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An Oral History Of The Nike Cortez, 50 Years After Its Release

A grid has eight types of shoes (one a roller skate) and one Nike shoe box.
Various versions of the Nike Cortez.
(Illustration by Catie Dull/Photos by Nike)
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In 2022, the Nike Cortez is ubiquitous. To date, Nike has produced more than 700 versions of the shoe, collaborating with the likes of Bella Hadid, Kendrick Lamar, and the Netflix show Stranger Things. The shoe's prominent swoosh and herringbone pattern outsole have made it popular across generations.

The sneaker made its debut in 1972. Immediately upon its release, it became a staple of the company's early years. The Cortez has also been a staple in pop culture — it was the shoe of choice for Forrest Gump when he ran across the country and Whitney Houston when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991.

Before It Was Nike

When Nike was founded, it was a startup that didn't manufacture its own shoes. It wasn't even named Nike: It was Blue Ribbon Sports, co-founded by Bill Bowerman, legendary University of Oregon track coach, and Phil Knight, a businessman whom Bowerman had once coached.

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The two co-founded Blue Ribbon Sports as more of a retail operation. Blue Ribbon signed a contract to distribute shoes made by Onitsuka Tiger, a Japanese shoe manufacturer that was looking to make inroads in the United States.

How The Cortez Got Its Name

In his 2016 memoir Shoe Dog, Phil Knight writes that Onitsuka sent him and Bill Bowerman a shoe prototype in 1967 — the company wanted suggestions on a name. With the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games right around the corner, Bowerman came up with "The Aztec," an homage to the Mesoamericans who inhabited what eventually became Mexico.

There was, however, one problem: Adidas had already released a track shoe called the Azteca Gold — and it was threatening to sue if the name wasn't changed. The name Aztec was out.

In the book, Knight documents how the shoe eventually got its name:

"Aggravated, I drove up the mountain to Bowerman's house to talk it all over. We sat on the wide porch, looking down at the river. It sparkled that day like a silver shoelace. He took off his ball cap, put it on again, rubbed his face. "Who was that guy who kicked the sh*t out of the Aztecs?" he asked. "Cortez," I said. He grunted. "Okay. Let's call it the Cortez."

A brief history
  • When Spaniards arrived at Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec Empire, in 1519, some experts estimate the population was higher than 200,000 people – making it larger than most cities in Europe.

  • "When the Europeans arrived, the population [reached] as many as 25 million in Mesoamerica. There were cities with very sophisticated societies with writing systems and marketplaces — all of the trademarks of what we might consider to be a great civilization," says Kevin Terraciano, a professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles who specializes in Latin American history. Only a few years later, the Aztec Empire was toppled.

  • Even amongst conquistadors, the tactics Cortés used were particularly brutal. For example, even after the Spaniards declared victory, Cortés had the last Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc tortured by burning his feet, Terraciano says, and eventually executed by hanging him from a tree.

  • "Cortés stands out for the scope of the violence and warfare that he organized and led, making Columbus look tame by comparison," says Terraciano.

The name Aztec wasn't available. So they named it after the man who conquered the Aztecs and took their capital city of Tenochtitlan: Hernán Cortés — a clear sign to Adidas that the upstart Blue Ribbon was looking to make waves in the world of footwear.

Blue Ribbon couldn't have predicted it at the time, but the Cortez would turn out to be not just one of the most important shoes in the company's history, but one of the most important shoes of the 20th century — every bit as iconic as the Chuck Taylor All Stars or the Adidas Stan Smith.

The Cortez As We Know It Today

Immediately upon release, the Cortez was a hit, helping the company meet its end-of-year revenue projections. It was so popular that it caused a whole host of inventory and supply problems for Blue Ribbon. Knight details this in Shoe Dog:

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"It was simply too popular. We'd gotten people hooked on the thing, turned them into full-blown Cortez addicts, and now we couldn't meet the demand, which created anger and resentment up and down the supply chain."

It became so important to Blue Ribbon's business that when the company started manufacturing its own shoes and rebranded as Nike, the Cortez was one of a handful of shoes at the center of a lawsuit between Blue Ribbon and Ontisuka.

Each company wanted to retain the rights to the name Cortez. Of course they did — it was one of the most popular shoes in America. Eventually, Nike won out and received the rights to the Cortez, and Onitsuka was allowed to continue manufacturing its own version of the shoe, called the Corsair.

In 1972, Nike unveiled what is recognizable today as the Nike Cortez. It included nearly all of the same design elements as the original Cortez, only the Onitsuka logo was replaced by the now-famous swoosh.

Fifty years after its release, Nike Chief Design Officer John Hoke said the shoe is an important part of the company's culture. "Nike Cortez is the quintessential expression of our design philosophy," he said in a statement sent to NPR.

Nick Engvall is founder and host of the Sneaker History podcast, a show about news and developments in the world for sneakers. For him, the Cortez became a way to look fashionable on a budget.

"The reason I started wearing it was because it was inexpensive," said Engvall. "I wanted a swoosh on my shoe and [the Cortez] was the way that I was going to be able to have that without spending $100 on a pair of Nike Air Jordans."

The Cortez As A Cultural Symbol: Los Angeles, Chicanos, And Resilience

In the 1980s, the Cortez began to take on a new association: the city of Los Angeles.

At this point in Nike's history, it already had deep roots in Southern California. Not only did the first Blue Ribbon Sports retail location open in Santa Monica, four of Nike's 10 department stores were located in the greater L.A. area by 1973.

The Cortez became a feature of the city. By Nike's account, "over time, the silhouette became a staple of the city's swap meets, car clubs and schoolyards."

The shoe's classic look, simple color schemes, and affordable price made it an easy choice for working class and low-income families.

The shoe made its deepest inroads within Southern California's Black and Latino communities. The most popular ambassador of the shoe was perhaps Eazy-E, whose Cortezes were integral to his gangster rap image.

It was also in this era that the Cortez began to be adopted by gangs. The shoe's basic design and wide availability made it easy to incorporate into any number of gang uniforms — and all of this was happening as L.A. was entering a period of rising crime associated with the crack epidemic.

The association with gangs has been particularly sticky for the Cortez. Even today, it's not difficult to find examples of people online asking if and where it's safe to wear the shoes.

Estevan Oriolis a photographer who documents life and culture in Los Angeles, and according to him, "back then, you knew exactly who was a gang member. If they had Cortezes, baggy 501s, a white t-shirt on — you knew."

"In the '80s and '90s, a lot of people from the hood were wearing them. If you wore them to school, they'd tell you to go home and change your shoes cause they were gang related," said Oriol.

I wanted a swoosh on my shoe and that was the way that I was going to be able to have that without spending $100 on a pair of Nike Air Jordans.
— Nick Engvall

Like white tees, bandanas, and Dickies, the Nike Cortez let the world know you weren't to be messed with and could be gang-affiliated.

But the shoe's appeal was not just limited to gangs. Its popularity was broad, and of all the people and groups that have embraced the Cortez, there have been none that have laid a stronger claim to the shoe than Southern California Latinos.

In the '80s and '90s, the Cortez became an essential part of Chicano streetwear.

The shoe was a fashion statement, but it was also a symbol of resilience — proof that somebody could come from dire circumstances and demand respect.

Alexis Quintero is a designer and creative from East L.A. who's partnered with Nike on a line of clothes inspired by L.A. The Chicanos she grew up around "literally took that shoe and made it their own," she said.

"They made it so powerful — like we know when we see anyone with that shoe not to mess with them," Quintero said. "It's so iconic to us and what it means to be Chicano."

That connection isn't lost on Nike.

The company has released versions of the shoe themed for Día de Los Muertos and Latino Heritage Month.

What's In A Name?

The shoe named after a conquistador has become a powerful cultural symbol for the descendants of the people he conquered.

In the years since the Cortez was created, cultural values and considerations have drastically changed. Issues related to race, gender, and sexual orientation are treated with more care than ever before.

Back then, you knew exactly who was a gang member. If they had Cortezes, baggy 501s, a white t-shirt on — you knew.

— Estevan Oriol

On paper, the Nike Cortez could be a perfect candidate for outrage, think pieces, or even renaming — but it isn't. That's in part because the story of the shoe's origin isn't widely known, but perhaps more importantly, most who are aware don't view the shoe's namesake as particularly important.

Miles Coltrane was born in Oregon, but he grew up in Los Angeles. He started collecting Cortezes as a teenager — to date, he owns more than 100 pairs. For him, the shoe's name origin is a non-factor in its legacy.

Mister Cartoon has gained an international reputation for his art that celebrates L.A., Chicano culture, and everything that lies at the intersection of the two.

Mister Cartoon has collaborated with Nike on a number of Cortezes — and on one he designed, he embraced the history of its namesake.

Cartoon removed the Nike logo and replaced it with the head of an Aztec warrior — with some European features. The mix celebrates the group of people who emerged out of colonization.

"I wanted to put a Chicano on the shoe — born in this land yet influenced by this other land — so it's that mix that I put on the side. It's a heavy thing for a shoe. It was really just about heritage and including the natives," said Cartoon.

In the 50 years it's been around, the Nike Cortez has had many lives — as an athletic shoe, a general purpose sneaker, and a fixture in entertainment — but its strongest associations today are a lot more personal.

"Sometimes I think that anybody in the U.S. of Latino origin knows somebody from L.A. that wore that shoe. If it's a random picture in your grandmother's photo album or something like that, that shoe is very prevalent," said Coltrane.

"It's an ode to where my family came from, what I grew up with, and their values," he said. "It's important for me to just keep that tradition going."

For many, the shoe brings out feelings of reverence and nostalgia — for the shoe itself, but also for the communities that laid claim to it.

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