Meet Juan Cortina, the Tejano Rebel You Need to Know

It was almost 200 years ago today that Mexico hero Juan Cortina was born. If you don't know about the legend, you're not alone. While the mexicano is considered one of the first people to advocate for the rights of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, his story is filled with controversy, so much so that some consider him a renegade, while others deem him a “Zorro-kind of hero.”

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Like many Tejanos, Cortina, a Mexican rancher, military leader, politician and outlaw, wasn’t happy when Mexico conceded Texas to the United States following the Mexican-American War. The man took issue with Mexican families’ loss of land and the way the incoming Anglos were treating those who were there before them.

In 1859, in Brownsville's Market Square, Cortina witnessed a scene that led to what is now known as the “The Cortina Wars.” City Marshall Robert Sheers arrested and pistol-whipped an elderly man who happened to be a former worker at his mother's ranch. Unhappy with how the old man was being treated, Cortina took action.

"Cortina basically strode into the plaza and asked the Marshall, 'Why are you doing this,’” Jerry Thompson, a professor of history at Texas A&M International in Laredo, Texas who recently published a biography of Cortina, told NBC News. "Cortina whipped out his pistol and whether he fired one shot into the air, or just simply missed the Marshall, we just don't know, but a second shot hit the Marshall in the shoulder, knocked him to the ground and he's laying there bleeding while people watch."

It was the first time someone had stood up to the Anglos, and Cortina was considered a hero to many who had resented the U.S.

Later, Cortina and his army created a hit list of people who had gotten away with crimes against Tejanos. The men were vicious, even defeating the Texas rangers twice. Eventually, the U.S. government got involved, and pushed them into Mexico. While he continued raids into the U.S. afterwards, none were as major as the two so-called “Cortina Wars.”

PLUS: The Often-Forgotten History of Anti-Mexican Violence and Lynching

Learn more about Cortina, who died in a prison in Mexico City on Oct. 30, 1894, in the above video.