By Helena Rodriguez: PNT columnist
Someone asked me the other day what has been the most exciting story I’ve written during my 15-year journalism career.
Without a second thought, I knew it was the story about a forgotten Mexican folk hero in an unmarked grave in Anson, Texas, which I wrote in 2001 for the Abilene Reporter-News. It was the adrenaline rush of a story journalists live for. Even more fascinating, I stumbled across this story when I took my daughter Laura to watch the “Spy Kids” movie.
But since I was asked this question in a roomful of beginning news writing students and I wasn’t the featured speaker that day, I kept my response short.
On Thursday we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, a day commemorating a major Mexican holiday, which has become a symbol of Hispanic pride in the United States. This is a good time for me to share this story because it illustrates something that has troubled me for years — the lack of documented history of Hispanics in the United States, many of whom were in these parts before they were states. I was happy to hear the Discovery Channel is starting a Spanish network, but I’m still waiting for a Hispanic History Channel.
I thought this story about Gregorio Cortez was going to make me famous, but it didn’t. I got a few calls from people and did a few follow-up stories, but the experience mostly left me feeling empty in the end.
It began when Laura and I watched Robert Rodriguez’s action movie, “Spy Kids,” and the FBI agent revealed his name, Gregorio Cortez. I thought aloud, “Where have I heard that name before?” Then I remembered, it was a Mexican folk hero I read about in one of my mom’s Chicano literature books.
At work, I Googled for Gregorio Cortez to refresh my memory. Imagine my excitement when I discovered he was buried in Anson, Texas, a small town only 20 miles from Abilene. I was also thrilled that the story was based in Karnes County, Texas, where my dad was born.
I guessed correctly in that our editors had never heard of Cortez despite the fact that Mexican ballads or corridos about Cortez have been handed down for generations and there was a movie about Cortez starring Edward James Olmos.
I started on the story but was soon confronted with a harsh reality. I talked to a man with the West Texas Genealogical Society whose first response was “You mean that horse thief?” Apparently their are two versions of the story of Cortez, who was the most sought after man by the Texas Rangers in the early 1900s. Amongst Hispanics, Cortez is a saint; amongst others, a sinner. Cortez reportedly fled from the law after killing a sheriff who killed his brother.
The whole problem was sparked by a language mixup. An undersheriff claimed to know Spanish, but didn’t know the difference between a horse and mare or a “yegua” and a “caballo.” Other things were lost in translation too. When it was over, Cortez had killed several men but was acquitted of all but one murder for which he was later pardoned.
This shows how history can be subjective, depending on who is doing the storytelling. Not surprisingly, the version of the story accepted is usually dependent on whether a person is Hispanic or Anglo. However, that’s not always the case.
One thing I was pleased to learn from several attorneys in Abilene is they often cite the Cortez case in court when the case involves a translation mixup. A lawyer told me of a Florida case where a person arrested was supposed to be told, “A lawyer would be furnished,” but the translation came out like, “furniture would be provided.”
Another intriguing thing about the Cortez story was that an elderly Hispanic man told me he saw Cortez’s gravestone in one Anson cemetery while an Anglo man told me he saw Cortez’s headstone in a different Anson cemetery. Either way, no one has seen that headstone in years. It mysteriously disappeared. The infamous headstone bears two crossed hands, each with a pistol, and an inscription, “con su pistola en su mano” or “with his pistol in his hand,” the name of a novel about Cortez by Americo Paredes.
Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: