The Nike Cortez endures, 50 years after its release Or, how the Nike Cortez — named after a conquistador — became a staple of Chicano streetwear.

An oral history of the Nike Cortez, 50 years after its release

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Nike Cortez made its debut 50 years ago in 1972. What is the Cortez, you say? A shoe - a very special shoe with two distinct features - a giant Nike swoosh on the side and a herringbone pattern outsole, which looks almost like teeth on the bottom. The Cortez was so popular when it first came out, the company had a hard time keeping it in stock. NPR's Sean Saldana takes a look at how the shoe ended up making a huge cultural footprint.

SEAN SALDANA, BYLINE: In the five decades since it's been around, more than 700 versions of the Cortez have been released. An early version can be seen in the movie "Forrest Gump."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FORREST GUMP")

TOM HANKS: (As Forrest Gump) That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.

SALDANA: Whitney Houston wore them when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) O'er the land of the free.

SALDANA: And they've even been referenced in one of Kendrick Lamar's most infamous verses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONTROL")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) And I ain't rocking no more designer [expletive]. White tees and Nike Cortez, this red Corvette's anonymous.

SALDANA: The story of the Cortez starts in 1967, when Nike went under the name Blue Ribbon Sports. Originally, the shoe was supposed to be called the Aztec, themed for the 1968 Olympics held in Mexico. But Adidas had already released a track shoe called the Azteca Gold and threatened to sue because they were so similar. This is all chronicled in "Shoe Dog," the 2016 memoir by Phil Knight, Nike's co-founder. In response, Blue Ribbon offered up a new name, Cortez, as in Hernan Cortez, the conquistador who conquered the Aztecs, which is a strange choice for name, says Kevin Terraciano, history professor at UCLA.

KEVIN TERRACIANO: It seems anachronistic to name an athletic shoe after someone who, you know, epitomizes conquest and violence.

SALDANA: During the conquest of the Aztecs, nearly half of the Indigenous population died during a smallpox epidemic, and their capital city of Tenochtitlan fell after being cut off from food and water.

TERRACIANO: I estimate that about 100,000 people died of disease, starvation or warfare.

SALDANA: Immediately upon release, the Cortez was a hit, becoming the company's bestselling shoe for several years afterward. And in 1972, Blue Ribbon Sports changed its name to Nike and released the Cortez that we know today.

NICK ENGVALL: The Cortez is Nike's first true, like, multicultural, multifaceted sneaker.

SALDANA: Nick Engvall is host of the "Sneaker History Podcast." He says the Cortez is important for how widely it's been embraced.

ENGVALL: People would throw out the OG term a lot, but, like, the Cortez is that, right? The Cortez is, like, been there, done that. You could look to the Cortez and see the subcultures that are across multiple different places, the running. Like, it just - it's lived so many lives.

SALDANA: And in the 1980s, the Cortez began to take on a new association, Southern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYZ-N-THE-HOOD")

EAZY-E: (Rapping) Little did he know I had a loaded 12-gauge. One sucker dead, LA Times front page 'cause the boys in the hood are always hard.

SALDANA: The most popular ambassador of the shoe was perhaps Eazy-E, whose Cortezes were part of his gangsta rap image. And like his music, the Cortez became synonymous with the streets of Los Angeles during the crack epidemic.

ESTEVAN ORIOL: In those '80s and '90s, a lot of the people from the hood were wearing Cortezes. If you wore them to school, they'd tell you, go home and change your shoes 'cause they were gang-related.

SALDANA: Estevan Oriol is a photographer who documents life and culture in Los Angeles. He says the shoe was especially attractive for Latino gangs.

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

SALDANA: The Cortez let the world know that you weren't to be messed with, and this embrace of the shoe amongst Latinos was broader than just gangs. The Cortez became an essential part of Chicano streetwear.

ORIOL: Everybody always wanted, like, when they were going out for the night or the weekend, to wear your best 501. You know, you sit there, and you iron them and crease them, starch them. And then, you know, you do the same with the T-shirt. You pull out a brand-new pair of Cortezes.

SALDANA: And making sure your Cortezes looked good mattered.

ORIOL: If you didn't buy a brand-new pair, then you scrubbed them with, like, a toothbrush and some soap and water. We'd always make sure we cleaned the soles, the white part, and the Nike swoosh when you were hitting the streets.

SALDANA: The shoe named after a conquistador has become something important to the descendants of the people he conquered. On paper, the name origin of the Nike Cortez could make it a perfect candidate for outrage, but it isn't, in part because it isn't widely known.

MARK MACHADO: We hadn't thought that deep into it until I sat down to design it, and I looked up dude, and I was like, yeah, that guy wasn't great.

SALDANA: Mark Machado, more popularly known as Mr. Cartoon, is a tattoo and graffiti artist who started designing Cortezes with Nike in the 2000s. He grew up wearing the shoe. Finding out the shoe's name origin and considering the history behind it didn't really change what it meant for him because...

MACHADO: Regardless, we are a result of that, so that is our heritage. Most Latino people go back, and there's a Spaniard there.

SALDANA: For one of his designs, Cartoon removed the Nike logo and replaced it with the head of an Aztec warrior with some European features. It's meant to celebrate the group of people who emerged out of colonization.

MACHADO: I wanted to put a Chicano on the side of the shoe, just, like, born in this land yet influenced by this other land. So it's that mix that I put on the side. That's a heavy thing for a shoe, you know? It was just really about heritage and including the natives.

SALDANA: These days, the shoe brings out feelings of reverence and nostalgia. Alexis Quintero is a designer and creative from East LA.

ALEXIS QUINTERO: It's really crazy how, like, my people and, like, growing up in East LA - like, they literally took that shoe and made it their own, and they made it so powerful. Like, we know when we see anyone with that shoe not to mess with them, and that's power. That's true power.

SALDANA: Growing up, she didn't really wear Cortezes, but as times have changed, the shoe has remained popular, and it's become embraced by a new generation. These days, Quintero owns one pair of Cortezes, a collaboration with Japanese fashion label Comme des Garcons. It combined her love of high fashion with her upbringing.

QUINTERO: They made a Cortez that has, like, a Cortez leather, upper black and white, and then they made a huge platform on the bottom. And for me, that shoe is so important to me because it's, like, this Japanese brand that I really love that's so far from where I grew up, but the upper has who I am, you know? So it's kind of like me in a shoe. And I represent a lot with that because it's like, no matter where I go in my life and what I do, like, that's always who I am.

SALDANA: In many ways, the Nike Cortez is an example of how dynamic cultural symbols can be. It's a shoe named after a conquistador, but nobody really thinks about that. What they think about are the shoe's iconic moments or the past or the communities they grew up in.

Sean Saldana, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROXY AND THE DAYCHORDS SONG, "I'M SO IN LOVE")

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