Mexican-American Victory in Court

Tony Abdo aabdo at
Fri Aug 4 00:44:03 MDT 2000

In the Rio Grande Valley, on both sides of the river, the Balli family
has long been a symbol of how Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, were
robbed of their land in Texas by Anglos.     That is the significance of
the court ruling reported on below;  an admittance at last,  that fraud
and other illegal acts were committed,  to steal the land away from the
ancestors of the majority of the population that lives here in South

An 11 million dollar award is peanuts in comparison to the scale of the
thefts.      The decision only has to do with oil and mineral rights on
Padre Island, while the land itself on the island, is now worth billions
of dollars.

Most Mexican-Americans did not have the power and resources available to
the Balli family.        Their ancestors were robbed of their land and
possessions by Anglo terrorism, and not just fraud and the destruction
of real estate deeds.

The children and grand-children of these families, will never get any
money or justice via the US legal system.     In fact, it was the legal
system that conspired against them through so many years.        And
continues to do so.

Still, it is a great symbolic victory for the Hispanic community.
One can only hope that the decision will not be overturned on appeal.
And there is hope that further victories for legal redress for the
Hispanic community lie somewhere ahead.

Tony Abdo
By Brenda Rodriguez / The Dallas Morning News
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND – In a historic verdict, a jury decided Wednesday
that a New York lawyer swindled a Mexican-American family out of
millions in mineral royalities when he bought Padre Island.

One expert said the case could serve as a model for other Hispanics who
feel that they've lost land to Anglos unfairly.
After four days of deliberations, a Cameron County jury in Brownsville
decided in favor of the Balli family, who said they were cheated out of
their inheritance when they sold the South Texas island in 1938 to
Gilbert Kerlin, now a 90-year-old Bronx lawyer and businessman.

The all-Latino jury on Monday will decide the amount of punitive damages
that Mr. Kerlin must pay the family to make up for decades of malice and
fraud. About 290 Balli heirs had asked for $11 million in oil and gas
profits from the island, interest and lawyers' fees. Mr. Kerlin already
must pay the Ballis about $1.2 million in compensatory damages.

"Today, justice has been served," said Hector Cárdenas, a Balli family
member and an attorney who assisted in the case. "The Balli family honor
has been restored."

Mr. Kerlin did not appear in court Wednesday. A gag order bans him or
his lawyers from saying whether he will appeal. Mr. Kerlin's attorneys
could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Balli family members from Florida, Arizona and Mexico filled the
courtroom for the trial, sitting on benches, lining walls and kneeling
in the aisle to hear the jury's decision. Afterward, Ballis exploded
from the courtroom, hugging, crying and slapping one another on the

The opinion lends credence to a generations-old Balli complaint: that
the powerful South Texas dynasty slipped into poverty after Anglo
settlers stripped them of land and social status.

"We worked so hard for this, so hard," a trembling and tearful Alma
Torres said after Judge Pat McDowell read the jury verdict. "My mom and
my dad died hoping for this to happen."

Britton Monts, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, called Wednesday's
verdict a vindication for the Ballis, adding that attorneys took the
case several years ago because they "believed in the case, on the law,
and on the facts. We believed in our clients."

Mr. Kerlin was just out of Harvard Law School in 1938, when he bought
the titles to Padre Island from the Balli heirs.
King Carlos III of Spain had made a land grant of the island in 1765 to
Mexican priest Padre Nicolas Balli. The island was later named after
Padre Balli.

By the time Mr. Kerlin arrived in Texas, the Balli descendants had
fallen on hard times, and almost all of the vast Rio Grande ranch lands
that had belonged to the family had been lost or repossessed. Most of
the survivors were struggling to feed their families.

Because the Ballis spoke little or no English, they probably didn't
realize what they were selling to Mr. Kerlin or how much it was worth,
their descendants say.
All 27 of the titles purchased by Mr. Kerlin were traced back to Padre
Balli. It is uncertain how much Mr. Kerlin paid for each title. He
wouldn't say.Mr. Kerlin's attorneys said he later found documents
indicating the Ballis sold Padre Island in the 19th century. Many
property owners sold off parcels of land along the Rio Grande during the
uncertain months leading up to the Mexican-American War, they said.

Documents from Matamoros, Mexico – the border city across from
Brownsville – indicate the Ballis sold the land to a man named
Santiago Morales in 1830. Mr. Kerlin used those papers to argue that he
didn't owe the Ballis any money. He said they sold him an island that
they didn't own.

Mr. Kerlin's lawyer M. Steve Smith last week called the Balli lawsuit a
"nuisance claim."

But, the Ballis said the Morales sale never went through. Balli attorney
Tom McCall said Mexican documents indicate Morales later gave the island
back and collected a refund.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kerlin had apparently agreed to split any oil profits
with the heirs at the time he purchased the island. According to Balli
lore, the heirs carefully copied down their addresses and awaited a
check. But they never heard from Mr. Kerlin again.

Over the years, Mr. Kerlin leased drilling rights to Padre Island and
sold its sandy surface to developers. He earned millions.
Armando C. Alonzo, an associate professor of history at Texas A&M
University and author of Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South
Texas, said the jury's decision is "revolutionary" and could have
far-reaching effect on similar cases elsewhere.

"This is a symbolic victory. I do think it has a lot of meaning. They
[the Balli family] had their day in court, they've been heard, and they
won," Mr. Alonzo said. "It has a very strong potential of opening up the
courts to other Hispanic families that have made very similar arguments
in the past."

Dallas members of the extended Balli family were thrilled by news of the

"It's been a long time,'' said Corina Balli Castruita, of Allen. "Since
1924, the family has tried to get this in court. It was their turn to be
heard this time."

Although she was not a party to the lawsuit, Corina Balli Castruita, of
Allen, hailed the verdict.

I'm happy for them, just to get justice done ... I'm just so glad to see
that this day has come. I want to congratulate the whole family. They
well deserve this."

Mrs. Castruita said her branch of the family was plaintiff in a similar
suit. In that suit, descendants of another Balli, Jose' Manuel Balli
Villarreal, are seeking a return of almost 400,000 acres they claim was
taken by Mifflin Kenedy, one of Texas' most powerful ranchers, in the
19th century.

She said the jury's verdict in the Padre Island lawsuit might make it
easier for Balli heirs to win the Kenedy lawsuit. "I hope so, but of
course we're fighting very powerful individuals, as well as the Catholic
Church," which is associated with causes supported by the charitable
trust overseeing the Kenedy fortune.

Mrs. Castruita's brother, George L. Balli, said he was cutting a
client's hair at a salon in downtown Dallas when he heard about the
jury's verdict.

"We just can't believe some judge finally looked at it and said 'this is
right, they have the right to this,'" he said.

Referring to the Kenedy case, Mr. Balli, 53, said, "The Ballis had this
big portion of Texas. It's a shame that you end up with nothing."

Hours after the verdict was rendered, it was business as usual on Padre
Island, which has about 2,000 residents but swells to many times that
during the summer season.

Tourists snapped photos just off the causeway not far from a statue of
Padre Balli. Some residents kept busy at work, while others enjoyed the
day at local haunts. Much of the island that stretches about 160 miles
along the Texas Gulf Coast is now Padre Island National Seashore; the
southern tip is South Padre Island, a resort city.

The case hasn't generated much attention on Padre Island because it
doesn't directly affect it or its residents, some locals said. Some
residents did say that the Balli family's longtime battle has been

But while the lawsuit has drawn little interest, it may have provided a
lesson for some.

"That's why we have that statue to remind people and to recognize the
founder – Father Balli," said Padre Island Mayor Ed Cyganiewicz. "It
has heightened the awareness of the people's ... interest about the
history of South Padre Island. There is a lot of history on the island."

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