I LIVE ON THE THOMAS RANCH, which is in Kenedy and Willacy counties, just north of the Rio Grande Valley. It is a Family Land Heritage Ranch, which means it has been owned and continuously operated by the same family for more than a hundred years. For about seventy years, my family has been raising purebred Charolais cattle, a breed known for its muscle. I grew up here with my brother, Mitch, and together we’ve worked cows with my parents for as long as I can remember. My mother was pulling a calf when she went into labor with me.
I haven’t always been a full-time rancher. My grandmother, who I was close to, always wanted me to become a lawyer. So did my mother, and even when I was little, they were both fond of announcing that I would one day attend the University of Texas law school. I didn’t think much of it, and when I went to Texas A&M for college, I thought I wanted to be a vet. Then a family friend, whose father is a politician in Mexico, told me, “Tonnyre, if you’re a vet, every time you go to a client’s home, they will take you to the kennel. But if you’re a lawyer, they will take you to the library.” I rethought things and ended up with a law degree—from UT Law.
In law school I met my husband, David Joe. We got married in 1997, moved to Dallas, and both worked as attorneys until 1999, when our son, Royse, was born. Then I left the firm to be a mom. It was right about this time that my grandmother died. My parents needed help with her estate tax return, so I took care of all the legal paperwork. It was almost as if this was what I’d been training for my entire career, and I began taking on more and more of my parents’ and the ranch’s legal needs. By the time our daughter, Claudette, was born, in 2002, I knew I wanted to be back at the ranch. David loves the ranch and South Texas, and we knew it was where we wanted to raise our kids. So in June of that year, when Claudette was six months old, we moved. The ranch needed us, and we needed it.
Now I’d just as soon be in the pens every day. I still do legal work—I’ve served as acting Kenedy County attorney, I handle the ranch’s real estate transactions and my parents’ oil and gas leases, among other things, and I take on some pro bono cases—but I prefer to spend most of my time at the ranch. David drives thirty miles to Harlingen every day (his law firm in Las Colinas opened a satellite office for him there), and I bet he’s one of the only attorneys who has to watch for cows, deer, nilgai, and snakes on his commute. He does a lot here at the ranch too, though. The ranch just takes you in.
A WORKING RANCH IS LIKE A CHILD: It takes a village to care for one. At the center of the Thomas Ranch, literally, are my parents, Billy and Claudette Thomas. Their house is in the middle of the pens and the barns. They’re a perfect match—she is strong and brilliant, he is low-key and easygoing—and they hold us all together. Mitch, who oversees the ranch’s day-to-day activity, has a degree from A&M in animal sciences. He and his wife, Linda, and their three girls—Morgan, Logan, and Lauren—live in a house in one of the pastures. David, Royse, Claudette, and I live in the Longoria pasture. We have a wonderful housekeeper named Connie, who keeps us all in order and helps me with the kids. Our cowboys, Robert Salazar and Julián Flores, and their families are also an integral part of the ranch.
Together we make for a tight-knit operation, but to understand just how unique this is, you have to know the ranch’s history. It all started with Francisco Yturria, who was a prominent merchant and banker at the time of Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy. He married Felicitas Treviño, an heir to the San Martin land grant in Cameron County, and they adopted two children, a boy and a girl. The girl, Isabel Yturria, is my great-grandmother.
Francisco invested in land—the ranch I live on was bought in 1861—and at his death, he left an estimated 130,000 acres in Kenedy, Willacy, Cameron, Hidalgo, and Starr counties. When it came to dividing these landholdings, Isabel ran into problems with her brother, so she ended up hiring a lawyer by the name of Dougherty to help her. Because she had all this land but not much money, she paid him for his services in land. (To this day, our family has partnerships with the Doughertys—all dating back to my great-grandmother’s legal bills. You can see why my grandmother wanted me to get a law degree.) Isabel had four kids; my grandmother María García was the only girl. And at the end of Isabel’s life, in 1932, the land was divided again, this time five ways—you cannot forget the lawyer. So my grandmother got 7,160 acres, as well as interests in landholdings and minerals elsewhere. She then married Harl Thomas in 1936. It was Harl who, that very year, first introduced Charolais cattle to the ranch; he was one of the breed’s pioneers.
My grandmother was the perfect woman for her time. She was an artist, and she was opinionated and beautiful and very polished. But I wonder sometimes if she played her kids against each other, because the story only gets more complicated. My grandmother had four children—my father and his sisters. My dad lived on the ranch, and he loved it so much that when he went to college, he came back after only a year. His sisters, by contrast, moved away: to Dallas, Florida, and South Padre Island. My father was the one who ran all the cowboys