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History Drives Padre Island Lawsuit

August 7, 2000

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Scholars have a nickname for the underbelly of frontier history: The ``gran despojo″ _ or the great robbery.

The arrival of white settlers on dusty Southwestern ranchlands has been a continuing source of racial strife in a territory marked by hard contrast: white and Hispanic; opulence and poverty; north and south.

Last week, in a case laced with all of those historical undertones, an all-Hispanic jury agreed that a New York millionaire swindled the Balli family out of Padre Island oil royalties.

The jury will be asked to decide how much Gilbert Kerlin, 90, should pay the Balli descendants for decades of fraud and conspiracy. The family has asked for about $11 million. The jury was supposed to hear that part of the case Monday, but proceedings were recessed until Tuesday due to a sick juror.

Kerlin bought the narrow barrier island from the Balli heirs in 1938, and agreed to pay the family a share of any oil or gas discovered beneath the tropical beaches. Wells of oil were discovered _ but the family never saw a cent.

Their supporters consider it a classic example of gran despojo.

Last week brought an unprecedented victory for the family that spent the last century decrying the loss of vast territories _ and a hint that modern courts are prepared to re-examine Mexican-American complaints of land loss.

``Our morale has improved tremendously with the Balli verdict,″ said Luis Arredondo, 52. ``We’ve been rooting and praying for them.″

There was a time when Spanish settlers ruled the lower ear of Texas. The tough Tejanos roped cattle on the open plains, built homes and laced themselves into tight Rio Grande ranching communities.

``They made a distinctive region,″ said Armando C. Alonzo, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of ``Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas.″ ``They created the Hispanic South Texas we have to this day.″

But in the second half of the 19th century, land flew out of Tejano control with bewildering speed. Anglo settlers poured in from the Midwest, and the face of ranching turned white. In less than 50 years, land owners went from being majority Hispanic to majority Anglo.

Land trickled away because of interracial marriage or through legitimate sales and auctions. Other cases were ugly: Guns, sometimes, or the trickery of lawyers.

Historians disagree on just how many of the tracts changed hands peacefully and openly. The details are blurred by the years, by lost documents, by death.

Alonzo believes most of the movement was legitimate. Other historians disagree.

``Fraud, intimidation and violence,″ University of Houston history professor Emilio Zamora said. ``That’s what played a great role in the transfer of land away from Mexican hands.″

A Houston businessman, Arredondo says he’ll fight for 30,000 acres his family lost more than 100 years ago.

The family still has the 1832 grants from the Mexican government. Arredondo said his male ancestors were killed or kidnapped, the women and children forced to abandon the ranches.

``I grew up listening to the story of the land,″ Arredondo said. ``My mother always told me not to forget, to fight to the end to get our family’s land back.″

Two hundred years ago, the Ballis owned stretches of mesquite-dotted plains from Corpus Christi to Matamoros. The family fell into poverty after their lands were taken over. Padre Island was a small part of the lost property.

``History is written by those who hold power _ we all know that,″ Balli lawyer Britton D. Monts told the jury during closing arguments. ``You are going to write a chapter of that book.″


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