Land Often Wrongfully Gained

Tony Abdo aabdo at
Fri Aug 11 14:46:11 MDT 2000

The Ballí heirs' victory in federal court last week must give heart to
the various Mexican-American reclamante, or claimant, associations
across the Southwest that have been working to recover lost lands.

But it will not be easy. In the Ballí case, the issue was the buyer's
failure to live up to the conditions of the sale, not the sale itself.

After the westward movement, Texas and California established
commissions to validate the titles of original grantees. Some scholars
have questioned the constitutionality of that process, since it placed
the burden of proof on the defendant, but some process was necessary
with the change of sovereignty.

Few Mexican-Americans lost their lands at that point, even though titles
and documents to many holdings in South Texas perished when a steamboat
carrying the proceedings of the Land Commission sunk on the Rio Grande.

The problems were greater than validation of titles, however. As
Mexican-Americans adapted to the American system, they were faced with
the new legalities of land ownership and new procedures for the sale of

There also were problems with the boundaries of the lands granted under
Spain and Mexico. Vast properties were used largely for cattle grazing
and, therefore, the exactness of their perimeters was not important.

Additionally, neither Spain nor Mexico had a strong tradition of taxing
land. The American system, however, did, and that required clear
boundaries. Consequently, South Texas rancheros had to hire surveyors.

But not all rancheros attended to this or the paying of taxes. Many lost
their lands at sheriffs' auctions, at which the new lords, colluding not
to outbid one another, bought the ranchos for pennies per acre.
Still, most fraud came as American and European settlers, hungry for
land at any cost, moved into South Texas.

Edward Dwyer, an Irish merchant in San Antonio, for example, called for
the Texas Revolutionary Army to move into Béxar to intimidate the
Mexican residents of San Antonio into selling their lands.

In Victoria, unfair challenges to property rights were brought against
Mexicano ranchers. Elsewhere, unwarranted criminal charges were made
against them in the hopes that the ranchers, fearing unfriendly juries,
they would flee to Matamoros or Saltillo and abandon their properties.

There was fraud among attorneys, who would keep cases tied up in the
courts for years. Even when Mexican-American landowners won, they would
have to pay lawyer fees with land. Sometimes the defending attorney
turned around and split his gains with the claimant.

A former student of mine recounted how her grandfather, in his old age,
would get up from his rocking chair fearful that "los rinches de la
quineña me vienen a envenenar las norias" ("the rangers, or henchmen,
of the King Ranch are coming to poison my water holes"), thus killing
off his stock and forcing him to sell his land.

Yet many Mexican-American landowners defended themselves well. Many,
too, learned the rules of the American system, adapted and even

In fact, rancheros in the San Antonio River valley had been driving
herds to Louisiana; taking them to American markets was not particularly
Some Mexican-Americans in South Texas also prospered. In the 1880s, one
ranchero, Blas María Gutiérrez of Zapata County, reported $144,188
for tax purposes.

With the exception of a few who also were merchants, however, these
ranchers were land rich but money poor. Consequently, many found
themselves in a bind during the economic crises that occurred
practically every decade and willingly sold their ranches.

It was during those depressions that Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy
amassed kingdom-size ranches in South Texas.
The truth of it all may never be known. There are sample studies of
fraud and violence, adaptation and survival and massive sales of land.

In any case, the ties to the land among Mexican-Americans are
indisputable. The victory of the Ballí heirs thus confirms a heartfelt
sentiment among Mexican-Americans that this is their land and they
belong here.

GHinojosaEN at

Tony Abdo

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