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Visiting King Ranch

Read more about the history of King Ranch and the Kinenos.



King Ranch, A Homecoming

Welcome to the King Ranch!
Today I returned to the 825,000-acre stretch of land that four generations of my family toiled upon every day of their lives. It was, in a way, a sort of homecoming. Just fifteen years ago, my abuelos, tias, and tios - grandparents, aunts, and uncles - lived side-by-side in a row of yellow brick ranch houses, and no one ever locked their doors. When I close my eyes, memories of those days flood back to me in waves. Of my great-grandmother, Abuelita Carmen, flattening little lumps of tortilla dough with a rolling pin and slapping them on a red-hot burner. Of my cousins shrieking with delight as a star-shaped piata (a papier-mch figure filled with candy that blindfolded children break or knock down with sticks) showers them with candy. Of my Uncle Juan riding on horseback through fields of zacahuistle grass under the blazing South Texas sun.

For nearly a century and a half, the King Ranch was a source of great joy for my family and hundreds of others. But over the past fifteen years, this happiness has turned bittersweet. What was once a self-sufficient, family-owned operation has turned into a major international corporation that owns some thirteen million acres worldwide. Its logo, the "Running W," has been emblazoned on saddles, blankets, furniture, luggage, wallets, key chains, coffee mugs, pens, and pendants that telemarketers sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Its land brings in millions with its oil and gas reserves, hunting and agriculture. Its prized cattle - the cherry red Santa Gertrudis - supply the butcher shops of the nation. Its quarter horses take first place in shows across the globe.

And its workers have been lost in the process.

It was the blood, sweat and tears of Mexican laborers known as Kinenos - the King's Men - that made this ranch a success, but somehow that doesn't matter in the era of corporatization. This became very clear to me when my mother and I returned to the little strip of houses that once belonged to our abuelos, tias, and tios and discovered that they had either been abandoned or rented out to hunters. For generations, Kinenos spent their whole lives on this ranch, from the cradle to the grave. But those days are over now.

The King Ranch story begins in the spring of 1852, when a captain by the name of Richard King left his riverboat on the Rio Grande, hopped on his horse, and headed with a friend to the Lone Star Fair in Corpus Christi, some 170 miles away. They were quickly engulfed in an endless sea of wiry grasses, mesquite, and cactus known as El Desierto de los Muertos, or The Desert of the Dead. Yet, as the men rode, they noticed that this unforgiving desert actually teemed with life. White-tailed deer, rattlesnakes, bobcats, javelena, and coyotes roamed the prairie, while flocks of hawk, green jays, buzzards, and crested caracaras soared through the sky. By the end of their journey, King was smitten. Sources vary on how he set about acquiring the land, but the way he rounded up help is legendary. He simply ventured to interior Mexico and asked an entire village to join him. If they were hardworking and honest, he promised, they would be cared for from the cradle to the grave. All 120 men, women, and children agreed. They gathered up their livestock and chickens and followed him across the border.

The Kinenos worked from the time they could walk until the day they could walk no more. Throughout their career, they braved fires, floods, droughts, cactus, rattlesnakes, and the burning sun. The vaqueros -- or cowboys -- rose each morning at 5, strapped on their spurs, and reported to work. Duties included everything from branding, castrating, and inoculation to breaking the horses and breeding the cattle. One of the most important duties was roundup, during which vaqueros spent days or even weeks following the cattle across the prairie. Their meals consisted of beef, beans, rice, delicious bread called pan de campo, and black coffee, and were prepared on a green chuck wagon pulled by six mules. At night, they spread out their bedrolls and slept under the stars.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, women tended to the cooking, cleaning, sewing, mending, and child rearing. They scrubbed clothes clean on washboards and made saddle blankets by shearing sheep and then washing, carding, spinning and weaving the wool. When their husbands brought home a cow to be slaughtered, women ensured that nothing was ever wasted. They saved its blood for gravies and fried its intestines in a skillet for a delicious dish called tripas. Its head was cooked underground for a barbecue called barbacoa, and its hide was used as leather.


Spring cleaning! Nick and I finally cleaned out The Warrior...

For years, there was never a retirement plan or health insurance on the ranch because no one needed it. When a Kineno fell ill, they simply went to the Kingsville Clinic and billed their employer. The ranch assisted families in other ways as well, giving out provisions of flour, lard, rice and beans, plus milk from the dairy cows. At Christmastime, the men received jackets, the women received sheets, and the children got toys, candy, and fruit. If there was a wedding, the ranch would donate a cow. Up to a point, children could even attend school on the ranch.

For generations, the King Ranch was like a medieval village. Kids learned their trades from their parents and often followed the same exact career path. When they retired, they were cared for. As one of King's descendants put it: "Never since the founding of the King Ranch have we left a man bereft. If he can find something to do, very well. If he can't well, he can sit in the sun and another beef can be killed for him and his family."

And this was the philosophy the King Ranch abided by until the late 1980s. That's when the descendants of Richard King decided to bring in some outside business executives to run the ranch. The Kinenos knew that an era had come to an end when King's great-great-grandson, Tio Kleberg, the only family member who was still living on the ranch and working on its day-to-day operations, was fired. The board then set about making changes that would forever alter life as they had known it.

Some of the changes reflected the modernization of the ranching industry as a whole. Vaqueros now carry cell phones next to their lassos. Their branding irons are plugged into an electric outlet rather than heated over coals. They track the genetic makeup of their cattle by attaching transponders to their ears. But in other ways, the King Ranch has become another slice of corporate American pie, in which people rate second to profits. When it was discovered that a single helicopter could do the work of dozens of vaqueros at roundup, for instance, the ranch invested in one. This left the vaqueros scrambling for ways to justify their employment. Those who couldn't were fired.

Even worse, Kinenos are now asked to make a tough decision when they reach retirement age: they can either keep the house they've lived in all their lives, or they can move off the ranch and receive a retirement check. To a Kineno, leaving the ranch is the equivalent of leaving the country. Yet, they cannot subsist on shelter alone. It is with great sadness that they pack up their belongings and leave the only world they have ever known.

I know, because it has happened to members of my own family.

Mom and I visited the King Ranch on Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. People throughout Mexico and Latin America honor their dead on November 1 and 2 by constructing colorful altars filled with offerings called ofrendas and then visiting their gravesites. We too decided to uphold this sacred holiday by returning to the landscape of our memories. But as we drove to the cemetery, I started feeling depressed by all I had seen on the ranch. Everyone I had known and loved -- my abuelos, tias, and tios - were gone. What was my remaining connection to the ranch?

It wasn't until I laid a bouquet of yellow and pink flowers on my great-grandmother's grave that I realized that my bonds with the ranch will never be broken as long as I hold onto my memories. Not even corporate America can erase the past.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


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MAD - English only? No, nyet, nein!