XIMENES-L ArchivesArchiver > XIMENES > 2005-07 > 1122255829
From: Dani Brown <>
Subject: Texans seek compensation from Mexico for 12 million acres lost after 1848 treaty
Date: Sun, 24 Jul 2005 18:43:49 -0700 (PDT)
SOURCE: Yolanda Zarate ()
Texans seek compensation from Mexico for 12 million
acres lost after 1848 treaty
By Sandra Dibble
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER [California]
April 16, 2005
EARNIE GRAFTON / Union-Tribune
Aminta Zárate says a 1941 decree by Mexico's president
obligated the country to pay $245.1 million in
compensation. Aminta Zárate steps from a 170-year-old
family cemetery on the south Texas ranch where she
grew up. A descendant of the region's first Spanish
settlers, she wants compensation for lands she says
were unjustly taken from her ancestors.
EDINBURG, Texas She learned the story as a little
girl, growing up amid rattlesnakes and cactus thorns
on a small cattle ranch in south Texas. The land is
ours, they told her, all the way to the horizon and
beyond. It was granted to our ancestors by Spain and
Mexico, they said, then stolen after it became part of
the United States in 1848.
Aminta Zárate wants compensation from Mexico.
She is 86, a widow of prodigious memory and unswerving
will. Over the past 27 years, she has gone to court,
spoken with senators, met with ambassadors, petitioned
presidents. And now the former elementary school
cafeteria manager has joined forces with a San Diego
law professor, demanding more than $2 billion from
Mexico on behalf of her group, the Asociación de
Reclamantes, or Association of Land Claimants.
"It's more than money," Zárate said on a recent
Saturday morning, seated inside a small office
attached to her beige brick house in this quiet town
of 45,000 residents. "I want justice for what they've
done to our ancestors, that's what I want."
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
Graphic: The Rio Grande Valley
The story is an odd historical footnote, overlooked in
textbooks and unspoken in the classrooms of south
Texas. But it has been passed down, like a burning
torch, from generation to generation among the
descendants of the original European settlers of this
harsh, flat region on the U.S.-Mexico border land
that belonged to Spain, then Mexico, then the United
States. The Cárdenas and the Cantus and the Ballis,
the Longorias and the Cavazos and the Zárates,
families whose ancestors never crossed the border.
Rather, they like to say, the border crossed them, in
1848, after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe
Their petition boils down to this: In 1941, Mexico
signed a treaty with the United States, agreeing to
compensate 433 south Texas families for the loss of 12
million acres between the Rio Grande and Nueces
rivers. The land once belonged to their ancestors and
was part of Mexico, then became U.S. territory when
the 1848 treaty was signed. But Mexico never did pay
and it shows no signs it will.
"This case has been covered with a veil," said Jorge
A. Vargas, a professor of international law at the
University of San Diego who has taken up the cause of
the Asociación de Reclamantes. "No one knows about
this case in Mexico. If you interview historians,
diplomats, attorneys, no one knows about it."
He has brought the issue before Mexico's National
Commission for Human Rights and is awaiting a reply.
Vargas says the petition is a test of President
Vicente Fox's administration's commitment to human
It is one of the longest-running land disputes in the
Southwest, and unusual because the claimants, mostly
U.S. citizens, are targeting Mexico for injuries
suffered after the lands were no longer part of
The claims raise some delicate issues, and at first
sight, the group's demands might seem downright
bizarre. Why would Mexico, where many are still
smarting over the loss of vast parts of territory to
the United States, agree to pay such a staggering
amount of money to a group of U.S. citizens?
Jorge A. Vargas, a law professor at the University of
San Diego, is defending the Asociación de Reclamantes.
Some say Zárate is a quixotic figure, waging a
hopeless campaign. But she's won her share of
"She's a great lady and I love her. A hero," said Jess
Araujo, a personal injury attorney in Orange County.
"She means well and has tried everything, but there
are a lot of players on the chessboard at this point,
and she's just one small part of it."
Araujo was part of the original team of attorneys who
represented the Asociación de Reclamantes from its
founding in 1978 until the mid-1980s, working on a
In its heyday, when victory seemed more likely, the
association swelled to more than 7,000 members. Today,
there are fewer than 200. Zárate is
secretary-treasurer, and her eldest daughter, Yolanda,
65, is president.
"My sisters say: 'You're crazy. Mexico will never pay.
Why are you spending your time that way?' My nieces,
they don't think it's possible, it's too much work,"
said Yolanda Zárate, a registered nurse. "We want to
give it one more try, in our lifetime. We want
everybody to know the truth."
Yolanda cries easily as she tells the story, recalling
injustice done to her ancestors. But Aminta Zárate
said she never weeps.
She is a small woman, with a commanding presence and
old-fashioned reserve. Yet her eyes brighten when she
talks about growing up on a ranch, about the trips to
churches and courthouses of northern Mexico and south
Texas with her late husband, Julián, to dig up birth
and death and marriage records.
"Peleen por las tierras, porque van a ganar," Julián
told her, as he lay dying of cancer in 1995. "Fight
for the lands, because you will win."
Aminta Cavazos Zárate traces her ancestry to 16 land
grants, the largest belonging to José Narciso Cavazos,
her great-great-grandfather, who was deeded 600,000
acres in 1792 by the king of Spain. That grant was
known as San Juan de Carricitos.
Sunday morning soccer players from Mexico crossed into
Texas at Los Ebanos on the only hand-pulled ferry on
the Rio Grande. When the border was redrawn in 1848,
Mexican families north of the river suddenly found
themselves on U.S. soil, and descendants say they
suffered many injustices.
Between 1750 and 1848, Spain and Mexico made 365 land
grants in the region defined by the Nueces River and
the Rio Grande. The settlements that sprouted there
were a means of sealing off the wealthy Spanish mining
regions in central Mexico from the French and the
English, said Armando C. Alonzo, a Texas historian
whose book, "Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in
South Texas, 1734-1900," looks at land tenure in the
Though claimed by the independent Republic of Texas,
the Nueces region remained part of Mexico until 1848,
when the border was drawn at the Rio Grande and the
lands became part of the United States.
Today, the area is known as the Rio Grande Valley, or
the Trans-Nueces Strip, sometimes the Wild Horse
Desert. Worn gravestones, old wells and the crumbling
foundations of houses hint at the days of rancheros.
The residents are largely Hispanic. Unlike other
regions, families with Spanish surnames here are not
newcomers, but descendants of the oldest settlers.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended two years
of bloody war between the United States and Mexico, is
key to the claims of Zárate and the Asociación de
Reclamantes. Under Article Eight of the treaty, the
United States promised to uphold the private property
rights of Mexicans who ended up on the U.S. side of
Lawsuits alleging violations of the treaty have arisen
across the former Mexican territories, from California
to New Mexico to Colorado. But in Texas, an
independent republic for nine years before it became
part of the United States in 1845, events unfolded
differently. And today, large numbers of descendants
of the original grantees continue to keep the past
"The California land grants were adjudicated under
federal law, and settled before the turn of the
century in court," said Richard Griswold del Castillo,
a San Diego State University professor and author of
"The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo." But in Texas,
property claims were reviewed by a state land
commission. And unlike Southern California, large
numbers of Tejano heirs of the original grantees have
remained in the region, passing on stories of past
During the turbulent decades that followed the signing
of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, many rancheros and
their descendants lost their properties, piece by
piece, to Anglo settlers imbued with the spirit of
Manifest Destiny. A large part of San Juan Carricitos
became part of the vast King Ranch Zárate says
through deceitful practices, but the King Ranch has
insisted that it got its lands through legitimate
"Since I was a little girl, since my mother was a
little girl, we've always known this history," said
Yolanda Zárate, during a visit to an old family ranch,
La Noria Cardeneña, in south Texas.
Descendants of the land grantees found themselves with
smaller and smaller parcels, they say, and treated as
second-class citizens. Historians have documented
racism, violence and land fraud against Mexican
families. But to this day they debate to what extent
this caused the displacement from their lands.
Alonzo, who is a visiting professor at St. Mary's
University in San Antonio, says the causes of land
loss were complex.
"Did Anglos take advantage of some Mexicans? There is
no question in my mind that this did happen. Did it
happen all the time? No," Alonzo said. Before drawing
conclusions, he advocates careful review of each
grant, some of which go back 250 years.
But this much can be documented: In 1923, the United
States and Mexico established a General Claims
Commission to settle outstanding claims between the
two countries rising from the Treaty of Guadalupe
Mexican government officials reached out in south
Texas among the population of Mexican origin,
soliciting claims for loss of property and other
injuries, and presented them as Mexican claims to the
commission. It was a tactic, some say, to offset U.S.
The United States presented 2,781 claims against
Mexico, worth $513 million, on behalf of its citizens,
many of whom had lost oil wells in Mexico. Mexico
presented 836 claims against the United States, for
$245 million; of those, 433 were in south Texas,
representing 12 million acres valued $193.6 million.
San Juan Carricitos, Zárate's ancestral land, was
among the claims.
For the next 16 years, nothing was done. Then, in
1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, anxious to
prevent Mexico from joining the Axis powers, proposed
an arrangement: The two countries would swap claims,
and each would treat the claims as a domestic issue.
It was a good deal for Mexico, given the difference in
sums. The United States asked for an additional $40
million from Mexico, but agreed to pay all the
outstanding claims lodged by U.S. citizens against
Mexico, in turn, agreed to pay the claims that had
originally been aimed at the United States, including
the Texas land grant claims.
By 1948, the United States had paid off its claims.
Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho had signed a
decree in 1941 calling for legislation to provide
compensation for its claimants. But the law was never
"The decree was enacted, and nothing happened after
that," said Vargas, of the University of San Diego.
"That is certainly a constitutional violation."
The heirs began protesting early on. Doors
occasionally opened, but in the end, they always
closed and the heirs went home to south Texas
In 1955, a group of 600 descendants traveled to Mexico
City, demanding meetings with the Mexican government
and staging protests, to no avail.
The next big push came with the founding of the
Asociación de Reclamantes in 1978. Mexican government
officials angrily questioned why they should
compensate a group of U.S. citizens.
"They were initially outraged," recalled Araujo, who
was part of a team of young American attorneys working
for the Asociación on a contingency basis. "We said,
'We'd much rather be going against the U.S., but your
government agreed to this treaty.' "
Aminta Zárate says a 1941 decree by Mexico's president
obligated the country to pay $245.1 million in
Unsuccessful in Mexico, the association filed suit
against the Mexican government in U.S. federal court,
but Judge Thomas Hogan in Washington, D.C., said the
issue was not within the court's jurisdiction.
Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of political science
at Columbia University in New York City, says the case
of the Reclamantes shows that the interests of the
Mexican government and U.S. Chicanos don't necessarily
"It's a really bizarre case, because Mexico didn't
really do anything," he said. "Why would Mexico owe
them money? Who owes them money is the U.S."
But after meeting with the Reclamantes in the early
1990s, Jorge Montaño, then the Mexican ambassador to
Washington, saw merit to their claim. "From a legal
point of view, Mexico in fact had a commitment to
pay," Montaño wrote in his 2004 memoir, "Misión en
"I limited myself to listening to them without
committing myself to anything more than passing on the
information to the appropriate authorities in Mexico
City. That way, we could win some time." Now Vargas is
giving it one more try, representing the association
on a contingency basis.
He has written repeatedly to Mexican treasury and
foreign-ministry officials in Mexico City. The reply
is always the same: "Until the law is passed, this
office is not in the position of examining or
discussing any specific proposal relating to the
claims, because there would be no basis for them."
In 1991, the Reclamantes petitioned Mexico's National
Commission for Human Rights to review their case. It
was quickly rejected on the basis that the alleged
injustice happened too long ago. But Vargas has filed
a new petition claiming a denial of justice under
Today, with interest, the original $193.6 million debt
has swollen to $2.2 billion, Vargas said.
"If Mexico is truly in favor of human rights, then
Mexico must pay them," he said. Vargas' next step will
be to go to the Mexican courts, and if that doesn't
work, to the Interamerican Court of Justice in Costa
Rica, and if necessary, he says, to the World Court in
Zárate tires easily these days and can't travel as she
used to. She has achieved much in three decades: a
treasure trove of genealogies of south Texas families,
cabinets filled with photographs and historic
documents, and the chance to honor the memory of her
ancestors who settled south Texas so many years ago.
But her job, Zárate says, is not yet done not until
she is compensated for the losses she says her
"They're not going to beat me," she said. "I'm going
to win this case."
Sandra Dibble: (619) 293-1716;
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