Juan Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina (Cortinas), Mexican folk hero, was born on May 16, 1824, in Camargo, Tamaulipas, the son of Estéfana and Trinidad Cortina. His aristocratic mother was one of the heirs of a large land grant in the lower Rio Grande valley, including the area that surrounded Brownsville. The family moved to that land when Cortina was still young. In the Mexican War Cortina served as a part of an irregular cavalry during the battles of Resaca de la Palma and Palo Alto under Gen. Mariano Arista of the Tamaulipas Brigade. After the war he returned to the north bank of the river, where he was indicted at least twice by a Cameron County grand jury for stealing cattle. Although Cortina frequently appeared in public, his political influence among Mexicans prevented him from being arrested.
In the decade following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Cortina came to hate a clique of judges and Brownsville attorneys whom he accused of expropriating land from Mexican Texans unfamiliar with the American judicial system. He became a leader to many of the poorer Mexicans who lived along the banks of the river. The incident that ignited the first so-called Cortina War occurred on July 13, 1859, when Cortina saw the Brownsville city marshall, Robert Shears, brutally arrest a Mexican American who had once been employed by Cortina. Cortina shot the marshall in the impending confrontation and rode out of town with the prisoner. Early on the morning of September 28, 1859, he rode into Brownsville again, this time at the head of some forty to eighty men, and seized control of the town. Five men, including the city jailer, were shot during the raid, as Cortina and his men raced through the streets shouting "Death to the Americans" and "Viva Mexico." Many of the men whom Cortina had sworn to kill, however, escaped or went into hiding.
When several of the town's leading citizens appealed to Mexican authorities in Matamoros, the influential José María Carbajal crossed the river to negotiate with Cortina. Cortina agreed to evacuate the town and retreated to the family ranch at Santa Rita in Cameron County, where, on September 30, 1859, he issued a proclamation asserting the rights of Mexican Texans and demanding the punishment of anyone violating these rights.
In the ensuing days, tensions remained high in Brownsville. A town posse captured Tomás Cabrera, one of Cortina's men. About twenty citizens of the town formed a group called the Brownsville Tigers, and, assisted by a militia company from Matamoros, moved against Cortina, who was reported to be at his mother's ranch some six miles upriver. With two cannons the Brownsville-Matamoros force launched a half-hearted attack, which Cortina easily repulsed; the "Tigers" lost their cannons and retreated in complete disarray. Cortina was idolized by many of the poorer Mexicans on both sides of the river, and his small army grew as recruits joined his ranks. He demanded that Cabrera be released and threatened to burn the town. In the first part of November an undisciplined company of Texas Rangers commanded by Capt. William G. Tobin arrived. Cabrera was hanged the next day, and an unsuccessful attack was launched against Cortina. Cortina issued a second proclamation on November 23 asking Governor Sam Houston to defend the legal interests of Mexican residents in Texas.
By early December a second company of rangers, commanded by John Salmon (Rip) Ford, arrived, as did Maj. Samuel P. Heintzelman with 165 regulars. Cortina, who was reported to have over 400 men by this time, retreated upriver, laying waste to much of the lower Valley. On December 27 Heintzelman engaged Cortina in the battle of Rio Grande City; Cortina was decisively defeated, losing sixty men and his equipment. He retreated into Mexico and next appeared at La Bolsa, a large bend on the Rio Grande below Rio Grande City, where he attempted to capture the steamboat Ranchero, owned and operated by two of his antagonists, Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy. With the approach of the steamboat, Major Ford and his rangers crossed into Mexico, secured the south bank, and forced Cortina to retreat. Col. Robert E. Lee, now in command of the Eighth Military District, arrived in the lower Valley determined to restore peace and threatening to invade Mexico if necessary. Cortina, however, had retreated into the Burgos Mountains, where he remained for more than a year.
With the secession of Texas from the Union, Cortina appeared on the border again and started the second Cortina War. In May 1861 he invaded Zapata County and attacked the county seat, Carrizo. He was defeated by Confederate captain Santos Benavides and retreated into Mexico; Cortina lost seven men in the fray, while eleven others were captured by Benavides and hanged or shot.
On May 5, 1862, during the period of French intervention in Mexico, Cortina helped to defend San Lorenzo at Puebla. He saw action at Matamoros and, envisioning himself as an independent and powerful caudillo, briefly cooperated with the imperialists. Later he fought in central Mexico and was at Querétaro at the execution of Maximilian. In 1863 Cortina proclaimed himself governor of Tamaulipas and was promoted to general of the Mexican Army of the North by President Benito Juárez. Cortina appointed himself governor again in 1866 but immediately relinquished the office to General Tapia. Cortina returned to the border in 1870, and forty-one residents of the Valley, including a former mayor of Brownsville, signed a petition asking that he be pardoned for his crimes because of his service to the Union during the Civil War. The petition failed in the Texas legislature on its second reading, in 1871. In subsequent years, stockmen in the Nueces Strip accused Cortina of leading a large ring of cattle rustlers. Subsequent American diplomatic pressure was largely responsible for his arrest in July 1875 and his removal to Mexico City. He died in Atzcapozalco on October 30, 1894.