“With a pistol in hand” An essay on the ballad of Gregorio Cortez. An exploration of mythological stereotype, its emergence and perpetuation.

 Borders of contention often result in the emergence of stereotypical imaginations, where those on competing sides of the boarder in question, wrongly characterize those standing across the line from them. For example, the border between The United States and Mexico is a space of contention. And has been for as long as the national borders have existed. Borders, by definition, serve to create demarcations between people, cultures, and legacies. America’s southern border continues to function in this capacity, and has come to serve as a symbol for those advocating security as well as those advocating diversity. The themes of stereotypical images emerging from boarder spaces are explored, among others, in the book With his pistol in his hand by Americo Paredes. The focus of this essay is to examine the emergence of these mythological stereotypical images, while suggesting some reasons as to why they exist and to look at how they were perpetuated. 

Contentious border spaces produce shared mythologies that serve to create a convergence of thought resulting in understanding and misunderstanding of those on both sides of the border and of those inhabiting the spaces of contention in between.  The mythological and stereotypical imageries of the border lands are contained in songs, legends, and the individual and collective stories of those who experienced, exaggerated, and perpetuated these imageries.  

One particular imagery is the ballad, a song that tells a story, also called a Corrido. With a Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and its Hero by Americo Paredes tells the story of the ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and how the interpretations of this ballad and its multiple layers of insight continue to serve as a means of understanding and misunderstanding in the border spaces. “Corrido, the Mexicans call their narrative folk songs, especially those of epic themes, taking the name from corer, which means ‘to run’ or ‘to flow,’ for the corrido tells a story simply and swiftly, without embellishments. El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez comes from a region, half in Mexico and half in the United States”  

The Rio Grande provided a backdrop from which the stereotypical imageries would emerge. “Rio Grande people lived in tight little groups-usually straddling the river-surrounded by an alien world. From the north came the gringo, which term meant “foreigner.” From the south came the fuereno, or outsider, as the Mexican of the interior was called.” These liminal spaces are often spaces of conflict and tension and are ripe with stereotypical potential. The inhabitants of this tense space were known as the Nuevo Santander people and one of their chief forms of entertainment as well as a way of preserving and perpetuating their lives, history, and culture was the ballad. As Paredes observes, “They committed their daily affairs and their history to the ballad form: the fights against the Indians, the horse races, and the domestic triumphs and tragedies-and later the border conflicts and civil wars.” 

The border, shaped by political forces beyond their control, and marked by the central landmark of their region, The Rio Grande, served as fertile material for dramatic interpretations of their lives. “Men were expected to consider their relatives and closest neighbors, the people just across the river, as foreigners in a foreign land. A restless and acquisitive people, exercising the rights of conquest, disturbed the old ways. Out of the conflict that arose on the new border came men like Gregorio Cortez. Legends were told about these men, and ballads were sung in their memory.”  

The ballads were built upon stereotypical imageries perpetuated by suspensions and fears because of where they would fall on either side of the border. And although the Anglo-Texans would not produce ballads, their own set of stereotypes served as complementary material for the ballads of boarder conflict. These stereotypes emerged from Anglo-Texan legend which mythologized the powerful and exceptional qualities of the Texan and demonized the Mexican. Paredes points to this quote by Professor Walter Prescott Webb as proof that even scholarship was tainted by these stereotypical assumptions, “Without disparagement, it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe…The Mexican warrior…was, on the whole, inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan. The whine of the leaden slugs stirred in him an irresistible impulse to travel with rather than against the music. He won more victories over the Texans by parley than by force of arms. For making promises-and for breaking them-he had no peer.”  

“El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” is such a ballad that is built upon the emerging and perpetuated stereotypes of this region. The ballad opens with a murder and Gregorio, as a Mexican is immediately the pursued as the chief suspect.  The title of the book is taken from the line of the ballad, “Then said Gregorio Cortez, with a pistol in his hand.”  When exploring the themes of folklores of the powerless, it is of interest to note how many times those without power must look to instruments of power, in the case a pistol, in order to be heard by the privileged. This seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the literature, that those who are relegated to the outside of the mainstream of culture must find a tool of equality to gain the attention of those with power. Chiefly because the culture of these border lands were reinforced with systems designed to support existing power structures, men like Cortez would push back by any means necessary, this resistance would give rise to these legends and stereotypes. Emerging stereotypes find a way of justifying their existence through cultural norms and practices that impact all of society, this was certainly true in the border land regions of Cortez. 

As Paredes observes, “One notes that the white Southerner took his slave women as concubines and then created an image of the male Negro as a sex fiend. In the same way he appears to have taken the Mexican’s property and then made him out a thief.” Assumptions are at the heart of prejudice, and prejudice at the heart of racist attitudes that cultivate xenophobia, marginalization, and injustice. The ballad serves as a means for marginalized peoples who have been subjected to injustice to insure that their stories are heard and passed on to future generations. In this way the story, legend, or ballad becomes a tool of equality designed to push back against the oppressors, but still serve as a means of perpetuating stereotypical assumptions. 

Assumptions were not limited, however to those who were doing the oppressing. Those on the receiving end of these assumptions developed their own about Anglo-Texans, specifically The Texas Rangers, who served as the legitimately recognized enforcers of injustices against the Mexican. Paredes says these assumptions of the Texas Rangers include that they always carry a gun to shoot unarmed Mexicans, and “When he has to kill an armed Mexican, the Ranger tries to catch him asleep, or he shoots the Mexican in the back.” As a result of the attitudes employed by the Texas Rangers, Boarder Mexicans were further marginalized according to Parades, “They created in the Border Mexican a deep and understandable hostility for American authority…” but these attitudes also served to draw “border communities even closer together than they had been.”   

These attitudes of people who populate the border spaces are increased by the tensions that the physical border draws out, as stereotypes draw on the old fears of divided individuals and cultures. The assumptions and attitudes are emblematic of the tensions that fill the hearts and minds of people who dwell in powerless and powerful positions. “The pistol” in the hand of Cortez becomes symbolic of the logical end of these negative assumptions. The pistol, like the ballad becomes a means of resistance against the oppressing force. But unlike the ballad, the pistol serves as a means of escalation resulting in the loss of lives, most often the loss of marginalized lives. As Paredes points out, “The Rangers and those who imitated their methods undoubtedly exacerbated the cultural conflict on the Border rather than allayed it…”  

This deep seated hostility resulted in the perpetuation of legends, among them this one of Gregorio Cortez. And like all legends, Cortez’s story is not without some historical validity. Cortez was assumed to be a horse thief and was pursued by a Sheriff Morris, who he subsequently shot and killed after reportedly declaring that “no white man would arrest him.” There seems to be much confusion around the details of the death of Morris and the arrest and alleged crimes of Cortez. An often repeated confusion when those who are blinded with prejudice fueled by stereotypes. 

The stereotypes on both sides of the boarder were responsible for this confusion. The way that the Mexicans viewed the Texans, and vice versa. And further there seems to be a connection between the acting on ingrained stereotypical assumptions and their perpetuation. For example, Sheriff Morris who had experience as a Texas Ranger was acting on a vague description of a wanted horse thief, “That he was a medium sized Mexican with a big red broad-brimmed Mexican hat’…At this point the search for the thief takes on a very familiar aspect. The officers of the law go out looking for a Mexican, any Mexican.” Paredes points out that although Morris was not the type to “go about the country shooting at every Mexican on horseback he saw”, there can be no doubt that this prevailing stereotype of the Mexicans by the Anglo-Texans and of the Anglo-Texans of the Mexicans contributed to the death of Morris and the injustice carried out against Cortez. The details surrounding the death of Morris are tragic and hinge on a series of misunderstanding and mistranslations of Spanish to English. Specifically, what was reported to Sheriff Morris as “No white man can arrest me”, was actually “I can’t be arrested for nothing.” This misunderstanding resulted in a gun fight leaving Romaldo Cortez and Sheriff Morris dead, and Gregorio Cortez on the lamb. 

Paredes details Cortez’s eventual capture and trial, all of which serve to enhance the experience of the tensions surrounding the border lands. The life and trials of Gregorio Cortez are illustrative of the difficulties endured by the powerless when facing the entrenched hegemonic aligned against them. From start to finish the story of Cortez serves as a microcosm of marginalized experience. Indeed, if retold without the timestamps of the specifics, the Cortez story could be lifted from newspapers of the present day. 

Paredes reports that Cortez died at forty-one “after three years of freedom but very few days of peace.” Again the theme of few freedoms and limited peace could be the motto of the marginalized who are subjected to the abuses of the powerful as the result of mythological stereotypes perpetuated in border spaces. Cortez is a symbol of how misunderstanding serves to further injustice, giving rise to the artifacts of culture in the form of ballads which serve to perpetuate misconceptions on both sides of the divide. Paredes observes, “For more than half a century the Rio Grande people have remembered Gregorio Cortez, and in that time the figure of a folk hero has been shaped out of historical fact. It has been the vivid, dramatic narrative of the corrido- a well-established form that has kept the image of Cortez fresh in the minds of Border people.”

 It is important to focus on this idea of a “well-established form” when examining the life of Cortez and the legend that rose around him. Paredes rightly entitles his work “with his pistol in his hand”, because this is central to the establishment of legend especially as it applies to understanding the emergence and perpetuation of mythological stereotype. 

The story of ballad of Gregorio Cortez may serve as a source of understanding the emergence of stereotype, at the same time, an equally effective means of resistance to mythological stereotypes. Cortez becomes a folk hero and as such becomes both a source of pride for those marginalized and a “cautionary tale.” As Parades points out, “Gregorio Cortez remains the chief figure of the legend, appearing in it in three different phases: before the killing of Morris, during the flight and during his captivity. In each phase Cortez is given different characteristics, though the main outlines are maintained throughout: he continues to be a peaceful man driven to violence and finally brought to bay.”  

The treatment and portrayal of Cortez in the ballad and the surrounding folklore is instructive of understanding how mythological stereotype emerges as a mirroring of the retelling of religious themes, and may offer some insight into understanding how it becomes viral in its perpetuation. “The necessity of making Cortez both surrender and be betrayed has led the folk to show Cortez as understanding that he is being betrayed but accepting the betrayal as part of the things he has to undergo, thus making the Christian parallel even closer than may have been originally intended.” Religious and historical figures often serve as a basis for stereotypes, which may explain why they are so powerful. Paredes points out that Cortez follows this pattern, “the legend of Gregorio Cortez most closely approaches myth. There are some pagan elements in this part, but it is the Christian influence that is the strongest. Cortez becomes the type of hero who sacrifices his liberty, and eventually his life, in the interests of his people.”

As a source of legend and folklore Cortez becomes a person of power inspiring the marginalized and serves as a reminder that the emergence and perpetuation of mythological stereotypes contribute to the understanding and misunderstandings of people groups and their folklore and culture. This is true for physical borders and for those who occupy all the spaces of marginalization and experience the ongoing tensions of these spaces. 

The ballad of Gregorio Cortez and the culture from which it emerged demonstrate that at the heart of division are stereotypical assumptions. When people experience marginalization and injustice first hand on a daily basis, they often find ways of communicating those stories to future generations in the form of story and legend. This is the case for Gregorio Cortez. His real life experiences were retold to future generations in the form of song that exaggerated the events but also amplified its wisdom. Through the emergence of this mythological stereotype and the cultural milieu in which it was sung, a better understanding of the lives, challenges, hopes and dreams of powerless people comes into focus. An understanding that was much needed then and now. And this is why it continues to perpetuated through folklore. 

In the final analysis, Cortez and his story is illustrative of the fact that stereotypes, even those that are mythological in scope, must continue to be understood, analyzed, and challenged. Only then may the borders of national and private lives become a place of understanding and peace instead of fear and suspicion. 

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