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Austin, Stephen F.
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Cortina, Juan
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Juan CortinaJuan Cortina

(1824-1892)

Best remembered for his capture of Brownsville, Texas, in 1859, Juan Cortina's life has been enshrined in Mexican-American popular culture as a symbol of militant resistance to Anglo racism.

Cortina was born at Camargo, Tamaupilas (Mexico), just south of the Rio Grande, into a wealthy cattle-ranching family. In order to take over the management of some of his mother's many lands, sometime in the 1840's he moved north of the river into territory claimed by both Texas and Mexico. By the late 1850's, after the United States had annexed all lands north of the Rio Grande, Cortina had become an important political boss for the South Texas Democratic Party, and though the United States had invalidated many of his land claims, he still remained a large rancher.

On July 13, 1859, in Brownsville, Cortina witnessed an Anglo city marshal pistol-whipping one of his former family employees. Outraged, Cortina demanded that the marshal stop abusing the Mexican, and when the marshal refused, Cortina shot him in the shoulder, took his former servant up onto his horse, and fled with him to safety. With this classic blow struck for social justice, Cortina's career as a legend and an outlaw had begun.

Two months later, on September 28, Cortina led an armed force back into Brownsville, released Mexicans whom he felt had been unfairly imprisoned, and executed four Anglos who had killed Mexicans but hadn't been punished. Here he proclaimed the Republic of the Rio Grande as his followers raised the Mexican flag and shouted, "Death to the gringos!" But Cortina did not pillage or terrorize the city. Instead, he soon withdrew to a nearby ranch, where he issued a proclamation invoking the "sacred right of self-preservation" and condemning the fact that so many were "prosecut[ed] and rob[bed] for no other cause than that of being of Mexican origin."

The six months following the Brownsville raid have been called "Cortina's War." The Texas Rangers struck back furiously, often indiscriminately punishing any Hispanic in the south Rio Grande Valley. Cortina, who soon had five or six hundred armed men under his command, resumed his raids when the Rangers executed one of his lieutenants in Brownsville. The Mexican government, fearing that Cortina's actions would embroil them in another war with the United States, sent a joint Mexican-Anglo force against Cortina, which he quickly defeated.

Although some elite Mexican residents of Texas opposed Cortina and quietly aided his opponents, the bulk of the tejano population supported him, often sending his troops supplies and refusing to help U.S. officials. But this support proved to be no match for the U.S. Army, which dealt Cortina a sharp defeat in Rio Grande City on December 27, 1859. Sporadic raiding and fighting continued for several months; observers reported settlements deserted, property destroyed and normal business activities cancelled along the 100-mile stretch of the border from Brownsville to Rio Grande City.

Forced to dissolve his army and retreat to Mexico, Cortina continued his military activities there, fighting with Benito Juarez and other Mexican nationalists against French intervention in the 1860s, and aiding Union partisans in Texas during the American Civil War. In 1863 he was made a general in the Mexican Army, and later became the acting governor of Tamaupilas. In 1876, Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz imprisoned Cortina in Mexico City, where he was held until 1890. He died in Tamaupilas in 1892.

Cortina's life is indicative of important transformations that took place in the South Texas-North Tamaupilas region after 1850. Unlike Mexicans in California or farther east in Texas, people of Mexican descent in this region continued to enjoy a vast numerical superiority over Anglos. To some degree, encroaching Anglo elites had to adapt themselves to continuing tejano political and economic power; for example, many chose to marry into prominent tejano families. And when challenged by Cortina's uprising, Anglo officials could protect themselves only by calling in powerful outside forces like the U.S. Army.

Cortina's career also reveals the importance which tejanos continued to attach to Mexico and political trends south of the border. Like Juan Seguin at the time of the Texas War for Independence and Mariano Vallejo in California, Cortina pursued a course in the United States that in some ways grew out of his support for reform efforts in Mexico.

Popular mythology has carved out a large place for Juan Cortina. Anglos have generally treated him as a bandit and their legends have dissociated his actions from the larger context of U.S. conquest and Anglo encroachment. Mexican-American folklore, on the other hand, stresses the connections between Cortina's exploits and this broader context; to many, Cortina is still known as the "Robin Hood of the Rio Grande."


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