Mexican-Americans Challenge Foundation over Texas Land

Article excerpt

SARITA, Texas - The most historically important Texas battle this century could be fought in the coming months in this picturesque little county seat.

The civil action case, "Descendants of Jose Manual Balli Villareal vs. the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation," is drawing little attention, but potentially is important enough to affect the entire Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

The lawsuit pits hundreds of Mexican-Americans against a charitable foundation worth hundreds of millions of dollars amid a claim that some of Texas' most famous land barons built their fortunes in the 1800s "the old-fashioned way" - by stealing it.

The response from the foundation's managers: The land in question has been held by the foundation, or the ranching families whose property became the Kenedy foundation, for more than a century. It had been "fenced and enclosed" all that time.

Even had the land been seized from the Mexican owners, the foundation reasons, it had become the property of the Texans through a legal technicality called "adverse possession," a modern-day "squatter's rights" provision.

The case is just heating up and draws little attention here. However, the implications, historic as well as financial, are vast.

In the early 1800s, Mr. Balli, a former military leader and businessman, held a large land grant in South Texas - a gift from the king of Spain. It was then part of the Spanish Empire.

Now more than 800 descendants of Mr. Balli and his wife, Maria Antonio Cavazos de Hinojosa, claim that land - 363,993 acres - was stolen by Mifflin Kenedy, who with Richard King founded the famous King Ranch just south of here.

Mr. Kenedy later split from Mr. King and formed his own huge cattle ranch, a spread called La Parra, at 400,000 acres only slightly smaller than the King Ranch.

There seems little doubt of Mr. Balli's ownership of the property when it was in Spanish domain.

But historians have written about how - after losing two wars to the Texans - Mexicans were ordered to move south of the Rio Grande River, their land stripped from them with impunity.

As part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States paid Mexico $15 million and took what later became California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and part of Colorado, while Mexico relinquished all claims to Texas, which three years earlier had become a state. …