Resistance to Oppression
Digital History ID 3675
Among the most famous leaders of Mexican American resistance to acts of oppression was Juan Nepomuceno Cortina (1824-1892) of Texas. Born south of the Rio Grande River in 1824 to a wealthy established family, he fought for Mexico in its war with the United States. After the war, he saw his fellow Mexicans reduced to second-class citizenship, cheated out of their land cattle, and mistreated by sheriffs and the Texas Rangers. "Flocks of vampires, in the guise of men," he wrote, robbed Mexicans "of their property, incarcerated, chased, murdered, and hunted [them] like wild beasts." In July 1859, he saw a marshall in Brownsville in southern Texas beating a Mexican farmhand. Cortina ordered the marshall to stop, and when he refused, shot him in the shoulder. Then in September Cortina and other Mexicans raided Brownsville, proclaimed a Republic of the Rio Grande, and raised the Mexican flag. A force consisting of Texas Rangers and the United States army eventually forced Cortina and his supporters to retreat into Mexico. Cortina served as governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and continued to conduct raids across the border until Mexico, under intense pressure from the United States, imprisoned him in 1876.
Proclamation Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas [sic] to the Inhabitants of the State of Texas, and especially to those of the city of Brownsville. . . . There is no need of fear. Orderly people and honest citizens are inviolable to us in their persons and interests. Our object, as you have seen, has been to chastise the villainy of our enemies, which heretofore has gone unpunished. These have connived with each other, and form, so to speak, a perfidious inquisitorial lodge to persecute and rob us, without any cause, and for no other crime on our part than that of being of Mexican origin, considering us, doubtless, destitute of those gifts which they themselves do not possess.
To defend ourselves, and making use of the sacred right of self-preservation, we have assembled in a popular meeting with a view of discussing a means by which to put an end to our misfortunes…. The assembly organized, and headed by your humble servant, (thanks to the confidence which he inspired as one of the most aggrieved,) we have careered over the streets of the city in search of our adversaries, inasmuch as justice being administered by their own hands, the supremacy of the law has failed to accomplish its object.
Some of them, rashly remiss in complying with our demand, have perished for having sought to carry their animosity beyond the limits allowed by their precarious position. Three of them have died—all criminal, wicked men, notorious among the people for their misdeeds. The others, still more unworthy and wretched, dragged themselves through the mire to escape our anger….
These, as we have said, form, with a multiple of lawyers, a secret conclave, with all its ramifications, for the sole purpose of despoiling the Mexicans of their lands and usurp[ing] them afterwards. This is clearly proven by the conduct of one Adolph Glavecke, who, invested with the character of deputy sheriff, and in collusion with the said lawyers, has spread terror among the unwary, making them believe that he will hang the Mexicans and burn their ranches, &c., that by this means he might compel them to abandon the country, and thus accomplish their object. This is not a supposition—it is a reality; and notwithstanding the want of better proof, if this threat were not publicly known, all would feel persuaded that of this, and even more, are capable such criminal men as the one last mentioned, the marshal, the jailer, Morris, Neal, &c….
Innocent persons shall not suffer—no. But, if necessary, we will lead a wandering life, awaiting our opportunity to purge society of men so base that they degrade it with their opprobrium. Our families have returned as strangers to their old country to beg for an asylum. Our lands, if they are to be sacrificed to the avaricious covetousness of our enemies, will be rather so on account of our vicissitudes. As to land, Nature will always grant us sufficient to support our frames and we accept the consequences that may arise. Further, our personal enemies shall not possess our lands until they have fattened [them] with their own gore.
We cherish the hope, however, that the government, for the sake of its own dignity, and in obsequiousness to justice, will accede to our demand, by prosecuting those men and bringing them to trial, or leave them to become subject to the consequences of our immutable resolve.
U.S. Congress, Difficulties on the Southwestern Frontier, 36th Congress; 1st Session, 1860, House Executive Document 52, pp. 70-82.
A second proclamation appeared in a Brownsville newspaper, where it was introduced by the following letter from the editor.
September 30, 1859 To the Mexican inhabitants of the State of Texas:
...We invite the attention of the people abroad to his pretension that the Mexicans of this region (we suppose he means from the Nueces to the Rio Grande) "claim the right to expel all Americans within the same."
He [Juan Nepomuceno Cortina] professes to be at the head of a secret society, organized for this object. He claims modestly for his co-villains all the virtues, especially those of gentleness, purity, and liveliness of disposition. This he says of himself and his followers who, after stabbing and shooting into and beating the dead bodies of Mallett and Greer and McCoy, slain in the fight between a portion of his forces and thirty rangers at Palo Alto, on Sunday last, and after having in like cowardly manner treated his prisoner, young Fox, after he had surrendered his arms when surrounded, descended to such depth of degradation as to dismember the bodies of the slain in a manner so disgusting as to be too horrible to tell....
And these men are the graduates of the presidios of Mexico and the penitentiaries of Texas, he himself for years under indictment for murder, for cattle stealing, and other crimes, and his whole clan now engaged in wholesale robbery, horse stealing, and murder. A river frontier and the absence of a treaty of extradition renders it an easy thing in a country not closely settled and full if impenetrable chaparral for the outlaw to escape trial at law. So these people have defied justice on either side of the river, and now, banded together in an imposing army, nought but the heavy arm of the Union can put a stop to their villainy. He has heavily recruited from the outlaws of Mexico despite the vigilance of the constitutional authorities, who detest his crimes....
None of them have any legal title to citizenship. The United States Supreme Court, in the case of McKinney vs. Savriego, decided that the 8th article of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had no reference to Texas, and this is the only one in that treaty which confers citizenship. They could not have been citizens of Texas when annexed, because they were "adhering to the common enemy," and thus excluded from citizenship by its fundamental laws. None of them have ever been formally naturalized, and so they remain without the pale of American citizenship. A very large proportion, many think a majority, are residents of Mexico, if anywhere, having in this country neither properties nor homes, nor anything but their own crimes to entitle them to any recognition under our laws. All the complaints insinuated in this production are utterly without foundation. These men live usually by horse stealing--by industry never. They have never been robbed of any property, but many times have imposed on honest men with stolen animals.... Yet he has now under him quite an army, entrenched in a well-constructed fort, defended by cannon, with experienced reactionary officers to direct his military operations, while his will is obeyed by his hundreds implicitly and unreservedly. Is this so to remain? He is a foreigner, levying war against the State and Union within their borders, and flying a foreign flag above his fortress of American soil, and yet fifty men are all the soldiers that within two months have been vouchsafed by our government to put down this rebellion, or repel this invasion--call it by what name you will.
...There are, doubtless, persons so overcome by strange prejudices, men without confidence or courage to face danger in an undertaking in sisterhood with the love of liberty, who, examining the merit of acts by a false light, and preferring that of the same opinion contrary to their own, prepare no other reward than that pronounced for the "bandit," for him who, with complete abnegation of self, dedicates himself to constant labor for the happiness of those who suffering under the weight of misfortunes, eat their bread, mingled with tears, on the earth which they rated.
If, my dear compatriots, I am honored with that name, I am ready for the combat.
The Mexicans who inhabit this wide region...encounter every day renewed reasons to know that they are surrounded by malicious and crafty monsters, who rob them in the tranquil interior of home, or with open hatred and pursuit; it necessarily follows, however great may be their pain, if not abased by humiliation and ignominy, their groans suffocated and hushed by a pain which renders them insensible, they become resigned to suffering before an abyss of misfortunes.
Mexicans! When the State of Texas began to receive the new organization which its sovereignty required as an integrate part of the Union, flocks of vampires, in the guise of men came and scattered themselves in the settlements, without any capital except the corrupt heart and the most perverse intentions. Some, brimful of laws, pledged to us their protection against the attacks of the rest; others assembled in shadowy councils, attempted and excited the robbery and burning of the houses of our relatives on the other side of the river Bravo; while others, to the abusing of our unlimited confidence, when we intrusted them with our titles, which secured the future of our families, refused to return them under false and frivolous pretexts; all, in short, with a smile on their faces, giving the lie to that which their black entrails were meditating. Many of you have been robbed of your property, incarcerated, chased, murdered, and hunted like wild beasts, because your labor was fruitful, and because your industry excited the vile avarice which led them. A voice infernal said, from the bottom of their soul, "kill them; the greater will be our gain!" Ah! This does not finish the sketch of your situation. It would appear that justice had fled from this world, leaving you to the caprice of your oppressors, who become each day more furious towards you; that, through witnesses and false charges, although the grounds may be insufficient, you may be interred in the penitentiaries, if you are not previously deprived of life by some keeper who covers himself from responsibility by the pretense of your flight....
Mexicans! My part is taken; the voice of revelation whispers to me that to me is entrusted the work of breaking the chains of your slavery, and that the Lord will enable me, with powerful arm, to fight against our enemies, in compliance with the requirements of that Sovereign Majesty, who, from this day forward, will hold us under His protection. On my part, I am ready to offer myself as a sacrifice for your happiness; and counting upon the means necessary for the discharge of my ministry, you may count upon my cooperation, should no cowardly attempt put an end to my days....
A society is organized in the State of Texas, which devotes itself sleeplessly until the work is crowned with success, to the improvement of the unhappy condition of those Mexicans resident therein; extermination their tyrants, to which end those which compose it are ready to shed their blood and suffer the death of martyrs.
Source: U.S., Congress, House, Difficulties on the Southwestern Frontier, 36th Cong., 1st sess., 1860, H. Exec. Doc. 52, pp. 70-82.
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