KNOW YOUR BLACK HISTORY: Immigrants and Allies – Juan Cortina, Mexico and the Fight for Black Freedom

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Hate speech against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is well publicized this presidential cycle. But it is important to remember that Mexico and its people have historically sympathized with the plight of black Americans. As a black Creole who has Mexican relatives, I feel it is important to acknowledge how much history Mexicans, Afro-Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and black Americans have in common. It is time to acknowledge Mexican hero Juan Cortina.

Juan Cortina

Juan Cortina was born in Camargo, Tamaulipas along the Rio Grande River in 1824. His family were ranchers and land owners with vast property holdings on both sides of the Rio Grande. Cortina grew to adulthood just when tensions between Mexico and the United States were escalating due to territory encroachment by Anglo settlers and disputes over slavery.

In 1740s the Spanish destabilized British colonial slavery in the area surrounding Florida by promising runaway-slaves freedom and land if they reached Spanish-controlled Florida. The Spanish used the same tactic against the Americans after the 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

In 1803 Spain controlled Mexico and lands adjacent to Louisiana. Tensions were heightened between Mexico and the U.S. when in 1803 the Spanish declared that any slave who crossed the Sabine River, which forms a natural border between Louisiana and Texas would be free.


Benito Juárez

In 1821 Mexico won its independence from Spain. Texas was part of Mexico at the time, and the Mexican government allowed Stephen F. Austin to bring in Anglo settlers into Texas. Many of these new Anglo settlers were slaveholders who later would make eastern Texas a prosperous cotton-producing area using slave labor.

By 1823 Mexico outlawed the sale or purchase of slaves; children of slaves were to be freed at the age of 14.

In 1829 The Guerrero Decree outlawed slavery in Mexico. This made the importation of slaves illegal for Anglo settlers in Texas. To get around this law Anglo slave holders trying to enter Mexican land converted their slave’s status to indentured servants, but with a life term. Some Anglo slave holder had slaves sign contracts saying they owed debts that needed to be worked off to keep them as slaves. Fed up with such pranks, in 1832 the Mexican government prohibited contracts with workers lasting more than 10 years.

My New Orleans Creole relatives emigrated to Mexico in the 1830s as racial tension increased in the New Orleans after the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the Americans. In the late 1850s in the lead up to the Civil War, hundreds of New Orleans Creole families and free black Americans would emigrate to an agricultural cooperative called the Eureka Colony between Tampico and Veracruz, Mexico. Descendants of these colonists still live in Mexico.

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Lorenzo Tio

By 1836 Anglos in Texas outnumbered Mexicans four to one. In 1836 this large number of Anglos fought and won the Texas Revolution and established the Republic of Texas. This republic was not recognized by Mexico, which still considered Texas part of Mexico.

The number of slaves in Texas had greatly increased too. In the 1783 Census of Texas only 36 slaves were counted; by 1836 there were more than 5,000 slaves. The new Texas Republic recognized slavery and passed legislation strengthening the right of Anglo slaveholders. Legislation included outlawing the freeing of slaves. In that same year Texas slaveholders sent representatives to Matamoros, Mexico to demand the return of runaway slaves. The Mexican government returned none.

Santos Benavides

In 1845 the U.S. moved to annex Texas, and the tensions that had been building between the U.S. and Mexico blew up into open warfare. Northern legislators like Charles Sumner opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican American War, as a war of aggression by the U.S. and a ploy by Southern states to spread slavery to new territories.

Juan Cortina grew to manhood in this tumultuous time. In 1846 at the age of 22 he enlisted in the Mexican Army and fought near Matamoros to try to stop the advance of General Zachary Taylor.

In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican American War and ceded California, New Mexico and Texas to the exchange for 15 million dollars. The treaty established the Rio Grande River as the border between the two countries. This left vast holdings of Juan Cortina’s land in the U.S. Cortina, just 24 years old, opposed the terms of the treaty.

Carmen Robles, Afro-Mexican colonel in Mexican revolution

As predicted by Northern legislators opposed to the war and the annexation, slavery was expanded in Texas. By 1850 there were 58,000 slaves in Texas. However in the same year an estimated 3,000 slaves escaped into Mexico.

Juan Cortina became an important political boss in the South Texas Democratic Party. Cortina was respected by the local Mexican population for fighting to enforce Mexican land claims in Texas. Cortina quickly came into conflict with Anglo settlers and lawyers based in Brownsville who went about invalidating the land claims and rights of Mexicans who had owned land along the border for generations.

In July of 1859 tensions between Cortina and the local Anglos came to a head. While in Brownsville Cortina came across a deputy named Robert Shears brutalizing a Mexican ranch hand that Cortina knew. When Cortina intervened Shears yelled at him “What is it to you, you damned Mexican!”  Cortina fired a warning shot. When the deputy did not stop Cortina shot Shears in the shoulder and rode off with the ranch hand.

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At the end of September Cortina and a contingent of 40 to 80 men occupied the town of Brownsville. During the occupation Cortina made a famous declaration to the Anglo and Mexican communities.

“There is no need of fear. Orderly people and honest citizens are inviolable to us in their persons and interests. Our object, as you have seen, has been to chastise the villainy of our enemies, which heretofore has gone unpunished. These have connived with each other, and form, so to speak, a perfidious inquisitorial lodge to persecute and rob us, without any cause, and for no other crime on our part than that of being of Mexican origin, considering us, doubtless, destitute of those gifts which they themselves do not possess. (…) Mexicans! Peace be with you! Good inhabitants of the State of Texas, look on them as brothers, and keep in mind that which the Holy Spirit saith: “Thou shalt not be the friend of the passionate man; nor join thyself to the madman, lest thou learn his mode of work and scandalize thy soul.”


During his short occupation of Brownsville, Cortina is said to have freed Mexican prisoners being held wrongly and executed four Anglos who had murdered Mexicans but had not been charged.

After only a few days Cortina left Brownsville.  A group called the Brownsville Tigers made up of Anglo citizens organized to pursue Cortina. They attacked Cortina and his forces a month later at his mother’s ranch in Santa Rita. They were quickly defeated by Cortina’s forces.  Later the Brownsville Tigers combined with Texas Rangers and Army troops to drive Cortina and his forces up the Rio Grande. During Cortina’s retreat he was forced to fight several battles, which depleted his fighting force and equipment.  Cortina finally retreated into the Burgos Mountains.

Afromexican singer Kalimba

In early 1861 Cortina and his group of fighters reappeared, this time on the side of the Union Army.  He invaded Zapata County only to be defeated by Confederate Captain Santo Benavides in the battle of Carrizo.  In 1862 President Benito Juarez appointed Cortina the military commander of the Mexican troops on the southeastern frontier. During the French intervention in Mexico in 1862 (when Napoleon successfully installed his brother-in-law as ruler of Mexico) Cortina fought with Juarez.


Benito Juarez had a connection to Creole New Orleans. From 1853 to 1855 Juarez had lived in exile in New Orleans among free people of color, due to his opposition to Mexican President Antonio de Santa Anna’s corruption and treatment of indigenous people. When Juarez returned and became President of Mexico, Creoles and free black Americans from New Orleans established the Eureka Colony, an  agricultural cooperative between Tampico and Veracruz. The purchase of the land was completed in 1857 and cooperative was populated by more than a hundred families by 1860.

1st Afromexican queen in La Costa Chica

In 1862 a mysterious fire destroyed the cooperative, scattering the inhabitants. Many of those inhabitants, like my relatives the Pavageaus, settled in Tampico. Other returned to New Orleans. The Creoles who returned to New Orleans kept up communication and commerce with those who stayed reinforcing a link that had already been established between New Orleans and Tampico and Veracruz, Mexico.

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Cortina engaged the invading French in Tampico in 1862 and defeated them.  Cortina’s troops were responsible for a string of military successes in Central Mexico that helped lead to the eventual downfall of Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian was executed in 1867 in Querétero. Cortina was present at the execution. During this same time Cortina sensing an opportunity, appointed himself governor of Tamaulipas twice in 1864 and 1865.


With the defeat of the Confederacy, after the Civil War many Texans softened their attitude towards Cortina for his defense of the Mexican government, although many rich Texans continued to blame him for cattle rustling and guerrilla tactics against them.

In the 1870s Cortina’s continued efforts to raise armies among the local population in Tamaulipas irked both Mexican and American politicians. The repeated cattle rustling accusations by American ranchers (and a rumored bribe to Mexican authorities estimated between of $50,000 to $200,000 by rich Texas Ranchers) led to Cortina’s arrest. He was imprisoned without trial twice between 1870 and 1876. Finally he was released in 1890.Cortina lived on a hacienda near Mexico City until his death in 1894.

The heroism of Juan Cortina and the Creoles and free black Americans of the Eureka Colony is a powerful antidote to the recent racist demagoguery of some presidential candidates. Mexico and its people have historically sympathized with the plight of Black Americans. Mexico outlawed slavery nearly 30 year before the U.S. During the U.S Civil War Juan Cortina and his forces fought against the Confederacy. This along with Mexico’s acceptance of Creole and black Americans settlement in the state of Veracruz are just two of the many examples of Mexico’s sympathies with the plight of black Americans.  Black Americans share a common history with Mexicans, Afro-Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in their fight against oppression and racism.This shared history should be a source of pride and unity in the lead up to the election in 2016. .

Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. The book is available on and those wishing to contact the author can contact him at

For more information on New Orleans Creole in Mexico check the Mexican-New Orleans Creole Connection at:

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor


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