This essay is the fourth in a series of Lenten reflections on world cinema and social justice, using the medium as a point of departure for a meditation on race, spirituality, and social change. Catch up on her first, second, and third pieces.
At the turn of the century, more than fifty years after Texas had, through war, won its independence from Mexico, two cultures—the Anglo and the Mexican—lived side by side in a state of tension and fear. From a story of that era come different accounts of the same event...
These words introduce The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Robert Young’s 1982 film dramatizing the 1901 ordeal of a Mexican man living in Texas whose inability to speak English has tragic consequences for him and his family. The true story of Cortez—accused of crimes he didn’t commit, pursued by Texas Rangers in a frenzied manhunt, captured, tried, imprisoned— became a South Texas legend and the subject of a widely read novel before being made into an independent film, which is now considered a masterpiece of Chicanx cinema due to the efforts of both Young and producer Moctesuma Esparza.
The plot is set into motion with a literal misunderstanding. Investigating a horse theft, a sheriff and his translator show up at Cortez’s ranch; when Cortez (Edward James Olmos) says, in Spanish, that he has done nothing wrong, his words are improperly translated as “No man can arrest me,” leading the sheriff to draw his gun and shoot Cortez’s brother. Cortez fires back in self-defense, killing the sheriff—and then flees for his own life. What follows is an epic chase, with breathtaking shots of men racing on horseback across the open countryside and Cortez managing a number of narrow escapes as the hunting party grows. Indeed, the film in many ways emulates a classic Western.
But it’s also an examination of how bias may shape and (mis)inform a narrative that in turn strengthens and amplifies those original prejudices. The rangers are plainly racist, their hostility extending to all the Mexicans they encounter in their pursuit of the lone Cortez—who through rumor and the help of a sensationalist press is transformed into the leader of the ruthless but nonexistent “Cortez gang.” At one point, a panicky shout of “Mexicans!” is enough for the rangers to unleash a wild volley of shots into a crowd. Surveying the bloody scene afterward—two innocent Mexicans lie dead—one of the rangers remarks: “Neither one of these two is Gregorio Cortez, I can vouch for that. But they could be part of the gang and those horses they’ve got are probably stolen. To hell with it. Two less Mexicans we’ve got to chase down.”