Gregorio Cortez Lira, a ranchhand of Mexican parentage, was virtually unknown until one summer day in 1901 when he and a Texas sheriff, pistols in hand, blazed away at each other after a misunderstanding. The sheriff was killed and Gregorio fled immediately, realizing that in practice there was one law for Anglo-Texans, another for Texas-Mexicans. The chase, capture, and imprisonment of Cortez are high drama that cannot easily be forgotten. Even today, in the cantinas along both sides of the Rio Grande, Mexicans sing the praises of the great "sheriff-killer" in the ballad which they call "El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez."
Américo Paredes tells the story of Cortez, the man and the legend, in vivid, fascinating detail in "With His Pistol in His Hand," which also presents a unique study of a ballad in the making. Deftly woven into the story are interpretations of the Border country, its history, its people, and their folkways.
This book began as the study of a ballad; it developed into the story of a ballad hero. Thus it became two books in one. It is an account of the life of a man, of the way that songs and legends grew up about his name, and of the people who produced the songs, the legends, and the man. It is also the story of a ballad, El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez, of its development out of actual events, and of the folk traditions from which it sprang.
Corrido, the Mexicans call their narrative folk songs, especially those of epic themes, taking the name from correr, 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, known in this book as the Lower Rio Grande Border, the Lower Border, or simply the Border (with a capital B). Some people call it the Rio Grande Valley, but this name is also given a New Mexican area. In Texas, only the American side is usually called the Valley, and the name is associated with cotton, grapefruit, and the tourist industry.
El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez, then, is a Border Mexican ballad, "Mexican" being understood in a cultural sense, without reference to citizenship or to "blood." But we must stress "Border" too. It is as a border that the Lower Rio Grande has made its mark: in legend, in song, and in those documented old men's tales called histories.
Borders and ballads seem to go together, and their heroes are all cast in the same mold. During the Middle Ages there lived in some parts of Europe, especially in the border areas, a certain type of men whose fame has come down to us in legend and in song. On the Scottish-English border there were heroes like Wallace, the rebel against English domination, like jock o the Side, Hobie Noble, Willie Armstrong, and other Liddesdale and Teviotdale raiders, whose favorite occupation was defying the power of England.
Spain had its popular heroes too, as did Russia, during the periods when each of those countries held a border against the warlike tribes of the East. And if one goes back to the fall of the Roman Empire, one hears of Digenis Akritas, who lived and fought on the borders between the Eastern Empire and the Saracens.
People composed ballads about men like these; legends grew up about them, and they became folk heroes, to be studied and argued about by generations of scholars. To this same class belongs Gregorio Cortez, who lived not in Europe of the Middle Ages but in twentieth-century America. This is his story, the fact and the legend of it: Gregorio Cortez, who defended his right with his pistol in his hand.