A Texas jury has ruled in favor of a Mexican-American family that had been fighting for decades to recover oil royalties from Padre Island. The case represents a historic victory for Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Finally, they are gaining rights to the property they lost after the United States took over northern Mexico in 1848.
The court confirmed that over the past 60 years, New York lawyer Gilbert Kerlin defrauded a south Texas family out of an oil fortune. The court ordered Kerlin, now 90, to pay the family $1.2 million in royalties and an additional $1.5 million in lawyers' fees.
Padre Island is named after Father (Padre) Nicolas Balli, a member of an influential family of landowners. The Balli family first arrived in south Texas in the 1700s. The Spanish government granted the island to Padre Balli in 1805. The island eventually went to Balli's nephew, Juan Jose Balli, progenitor of the several hundred Ballis who filed the suit against Kerlin more than a century later.
Although the United States annexed Texas in 1845, Padre Island remained a Mexican possession until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which officially ended the war between the United States and Mexico in 1848.
In 1938, Kerlin hired Primitivo Balli to reconstruct the family tree. Then he set about the business of buying individual deeds from family members, according to the New York Times. In the century and a half since the Balli family first received title to the island, the land had been divided and subdivided as families in each generation passed on the land.
Kerlin eventually contracted with 11 family members. In return for 60,000 acres, the Balli family members were to receive a part of future oil and gas royalties. Despite efforts to claim their share of the oil fortune, they received no royalties. The family characterizes the 60-year-old transaction as thievery.
The Balli case represents a story that was replayed over and over throughout the Southwest. Following the U.S. military conquest of much of northern Mexico in the mid-1840s, Anglo-Americans used both legal and illegal means to gain control of lands that had been held by generations of Mexican families. This contributed to the economic, political and social subjugation of Mexicans throughout the Southwest.
The dispossession of Mexican lands was complex. While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo promised protection of Mexican-owned property, the reality was quite different. In the mid-1800s, the federal government created land courts in Texas, California and New Mexico to rule on the validity of Mexican land claims.
When courts ruled in favor of Mexican landowners, cash-poor but land-rich owners often found they owed their land to the lawyers who represented them in court. Counties also used the taxation system to take land away from Mexican owners.
The region also experienced tremendous anti-Mexican violence beginning in the 1830s. The violent Texas Rangers often worked on behalf of Anglo landowners who acquired their ranches through a variety of legal and illegal tactics. Nineteenth-century Anglo ranchers could count on the law enforcement and judicial systems to back their often-dubious claims to Mexican lands.
Through this complex process of economic change, legal maneuvering and violence, Mexican-Americans found themselves largely landless in the 100 years after U.S. annexation of the Southwest. Today, many of the descendants of these landowners live in poverty.
The Balli court ruling has tremendous implications for other Mexican-American families in the Southwest. The court system, which was so often used to help dupe Mexican-Americans out of their land, may now be their salvation.
Leyva is a historian specializing in Chicana and border history at the University of Texas-San Antonio. She can be reached at the Progressive Media Project, 409 E. Main St., Madison WI 53703. Distributed for the project by KRT News Service.
© 2000 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press