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Heritage Drives Padre Island Suit

August 6, 2000

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ The Balli family’s story grew from the dried dirt of the Southwest, from the hard contrasts of the territory: white and Hispanic; opulence and poverty; north and south.

In a case driven by historical undertones, an all-Hispanic jury decided last week that a New York millionaire had swindled the Balli heirs out of Padre Island oil royalties.

On Monday, the jury will consider how much Gilbert Kerlin, 90, should pay the Balli descendants for decades of fraud and conspiracy. The family has asked for about $11 million.

Kerlin bought the narrow barrier island, which stretches 160 miles along the Gulf Coast, 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.

The Balli verdict was unprecedented for a family that spent the last century in poverty, decrying the loss of vast lands to Anglo settlers.

The complaint of stolen territory is common among Mexican-American families _ especially in the Southwest, a region that was itself snatched from Mexico.

The verdict last week could spur other families to take generations-old grievances to court.

``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 Tejanos _ Texans of Mexican descent _ ruled the lower ear of Texas. The tough Spanish settlers 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.″

When the state’s first Mexican-American congress was held in Laredo in 1911, land title status was voted the most pressing in a long list of grievances.

``There’s a general, collective memory among Hispanics that they were taken advantage of, defrauded,″ Alonzo said.

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.″

Kerlin’s lawyers, meanwhile, asked Judge Pat McDowell to ban from testimony ``any reference to Gilbert Kerlin as a ‘Yankee carpetbagger,’ ‘Anglo land speculator’ or any other pejorative term that appeals to racial or geographic prejudice.″

McDowell agreed to limit the language of the courtroom dialogue. But outside the courthouse, residents continue to debate the Southwest’s dark history.

``Back to the world’s beginning, the conquerors grabbed the land,″ said Frank Boggus, who has lived all 71 of his years in the Rio Grande Valley. ``The English did it to the Indians. Mexico could still be owned by the Aztecs.″

But to a Mexican-American community that believes it was stripped of land, social status and political power, a nod from the legal system is a step toward racial vindication.

``This is going to open the gates, because a lot of people here got cheated,″ said Rebecca Gomez Sexton, a Balli heir. ``The anger is alive in the community.″

Maybe that’s why Amado Juarez doesn’t seem to care how much money the jury awards his family.

Juarez traveled from Jacksonville, Fla., to hear the verdict. After it was read, he leaned alone against a sun-smeared courtroom wall.

``Whatever we get, it’s all right,″ he said. ``We’ve struggled so much. Look how far we’ve come.″


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