The Alma in the Alamo: Stories from San Antonio’s 300th year
The King Ranch story is the proverbial story of conquest. How complicated it becomes in the flesh and blood of the people who are the results. If we have to choose between our conquering half and our conquered half, we choose the conqueror almost every time.
My father was born on the King Ranch. My great-great-grandfather, a French immigrant (my name is Renaud, after all), lost almost twenty thousand acres to the King Ranch after the U.S.–Mexican War. He had inherited the land because of his French-Mexican wife, and he came to Texas as a smuggler to make his fortune. My great-grandfather, a former cowboy, was shot in the back on the King Ranch. He married an indigenous woman who never knew her people. His death was witnessed by his sons, one of whom was my grandfather. This is an old story.
My late father told me a secret so I wouldn’t forget. It is a story about the King Ranch that everyone knows but doesn’t say: Not only did the Kings steal our land after the U.S.–Mexican War—almost a million acres that define Texas—they stole the prettiest women.
To the victor goes the spoils, right? After the war that made Texas what it is today, land owned by Mexican-Americans was legally and/or violently taken by scions of the founding father, Captain Richard King, who established one of the largest ranches in the world, today comprising 825,000 acres. Cattle. Oil. Cowboys. Chili con Carne. This is the story of an undocumented, uncrowned princess from that place. Let’s call her Gertrudis, or Gerty. (She is a composite of two women I know.)
Gertrudis is now in her seventies, a brown woman with skin that is barely toasted. She has that striking indigenous profile stamped on antique porcelain skin, a chipped face. Even her breathing—soft and deep—seems to come from a time when a good woman spoke carefully and quietly. Her voice is English, but is mildly—very mildly—flavored Spanish. Lots of regal white hair and quick steps. She stands out in the caramelized brown that is so much of South Texas. Gerty, an orphan, has told me that her biological mother was German, also the daughter of an orphan. In the 1800s, immigration from Germany was open and free. The quotas began in the early twentieth century. Prior to this, thousands of displaced and persecuted Germans arrived here as political and religious refugees. They dispersed throughout the Midwest, travelling to Texas to work in farming, especially. For much of the nineteenth century, one-third of Central Texas was German. I guess that’s why we love beer so much—Gerty sure does.
That Gerty’s story rings true will not be surprising to many in our community—I've heard it before about members of my own family. Perhaps she never knew her biological mother, who, it was whispered around the ranch, was the illicit child of one of the ranch-owner’s sons. Like enlightened elites, the King family was known for taking care of their people, and this generosity apparently included the many mistresses of the sons, who grew up as middle-class children in Kingsville and Alice, Texas. (The ranch claims to have no information about welfare provided to mistresses.) The women, their children, and their families were not to complain—the Kings, and later the Klebergs, who married them, always took care of their people. It is this kind of material and psychic colonization that is also called loyalty, if not blind devotion—a historic intertwining between the Kings and their subjects that I know as a codependency. My father loves the Kings and Klebergs. He admires powerful, autocratic men. Daddy’s family lost all those thousands of acres to the King Ranch—yet like so many, he admires and resents them at the same time. This is Texas.
Gerty was adopted by a Mexican-American family with no children of their own, a devout, working-class Catholic family who worked for the King Ranch. They had a middle-class life—the ranch-style home, new clothes for Easter and Christmas, all the fish and tamales they wanted. The King-Kleberg family took care of its own, and especially Gerty. Everyone knew that she was one of the King-Kleberg’s illegitimate grandchildren, not so unusual. These children had their own neighborhood in Alice, with good houses just for the families who raised them. There were no papers to prove their lineage. Silence. What would people say?
An only child like my father, Gerty was imbued with the dawn-to-dusk work ethic of ranch life, along with the starched jeans and shiny cowboy boots, gifts from the richest, velvety-steel bosses of Texas that signaled the pretensions of the middle-class. The King Ranch connections could ensure college and beyond. A great job. Especially if you were loyal.
Gerty grew up and eventually started her own life in San Antonio, finished college, and bought a house: a new life in the Mexican-American capital of Texas. Now, Gerty’s grown children have prospered. She’s never told them she sold the few acres from her King Ranch guilt inheritance for their college. She is ashamed of this.
Gerty loves guns and President Trump. She does not support the Dreamers, or even identify as Mexican. Even if she is illegitimate—she “belongs.” Or pretends she belongs. We all want to belong, ultimately.
My father was not so different than Gerty. He was a King Ranch man through and through. He spoke English and Spanish as one language, making one body of words from the branchy rivers of South Texas. He loved his pork tamales slow-cooked in the ground, the old-fashioned way. Sweet potatoes with cinnamon and café de olla the Mexican way. Daddy was disgusted by Mexico—too poor for him. He was from the King Ranch, where his bosses were definitely not poor. My father was tall and lean, a cactus-man who needed little water and could withstand hurricanes and tornadoes. He, like Gerty, was a descendant of pioneers—French, probably Lipan Apache, and maybe black—who could and did survive. He loved the land, and hated all who were not from his own. He belonged here. I never agreed with his tribalism, but I understood him.
He used to say that I was too much like my Mexican-born mother. And she used to say that love is the only land that matters.
Texas is a melting pot filled with our conflicting spices. An unhealthy stew. Too painful to contemplate, the past is in the flesh’s betrayal. Gerty has absorbed the ethos of the conquerors. My mother would have forgiven her for her conquering ethos. I can hardly forgive my father, and I know there is enough land for all.
“The Alma in the Alamo: Stories from San Antonio’s 300th year” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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