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Recovering Histories of Gendered State Violence

“Mexican Girls in Revolt,” The Missoulian, March 19, 1911.

Loud, thundering calls for “that greaser” travelled through the hallways and doors of the Gonzalez County jail in south-central Texas during a hot summer evening in 1901. Men’s voices could be heard loud and clear as a mob of about 300 approached the entrance of the county jail and a waiting Sheriff Frank M. Fly. He struggled to keep the mob under control, claiming it was he who had authority over the prisoner, their “greaser,” a 37-year-old farmhand and tenant worker named Gregorio Cortez. After a heated exchange with the unruly group of locals from Gonzalez and farther towns, Fly finally convinced the last of the men to leave and “allow the state of Texas to do its job.” This harrowing scene was described in newspapers of the period as well as in the landmark book With His Pistol in His Hand (1958), whose publication signaled the establishment of the field of Mexican American history. There was even a 1982 film inspired by the book, entitled “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.”

While the news of a “sheriff killer and greaser” who had fatally shot a lawman in Texas spread like wildfire at the time, little was reported on Leonor Díaz, Cortez’s spouse, or their four children. Though With His Pistol in His Hand included a few paragraphs on Díaz, the film—with the potential to reach greater public audiences—only dedicated a few minutes to Leonor’s character and nowhere in the credit lines did the name of the actress portraying the wailing wife appear. I still do not know who portrayed Leonor.

I set out to recover a history of state violence from the lens of Leonor Díaz both because of this lack of scholarly concern with her life and because of my childhood growing up along the border. One of my fondest memories is listening to corridos during family barbecues. As my father fired up the grill, he would play Mexican ballads or corridos, songs which I still love to this day. I come from a musical family; my maternal grandfather played accordion and bass, my mother played guitar, and four of her brothers played an instrument. I was always intrigued by the stories I heard via the beautiful tonada produced by the accordion and bass. I grew up listening to corridos of “bandits” smuggling tequila over the border during Prohibition, outsmarting customs agents.

I also listened to the story of how one man stood up to Texas Rangers after killing a sheriff in self-defense—this was the corrido of Gregorio Cortez, performed by both older bands like the Cadetes de Linares and more recent ones such as Ramón Ayala y sus Bravos del Norte. Each time I heard it (as sometimes the versions were different), I heard about Cortez eluding capture, defending his brother, and standing up to the rinches—the term used by Texas Mexicans to describe the Texas Rangers. While the Cortez brothers had engaged in horse trading activity and were skilled horsemen, there was no evidence of their involvement when news broke of a horse theft in Karnes County. The sheriff of the county, Brack Morris, having only a report that “a medium-sized Mexican” had committed the crime, set his sights on Gregorio Cortez and descended upon the Cortezes. With no warrant, the sheriff, along with his shoddy translator, approached the Cortez place and, due to a mistranslation after which the sheriff fired upon Cortez’s brother Romaldo, Cortez fatally shot the sheriff. Leonor was the main eyewitness and saw the ordeal unfold as she cared for her four children. Cortez fled, eluding Rangers who detained anyone suspected of knowing Cortez’s whereabouts. As re-narrated in the corrido, county and local law enforcement detained Leonor along with her children and separated them in distinct cells, where her daughter suffered physical abuse from law enforcement. But I heard nothing of Leonor in the corridos and nothing about how she endured jail time with no formal charge, no trial. Nearly three months after Cortez was apprehended, as his trial continued, Leonor and her children were finally released.

Like the corrido, there is nothing about Leonor Díaz in the historiography of Cortez or the Texas Rangers, nor is she present in the growing literature on Mexican American women with which I familiarized myself during graduate school. It was not until one of my numerous trips to northern Mexico to conduct research for my first book that I discovered archival material shedding light on Díaz. As I was examining labor records from the early nineteenth century, I stumbled upon a file with correspondence between labor collectives in Monterrey, Laredo, and San Antonio about the near-lynching of Gregorio Cortez. I did what all historians do when they come across material while on a mission to recover some other history—I requested copies (the state archives of Nuevo León allowed no scanning during that time), saved, and stuffed them in a manila envelope marked “FFP,” for future project. Years later, as I was in the final copyediting phase of my second monograph, I revisited the file. It was replete with pleas from labor collectives and mutual-aid societies to local and state officials to address the brutal practice of lynching. One of the documents in the file included an interview with Leonor Díaz, most likely conducted or reprinted by one of the labor collectives from Monterrey and reprinted in Mexican newspapers. She recalled how her life and that of her family’s was interrupted with the sheriff’s visit that summer afternoon in 1901. Jailed for nearly three months, watching her children in a different cell from afar, she had no resources on which to rely beyond her belief in her status as an honorable, strong mother.

I worked on this research during my off-teaching days and planned trips to U.S. and Mexican archival repositories. As I excavated the gendered, cultural, and class-based ways that Leonor made sense of her circumstances and her attempts to negotiate her release, I learned of an old archival center in Monterrey that had just opened its doors to researchers. This center housed rich judicial records concerning criminal and civil cases. I planned a trip, intending to examine records related to violations by Mexican Rurales, the elite rural police. I hoped to employ a comparative perspective regarding Ranger abuse of power during the first decades of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, I developed an allergic conjunctivitis in one eye after my initial one-week visit—the required white lab coat, gloves, and protective goggles did me no good, as there were some boxes that had not been opened since the 1920s. But one discovery made the trip all worth it: a large file containing a similar case as that of Leonor’s.

This judicial case involved a young woman accused of “plotting a revolution,” with suspected ties to a growing anti–Porfirio Díaz movement in San Antonio, Texas. Originally from near the Coahuila-Texas border, Asención Paz had moved with her then-husband, a shoemaker-turned-magonista, to San Antonio in 1909. She met the revolutionary sisters Andrea and Teresa Villarreal—whose reputations as open supporters of a revolution to overthrow President Díaz had been made known by the New York Times. The example of Asención forced me to ask new questions about the Leonor case.

I decided to use both cases as a lens into the ways in which Mexican-origin working-class women employed ideas about womanhood and motherhood when engaging state agents. The arrests of Leonor and Asención took place during a period of profound transition along the U.S.-Mexico border. As Mexico created a strong state consolidating its northern periphery via foreign investment and industrialization, the United States embarked on a similar quest to reform its citizenry, aiming to transform the country into an efficient, modern, and disciplined polity. Both the Mexican and U.S. visions of progress and development at the turn of the twentieth century had at their root a reforming mission inspired by Social Darwinists, eugenicists, and elite Mexican científicos. This mission drew directly upon ideas of a hierarchical ordering of society that were informed by ideas of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Mexican-origin people were often targets of such commitments to order and progress, yet little has been written about Mexican women’s experiences in navigating such change from a transnational perspective. Even less has examined this history within a context of state-endorsed violence.

Despite lacking substantial resources, Leonor and Asención emerged as roadblocks to state progress from both a Mexican Porfirian and U.S. progressive lens, resorting to strategies for survival that were rooted in their own cultural understandings of themselves. Just as Leonor claimed her position as an honorable mother while confronting Rangers and González County jail officers, Asención responded in a similar way when she answered the Monterrey authorities’ questions. She assured them of her subservience to her husband—after all, she argued, the behavior that authorities accused her of would have never been allowed by her husband.

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Historical marker honoring Gregorio Cortez, installed in 2015. While the marker itself acknowledging the lived experience of Cortez is significant given decades of scholarship rendering Cortez as a “bandit,” there is no mention of Leonor Díaz nor of the Cortez-Díaz children. Photo courtesy Sonia Hernández.

These women’s lived experiences and the choices they made, regardless of which side of the border they found themselves on, reemerge via the historical record as intertwined and consequential to the national histories of both Mexico and the United States. In short, their lived experiences help us craft a more closely-knit history of both countries by reversing the telescope to magnify developments along their shared border. As scores of fellow borderlands historians have noted before me, it is often through the study of nations’ edges that we can learn about the nation-state itself. I’ll add that this approach also yields fruitful results by locating hidden but consequential voices such as Leonor’s and Asención’s. My analysis of these two intertwined stories appears in the September 2023 issue of the Journal of American History.

It is my hope that this research serves as a reminder of how often representatives of the state used and justified violence in the name of progress. Equally important, I hope it shows us how those with few resources at their disposal found ways to navigate and negotiate even the direst of situations. Urgent here, too, is the need for this research to inform more publicly accessible platforms that go beyond academic journals. This includes physical historical markers, like the one in Kenedy, Texas that honors Gregorio Cortez, and films like “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” which took the corrido as a starting point to recast the Cortez incident. While imperfect, the big screen (film) and the local screen (historical markers), can make this often peripheral history more central to our nation’s history and highlight its place within a greater, global context, while also including people such as Leonor and Asención, whose histories are too often confined to dusty, inaccessible archives.

One thing is for sure: the topic of gendered histories of state violence is fertile ground for future research—both in scholarly circles and more publicly accessible ones.

A native of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Sonia Hernández is currently a professor of history at Texas A&M University in College Station. She specializes in the history of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands with an emphasis on gender and labor issues. She is the author of two award-winning monographs (one of which has been translated and published in Spanish, INHERM, 2017). She prioritizes bi-national archival research and balanced historiographical approaches that examine both U.S. and Mexican histories (among others) to create interwoven, transnational perspectives. Funded by the Fulbright Foundation and more recently a Chancellor EDGES fellowship, Hernández is at work on a book that revisits the 1901 near-lynching of migrant cowboy, Gregorio Cortez, from a gendered and transnational perspective. Her public-facing scholarship has also led to collaborations with museums and cultural and historical organizations through her co-founding of the award-winning non-profit public history organization, refusingtoforget.org, alongside other historians and scholars.  

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