The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez: A Cinematic Corrido

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez: A Cinematic Corrido

On Film / Essays — Aug 14, 2018

Robert M. Young’s The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) is a compelling western that can be enjoyed on its own, without any background knowledge. But the more one knows about the historical event it is based on, and the retelling of that event in various media over the next eighty years, the more fascinating it becomes. The case of Gregorio Cortez was itself extraordinary, but so is the way his story has lived on as a kind of mediated folklore, first as a South Texas corrido, or ballad, then as a book still in print sixty years after it was first published, and finally as an independently made film.

It all began one June afternoon in 1901, on the outskirts of Kenedy, Texas. Sheriff W. T. Morris was questioning two Mexican American farmers about a stolen horse. The farmers, Gregorio Cortez and his brother Romaldo, pleaded their innocence, but their responses were mistranslated by a deputy acting as Morris’s interpreter. Thinking that the Cortez brothers were defying the law, Morris approached them to make an arrest. There are conflicting accounts about who drew first, but Morris shot and wounded Romaldo, and shot at Gregorio but missed. Gregorio shot and killed Morris. The deputy ran off, and Gregorio took his wounded brother to a friend’s house in Kenedy to convalesce. He then walked two days to another friend’s farmhouse to hide out. A posse tracked him there and engaged the house’s inhabitants in a nighttime shoot-out. Two members of the posse were killed, among them the sheriff of Gonzales County.

Gregorio fled in the confusion. By the time he was apprehended eight days later, he had traveled some 120 miles on foot and at least 400 more on horseback, crisscrossing Central and South Texas as he eluded capture by hundreds of local lawmen and Texas Rangers (a law-enforcement body with statewide jurisdiction). The incident had all the makings of a legend; it is no wonder Gregorio’s feat was memorialized in song.

The song in question was an anonymously written ballad, heard across the South Texas borderlands while Gregorio Cortez himself awaited trial. Popular on both sides of the border, corridos often recounted current events and the exploits of local figures. “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez” is a perfect example of the genre, illustrating the multiple functions such ballads served for the Mexican American community. First, it was journalistic, a means of spreading the news—in Spanish—to citizens at the margins of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Texas society. At the same time, it was a corrective to the version of events being published in the mainstream, English-language press. As such, it told its story from Cortez’s—and the minority Mexican Americans’—perspective, in some forms including facts omitted by newspaper accounts. Finally, “El corrido de Gregorio Cortez” was folkloric, casting Cortez as a legendary hero.

Every version and descendant of the ballad—the original song, the variants of it that appeared over time, the book about it published more than half a century later, and, finally, the film based on the book—was in one way or another a work of community activism. Each one followed a similar pattern of an outsider minority group finding a mediated method of filling in the gaps or elbowing its way into the mainstream establishment’s discourse. The corrido commented on Texas’s law-enforcement and legal systems. The book created an academic space for the study of Mexican American popular culture. The film retold the legend of a Mexican American folk hero for a new audience.

With His Pistol in His Hand is a 1958 book by Américo Paredes, a journalist, musician (he sings the ballad heard on the film’s soundtrack), folklorist, and scholar who taught in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin from 1958 till 1984. Though it originated as Paredes’s doctoral dissertation, the book is neither obscure nor esoteric but a clear, accessible, and well-documented study of the Cortez matter and the resulting corrido. Despite that—and in some ways because of that—its publication by the University of Texas Press in 1958 was radical and groundbreaking. To begin with, it elevated a borderland corrido to the level of a classical folkloric balladIn the staid academic culture of the time, the study of ballads was mostly restricted to premodern folk songs from European and particularly English history, ones about Robin Hood and Rob Roy, for example. By placing contemporary South Texas corridos in the same category, Paredes made Mexican American popular culture worthy of scholarly inquiry. Furthermore, by analyzing a border corrido within its larger social, historical, cultural, and political contexts, Paredes had authored a pioneering example of what is now called cultural studies.

Locally, Paredes’s book was controversial. Because it challenged the received history of the Texas Rangers as a heroic band of frontier do-gooders, some readers found it heretical. What Paredes uncovered was a pattern of violence perpetrated by the Rangers against innocent Mexican Americans, including incidents of indiscriminate harassment and wrongful imprisonment, as well as shootings and lynchings. 

“Young’s documentary style gives the then-eighty-year-old story a sense of you-are-there immediacy.”

The idea of dramatizing the Gregorio Cortez incident as it is delineated in With His Pistol in His Hand for the screen originated with producer Moctesuma Esparza. As a teenager, Esparza had been active in the Mexican American civil rights movement in his native Los Angeles. As a student at UCLA, Esparza gravitated to the school’s cinema program and found that the same organizational skills he had honed as a community organizer could be applied to producing films. After receiving his MFA, Esparza dedicated himself to filmmaking that would counter the stereotypical depiction of Latinos in the movies. 

In the late seventies, Esparza approached the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group based in Washington, D.C., with the idea of adapting books such as With His Pistol in His Hand into Mexican American–themed feature-length films for a mass audience. With the National Council of La Raza’s backing, he raised $1.3 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broad­casting, enough to produce a film version of With His Pistol in His Hand. Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, Esparza was one of the earliest participants in the “indie boom” of the eighties, joining the ranks of other young filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, and Spike Lee, who were struggling to make their first low-budget independent features around the same time. 

After securing the rights to Paredes’s book, Esparza enlisted novelist Victor Villaseñor to write the script, and offered the role of Gregorio to the up-and-coming actor Edward James Olmos. Olmos eagerly accepted, and suggested as a director Robert M. Young, with whom he had worked on ¡Alambrista!, a fictional account of an undocumented Mexican farmworker’s experiences in the Southwest, a few years earlier. 

An experienced documentarian, Young had turned to narrative filmmaking with the feature Short Eyes, based on Miguel Piñero’s award-winning play, which was released just weeks before ¡Alambrista! in the fall of 1977. With these two films, Young quickly established his singular directorial approach: using nonfiction filmmaking methods to tell socially conscious stories. Indeed, his reliance on documentary techniques—
handheld camera, use of available light, real locations instead of studio sets—gives ¡Alambrista! in particular the look and feel of newsreel footage. No doubt impressed by the director’s sensitive treatment of Latinos in both of his narrative features, and by the fact that Young had both written the script for ¡Alambrista! and shot the film, in addition to directing, Esparza gave him the job. It proved to be an inspired choice: Young’s documentary style in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez gives the then-eighty-year-old story a sense of you-are-there immediacy. 

On the set of The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez

Esparza was pulled away to work on another project and entrusted the creative details of making The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez to Olmos (who also served as a producer on the film) and Young. Immersing themselves in the project, the pair visited the actual Texas locations where the original events took place—many of which were ultimately used in the film—and did their own research along the way. In addition, they collaborated on another draft of Villaseñor’s script.

For the production itself, the team enlisted director of photography Reynaldo Villalobos, a Mexican American cinematographer from Los Angeles whose most recent credits included such studio films as Urban Cowboy and 9 to 5. Villalobos relished the independent production’s smaller scale and the absence of studio interference. At a 2016 reunion of the film’s cast and crew at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Villalobos related how invigorated he was by the creative camaraderie with Young and Olmos and by their dedication to “just making a great film.” He remembered the production as “the best experience I ever had as a filmmaker.”

Cinematically, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is striking and memorable for several reasons. As a revisionist western, it plays with the typical genre formula by siding with the ethnic fugitive rather than the Anglo lawman. True, the outlaw western is a familiar variant of the genre, but the bandit protagonist is typically a likable but misunderstood Anglo—see John Wayne’s Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Tyrone Power as the title character in Jesse James (both 1939), Paul Newman’s raised-by-Apaches white man in Hombre (1967), Butch and Sundance, Josey Wales. And in the very few cases where well-intentioned ethnic outlaws do appear as central characters, they have often been played by Anglo actors (see Burt Lancaster as a Native American in 1954’s Apache and as a Mexican American in 1971’s Valdez Is Coming). 

“Olmos’s Gregorio Cortez represents a unique combination of traits for a western hero: strong yet sensitive, resourceful but caring.”

It was precisely this history of problematic representation that Esparza sought to upend with his films, and he and a few fellow filmmakers succeeded. In the early eighties, Mexican Americans were just beginning to fulfill their dream of making their own cinema, and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was one of the films that inaugurated the Chicano film movement, along with Young’s ¡Alambrista! and Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1981). The next ten or so years saw the full flowering of Chicano cinema with the release of La Bamba (1987), Born in East L.A. (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), and The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), and culminating with Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi in 1992. 

Olmos’s striking portrayal of Cortez is another genre revision, significantly altering the male hero seen in most westerns. For one thing, in the movies, children may connect with horses (see National Velvet and The Black Stallion), but western protagonists typically do not. Their tough, unsentimental masculinity allows them to treat horses only as transportation; any gentleness toward the animals might be regarded as a sign of weakness. While developing Cortez’s character, however, Olmos recognized what an exceptional horseman he must have been. Consequently, Olmos’s Cortez is a keenly attuned soul who makes a special connection with horses. With the possible exception of Kirk Douglas’s character in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), no movie cowboy had ever treated horses quite this way—Cortez talks to them, hugs them, soothes them, pats their manes, and checks their hooves. Watch, for example, the sequence where his horse goes lame and Cortez has to switch steeds. Most of the shots are longish takes, showing Olmos/Cortez relating to the horse as he slips the bridle and straps over the animal’s head, then gets it to accept the bit in its mouth. And when he mounts the horse, Olmos/Cortez keeps control, though it rears twice. Then he rides off, remembering to bid farewell to his lame horse as he goes. Olmos’s Gregorio Cortez represents a unique combination of traits for a western hero: strong yet sensitive, resourceful but caring, brave, passionate, and, when it comes to horses and family, emotional.

The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez is also notable for its nontraditional storytelling choices. Because its plot hinges on linguistic misinterpretation, the filmmakers made a bold decision for a mass-marketed film: Gregorio and the other Spanish-speaking characters would speak Spanish on-screen, and their dialogue would not be subtitled. It was a risk that paid off: it allows the confrontation to unfold and escalate just as it did in real life, without the benefit of any sort of explanation. The clarification comes only late in the film, in scenes where Gregorio’s attorney prepares his defense, communicating with his client with the help of an interpreter.

An extra dimension of the film’s nontraditional narrative is its use of the same kind of nonlinear plotting employed by Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, a decade before Quentin Tarantino made it trendy. Often mentioned in this regard is the film’s Rashomon-like technique of depicting various versions of events as they are described by different witnesses. But The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez goes beyond that, scrambling the chronology from the very start. The film’s opening shot shows a locomotive arriving at a station. Near the end of the film, that train is identified as the one delivering Gregorio to the penitentiary after he is convicted of murder. The next scene jumps back in time to show him on the run. The scene after that shows the bodies of two lawmen being taken into town before the film reveals who they were or how they died. This is followed by the lynching of a Mexican American farmer by a posse looking for Cortez. As the film progresses, all these incidents are revisited, explained, and placed in their proper order, but initially they make for a fragmented introduction to the whole Gregorio Cortez affair. A quarter century after Pulp Fiction, a jumbled narrative like this is fairly common and easily comprehensible, but in 1982 such complex storytelling was much more daring.

Shot in 1981, the film premiered in one San Antonio theater and was broadcast on PBS’s American Playhouse the following year; it was then released for a short theatrical run in 1983. Olmos continued his dedication to the project by touring with the film as it opened in theaters across the country. 

In the process, the makers of  The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez helped establish a new, viable formula for independent filmmakers, just as Jim Jarmusch would do with Stranger Than Paradise the following year and Spike Lee with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. Combining budget discipline, careful production management, and a strong sense of purpose, this new generation of filmmakers proved that it was possible to make the films they wanted to make and say the things they wanted to say.