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"With His Pistol In His Hand"

"With His Pistol In His Hand"
A Border Ballad and Its Hero

The true story behind a border ballad, the creation of the ballad, and the ballad's evolution over time.

Series: Texas Classics

January 1958
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276 pages | 6 x 9 | illus. |

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.

  • Part One: Gregorio Cortez, the Legend and the Life
    • Chapter I: The Country
      • Nuevo Santander
      • The Rio Grande people
      • Mier, the Alamo, and Goliad
      • The Texas Rangers
    • Chapter II: The Legend
      • How they sing El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez
      • How Gregorio Cortez came to be in the county of El Carmen
      • Román's horse trade and what came of it
      • How Gregorio Cortez rode the little sorrel mare all of five hundred miles
      • How El Teco sold Gregorio Cortez for a morral full of silver dollars
      • How Gregorio Cortez went to prison, but not for killing the sheriffs
      • How President Lincoln's daughter freed Gregorio Cortez, and how he was poisoned and died
    • Chapter III: The Man
      • A likable young man
      • The sheriff is interpreted to death
      • The long walk
      • The Battle of Belmont
      • The long ride
      • The capture
      • Aftermath
      • The battle of the courts
      • "Through thick and thin"
      • The pardon
      • The last days
      • Epilogue
    • Chapter IV: The Hero's Progress
      • Theme and variations
      • Fact and fancy
      • Cortez as a folk hero
  • Part Two: El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez, a Ballad of Border Conflict
    • Chapter V: The Corrido on the Border
      • Before the corrido
      • The corrido century
      • The earliest Border corridos
      • Ballads borrowed from Greater Mexico
      • Border outlaw corridos
      • The Borderer against the fuereño
      • The Border Mexican against the rinches
      • The corrido of border conflict as a dominant form
    • Chapter VI: Variants of Gregorio Cortez
    • Chapter VII: Gregorio Cortez, a Study
      • The variants
      • Narrative style
      • Change and development
      • Versification, rhythm, and structure
      • The use of the imperfect and of syllable-supplying devices
      • Corrido imagery in Gregorio Cortez
      • The corrido language
      • Conventions which the Border corrido has borrowed from Greater Mexico
      • Conventions which have been developed in El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez
    • Chapter VIII: A Last Word
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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.




“To see why Gregorio became a folk hero, one only has to remember that in practice there was one law for Anglo-Texans, another for Texas Mexicans. The chase, capture, and imprisonment of Cortez are high drama.... This is an extraordinary book.”
Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin