family is a family of self-made genealogists, historians, lawyers. When nobody would acknowledge their roots, the Ballís unearthed them. When nobody would tell their side of the story, they wrote and proclaimed it themselves. When nobody would represent them, they asked to approach the bench, Your Honor, and they said what they had to say. You see, the Ballís weren’t just born Ballí, they became it. And once they began to change, there was no turning back.
“I’ve been telling people I’m gonna move on with my life after this,” Pearl Ballí Mancillas mumbled as we waited in the Brownsville federal courthouse for the jury’s verdict. She sighed. “But then I ask, ‘What is my life? This is all I’ve ever known.’”
The history of the Ballí lawsuit really begins in the blurry years after Padre Ballí’s death. Just months afterward, his nephew, Juan José, sold the island, but the story goes, Santiago Morales, the Mexican man who bought it, may have suffered buyer’s remorse. Exactly what was happening on Padre Island at that time is impossible to know. The Ballís had divided the island among themselves into two large tracts, north and south. At the same time, Anglos who arrived from throughout the United States and Europe set foot on other parts of the island and called it theirs. Among these was John Singer, the brother of the man who invented the modern sewing machine. And there was Pat Dunn, the famed Duke of Padre Island, who, the Ballís’ lawyers say, erected guard posts to keep others out, and in 1928, claimed title to almost the whole island through squatter’s rights. The whole time, various Ballís with island roots and from other landed branches had been trying to determine what they owned. One of them was Ignacio Ballí Tijerina, whose ancestors had possessed an even larger tract on the mainland known as La Barreta, where cattle baron Miflin Kenedy later built his ranching empire. “Before the law, we are all equal men,” Tijerina wrote in the articulate, typed notes he left behind. “Before society, we are not.” Over lunch at one of the five tables in the Brownsville Cafe, in a white T-shirt with an imprint of the Ballí coat of arms, his daughter Herminia Ballí Chavana tells me the story. Her father and his brothers, she says, were approached in 1910 by a Mexican American man who had been sent by an Anglo lawyer to offer them 25 pesos each for their signatures. His brothers refused the offer and instead sent Tijerina to the Mexican archives in Reynosa to find out what their ancestors had owned.
But he was not let in, he wrote in his notes, so he sought special permission from a Matamoros judge some sixty miles away, then made his way back to Reynosa. The archives were in disarray. “Los americanos,” as he called the Anglos, had already been there—without the extra trip to Matamoros. They pieced together land ownership through wills and birth and marriage certificates, bribing the archives’ keeper for some of the originals or simply taking what wasn’t theirs. Herminia’s voice grows furious as she paraphrases her father’s memoir. “The Anglos would steal the deeds,” Herminia says angrily, her hand shaking violently as she grabs a white paper napkin from the table and stuffs it under an imaginary jacket. Later they would hire locals to pay landowners to sign documents that some of them could not even read, sealing the transfer of their land.
As the research of land ownership progressed, speculation abounded and theories surfaced. Some of them seeped into the newspapers, and one of these articles, a 1937 story that appeared in the Brownsville paper, was mailed to a prominent New York lawyer named Frederic Gilbert by a business associate in South Texas. The article reported that a document had been found showing Juan José Ballí’s sale of the island in 1830 to Santiago Morales had been rescinded. This suggested that a group of Ballís might still hold title to more than half of the island. In New York, Frederic Gilbert summoned his 24-year-old nephew, Gilbert Kerlin, a sharp young graduate of Harvard Law School, and gave him his first assignment: Go down to Padre Island and buy the Ballís’ titles.
And so Gilbert Kerlin, who today is 91 years old, stepped into what had become common South Texas practice: Figure out who owns land, round them up, and offer to buy. He was a “baby lawyer” then, as attorneys in the island case described him in court last summer, and he spoke no Spanish. But he was resourceful, so he got help—the best help, in fact, he could find. To track down the Ballís who might still have claims to the island, he hired one of their own, a man named Primitivo Ballí, who was paid $750. Primitivo’s daughter Librada, who testified at the trial, would be Kerlin’s secretary. And for legal advice, Kerlin knocked on the door of Francis William Seabury, a powerful lawyer well known for his extensive research of South Texas land grants. Originally from Virginia, Seabury had become a prominent Valley politician and served four terms in the Texas Legislature, including one as Speaker. Some spoke English; some did not. Most weren’t very educated. But the Ballís who descended from the priest’s nephew held claims to the beach that Kerlin’s uncle thought might be worth something. At the time, the island was but an empty swath of sand, with only a Coast Guard station and an abandoned fishing shack. Yet underneath lay the slick stuff of Texas riches. Seabury tried to warn Kerlin off. “Developments since you left confirm my original opinion that you would have no reasonable chance of making good title to any part of Padre Island acquired by deed from the supposed heirs of Juan José Ballí,” Seabury wrote Kerlin’s uncle in a letter dated August 11, 1938. Had the 1830 rescission really occurred? It wasn’t entirely clear, Seabury argued. Almost prophetically, he closed with a warning: