sixteen-year-old of skinny arms and knobby knees, I stood at the front of a U. S. history class with a big red poster board and a bit of self-righteousness. Our teacher had assigned a research project, and as I roamed the Brownsville library’s bookshelves without direction, I had found a tiny treasure: a book about a Mexican man from my own hometown. It was thin and floppy, written by a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago. The subject was Juan Cortina, the man who had rounded up an army and shot several men as he declared war against the violent change of power South Texas experienced when it became part of the United States. In an 1859 proclamation, Cortina decried the arriving Anglos for forming, “with a multitude of lawyers, a secret conclave, with all its ramifications, for the sole purpose of despoiling the Mexicans of their lands and usurping them afterwards.” In traditional historical accounts Cortina went down as a border bandit, a “plunderer and murderer.” But in 1949, Charles W. Goldfinch offered a different image, one that had lived on in Mexican border ballads, that rendered Cortina a man outraged by the plight of his people. And so, on a cheap slice of cardboard, I drew a balance with all the ugly descriptions on one side and all the pretty ones on the other. The moral of the story was simply that history had more than one telling. To me, this most basic idea was the most profound revelation. I did not fully realize it at the time, but Juan Cortina’s story was, in a way, my story too. For my family had been in South Texas at the time of the Cortina uprising and for more than a hundred years before, and in time they also would fight for the land they had lost, though with law books and lawyers instead of guns.
Anyone who remembers seventh-grade Texas history class knows that in textbooks the story of our state begins just far back enough to show how brave men with Anglo surnames had conquered a cruel, empty brushland. They briefly recount that this land had been a Spanish province, then Mexican territory. But there is no mention, for instance, of the great Mexican ranches that already dotted the area when the Anglos arrived or of the ranchers’ winter trips to the area’s cities, where there were social clubs, colorful silk dresses, romantic violin serenades. An entire way of life, governed by a sophisticated system that rewarded and discriminated based on birth, class, and skin color, slipped into the whiteness of pages, erased and selectively forgotten.
It was into that social system that José Nicolás Ballí was born—on the privileged side, to be sure. In 1749, 72 years before Stephen F. Austin would set foot in Texas, the first Ballís had arrived from northern Mexico to the province of Nuevo Santander, what is now the Lower Rio Grande Valley. There they would become a powerful landed dynasty. Ten years later, King Carlos III granted the offshore island, then called Isla de Santiago, to Nicolás Ballí, the grandfather of José Nicolás. But it was the grandson, by then a Roman Catholic priest, who surveyed the property, claimed it as his own in 1800, and put up a ranch there. With the help of a nephew, Juan José Ballí, he raised cattle, horses, and mules and worked to Christianize the area’s Karankawa Indians. Eight months after the priest died, in 1829, the newly independent Mexican government finally confirmed title to him and his nephew. By that time Isla de Santiago was already acquiring the name by which it is known today: Padre Island.
To Texans and Mexicans alike, Padre Island is a nice getaway for the limited budget, a beach resort close enough for three-day weekends. Here, Winter Texans dine on fresh fish while their relatives up north shiver through December. Here, college students drink a week of their lives away and dance with barely dressed strangers in sticky outdoor clubs. Rich Mexicans pick up tans during Holy Week and cruise late at night in their shiny Jettas. Skinny beauty pageant contestants strut around in high heels and wide smiles in hopes of a crown. But to the Ballís, the island whispers of a proud but sad past. The last family members to claim a piece of it sold out at the close of the Great Depression, expecting to receive royalties from its underground riches. They never saw a cent. The island’s very presence was a continuing reminder of their fall from preeminence—until last summer, when a Brownsville jury heard their arguments and vindicated their claims.
News of the verdict appeared in dozens of papers nationwide, spread across the pages of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and as far away as Argentina. “Six decades after a New York lawyer bought Padre Island from a Mexican American border family, a jury determined Wednesday that he had swindled the family’s impoverished descendants out of $1. 1 million in oil and gas royalties,” the Associated Press reported. Historians called it “revolutionary,” an overdue acknowledgment of a shady time in Texas history during which hardworking people were stripped of their land. My branch of the family was not involved in the Padre Island lawsuit, but distant relatives were, and we celebrated together. “The victory of the Ballí heirs,” wrote Gilberto Hinojosa, a dean at the University of the Incarnate Word and a South Texas historian, “confirms a heartfelt sentiment among Mexican Americans that this is their land and they belong here.” Once a family whose last name few outside the Valley could pronounce (By-yee), the Ballís became, almost overnight, world-famous.
Yet the victory took centuries of work and lifetimes of hope. It took generations of white-haired matriarchs and patriarchs passing on the story to their grandchildren, decades of searching for old documents that would speak the truth. It took marches and massive family meetings and some miracles too. The Ballí family