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1 22nd August 03:23
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Default Putting a New Spin on The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo

Texans seek compensation from Mexico for 12 million acres lost after
1848 treaty
By Sandra Dibble
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

"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 Hidalgo.

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 rights.

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?

EARNIE GRAFTON / Union-Tribune
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 admirers.

"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 contingency basis.

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

"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

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.

EARNIE GRAFTON / Union-Tribune
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

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 region.

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

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 the border.

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 alive.

"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 injustice.

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

EARNIE GRAFTON / Union-Tribune
"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 Cardeneńa, 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 do***ented 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 do***ented: 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 Hidalgo.

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. claims.

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.

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 passed.

"The decree was enacted, and nothing happened after that," said Vargas,
of the University of San Diego. "That is certainly a constitutional

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.' "

EARNIE GRAFTON / Union-Tribune
Aminta Zárate says a 1941 decree by Mexico's president obligated the
country to pay $245.1 million in compensation.

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 coincide.

"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

But after meeting with the Reclamantes in the early 1990s, Jorge
Montańo, then the Mexican ambassador to Washington, saw merit to their
claim. "From a legal point of view, Mexico in fact had a commitment to

"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 international law.

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 The Hague.

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
do***ents, 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 ancestors suffered.

"They're not going to beat me," she said. "I'm going to win this case."

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