted.  Equally clear was  that he had twice been placed in the position of naturally defending himself, and being realistically unable to trust in any reasonable detention to await a trial that he actually thought might exonerate him.
     He stood trial in Pleasanton, Gonzalez, and Karnes City, the latter two places for 2nd degree murder.  He was found guilty of the charges and was sentenced to various concurrent terms.  However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, (the Supreme Court for criminal matters) did, in fact, overturn all the verdicts, ordering a new trial on all charges, on a unified change of venue in Corpus Christi.  He was found guilty once again and sentenced to life in prison.

   Immediate intercession was sought, either through clemency or outright pardon, funded by various groups and individuals.  In 1913, Governor Oscar Colquitt issued a conditional pardon and ordered his immediate release from prison.  It was an event that was celebrated by the vast majority of Texans. Such might have been foreshadowed by the trial in Gonzalez when 300 citizens showed up to take possession and hang Gregorio....and they were stared down by a crowd of people that essentially made up the rest of the town of 3,000 people.....such was the true nature of the events.

    Gregorio Cortez Lira removed to Laredo, Texas and was recruited to the service of the Mexican Federal Army, at that time under the command of provisional President Victoriano Huerta, a pleasantly brilliant little despot, who made Woodrow Wilson dance on a pin.  He made Wilson make a fool of himself in several diplomatic faux pas during Wilson's early years in the White House.  From there, a very bad beginning ofWilson's tenure only became worse.
     Gregorio's service in the Mexican Army was brief because he married once more, but before two years had passed, he had died of pneumonia, after having been poisoned through his food.  Rumour had it that the deed was done by one of his cousins  who was involved with the revolutionary forces of Venustiano Carranza...who would later become president of Mexico for a few months before being run out of town.   It serves to mention that Carranza's train did not make it to Vera Cruz City....with Carranza alive.  The fellow he displaced, Victoriano Huerta, however, picked up a good job in El Paso, Texas at the Texas Hotel's very fine saloon as the chief bartender.

     Like El Gringo Viejo always says, "Better a good chief bartender at the Texas Hotel, than a dead ex-president rotting in the baggage car as  the train pulls into Vera Cruz."

Thanks to one and all for the time and interest invested in this summary.
El Gringo Viejo