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Article: One Family’s Journey

One Family’s Journey

The Story of La Reforma Ranch

by Cayetano E. Barrera III, M.D. 3/28/1998

Welcome to La Reforma Ranch on its centennial celebration!

La Reforma Ranch in northern Starr and Hidalgo Counties was established in 1898. The matriarch that brought her family to La Reforma was Antonia Guerra, a native of the town of Mier, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Antonia’s husband, Manuel Guerra, had died of a heart attack in 1865, just before the birth of their last child, Arcadio. The marriage produced three children - Chrisanta Guerra, Dario Guerra, and Arcadio Guerra.

It was after the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1882 that it was decided to move the family from Mier to the interior of South Texas. The family first moved to Los Brasiles Ranch on the 17,000 acre Charco Redondo Land Grant located west of present-day Falfurrias, Texas. In 1808, Matias Ramirez had applied to the Spanish authorities for the Charco Redondo Grant. In 1813, while ranging his cattle north near the Frio River because of the drought at Charco Redondo, he came across Comanches who had killed one of his cows. During the confrontation, he killed two Comanches but was himself killed. His own cowboys went back Mier to notify the family and a mounted party was quickly organized. They found his body along the well-worn path where his faithful dog had kept scavengers away for several days. His body was covered in ashes, sealed in a cowhide, and brought back Mier for burial.

Antonia owned some land on the Charco Redondo that had been granted to her husband’s uncle, Isidro Guerra. In 1831, after the War of Independence from Spain, Isidro Guerra Rita re-applied for re-affirmation of the grant on behalf of the heirs of Matias Ramirez, his father-in-law. On July 29, 1831, Isidro Guerra Took formal possession of the land before the town officials of Mier. The ritual of taking possession of land under the Spanish colonial government consisted of offering water from the land to the judge, his retinue and horses, pulling weeds, throwing stones and sprinkling water in four directions. The ritual was witnessed by the town officials, who would then go on to sign and notarize the papers. In 1898, after a period of 15 years at Charco Redondo, the family moved and settled in La Reforma Ranch, in northern Starr and Hidalgo counties.

The family had deep roots in Mexico and Spain, and each root had its own unique journey to the ranch in South Texas. Most of the ancestors of La Reforma families came to Mexico during the conquest of Mexico in 1521, or soon thereafter. The ultimate goal was land - abundant land - where they could raise their families and prosper. At least 10 patriarchs of the Guerra and Barrera families received Porcion land grants on the Rio Grande in 1767, during the Spanish colonial period.

Notable ancestors of La Reforma families included: Francisco Montaño, conquistador with Cortez; Captain Alberto del Canto, founder of Saltillo, Coahuila and Cerralvo, Nuevo León; Captain Diego de Montemayor founder of Monterrey; Captain Alonzo de Leon, explorer and historian; Juan Bautista Chapa, explorer and historian; Captain Ignacio Guerra, soldier and alcalde of Monterre; and Captain Santiago Barrera, soldier, surveyor and alcalde of Mier, Tamaulipas.

The first root of this family starts with Francisco Montaño from Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca Province, in northwestern Spain. He was born about 1500, and by 1519, he was in Cuba, involved in the conquest of the island. In 1520, he was with Cortez during his conquest of Mexico. Montaño distinguished himself by climbing a 17,800-foot volcano, Mt. Popocatepetl. Montaño was lowered 400 feet by rope into the crater, where he obtained enough sulfur to replenish Cortez’s depleted supply of gunpowder. He was also the first soldier to plant the Spanish flag on a pyramid in Mexico City, ending the siege of the city on the lake. It is my contention, after discussing this episode with historians and mountaineering aficionados, that this is the highest that any European had climbed up to that time in history. The only mountains close to that height nearest to Europe where the volcanoes of Equatorial Africa and the Himalaya mountains. The Montaño family comes to the Guerra and Barrera families through Diego de Hinojosa and Ana Maria Hinojosa.

Alberto Del Canto’s journey starts in the Azores; Portuguese islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The name del Canto is derived from the Englishman, John of Kent, who had come to Spain in the 1350’s. John Kent came to northern Spain to help the Spanish kings fight the Moors who had occupied southern Spain for several centuries. The name Kent eventually evolved into Do Canto in Portuguese, and then Del Canto, in Spanish. The Del Canto family lived in the Azores for several generations, becoming one of the prominent ruling families of the Portuguese islands. In 1562, Alberto del Canto, at the young age of 16, left the Azores and traveled with the Spanish fleets to the New World. Spanish ships would stop on his island to resupply their water and food stores for the long journey to New Spain. Young Alberto, found himself on the northern frontier of New Spain conquering and pacifying new land. Historians and contemporaries have described Del Canto as a soldier’s soldier, brave to the point of
rashness, temperamental, sensual and “much given to women.”

As captain under Governor Ibarra, Del Canto founded the city of Saltillo in 1577. That same year, he also discovered and founded, “Minas de San Gregorio,” now known as the city of Cerralvo, Nuevo León, where rich silver deposits were discovered. Del Canto then founded the village of “Ojos de Santa Lucia” around a large spring, which would later become the city of Monterrey. Alberto del Canto later married Estefania Montemayor, daughter of Don Diego Montemayor, official founder of Monterrey. Del Canto served many times as alcalde of Saltillo and died while holding office in 1612.


Captain Diego de Montemayor, the official founder of the City of Monterrey, started his journey in southern Spain, in the town of Malaga, province of Andalucia. Montemayor and his wife migrated to New Spain in 1548. In New Spain, Montemayor joined several expeditions throughout northern Mexico and settled in Saltillo in the late 1500’s. In 1596, he enlisted twelve families from Saltillo to go with him to the abandoned Ojos de Santa Lucia village and founded the city of Monterrey. The twelve men brought with them their wives, children, and livestock. Captain Montemayor, a widower at this time, brought his daughter Estefania and the children she had with her husband, Alberto del Canto.

Diego de Montemayor was thought to be a Jewish converso (converted Jew). It was very difficult to determine Jewish ancestry at times because the Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Church was in constant search for heretics and conversos who had lapsed. When Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, a converso was made governor of the huge Kingdom of Nuevo León, he named Don Diego de Montemayor captain of the new capital, Leon, later known as Cerralvo. Carvajal had taken the liberty of renaming the village of Minas de San Gregorio, founded by Del Canto, and gave it the name of Leon. Diego de Montemayor married three times, his third wife was Juana Porcallo, the daughter of Don Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa, a conquistador under Hernán Cortés. Juana Porcallo was the mother of Estefania Montemayor, whose descendants through the de la Garza family, married into the Barrera family.

Captain Alonso de Leon was born in Mexico City, but his parents were from the old kingdom of Castile in north-central Spain. He received his education at Colegio San Ildefonso, a Jesuit College in Mexico City, possibly obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree. De Leon arrived in Nuevo León in 1636 with large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. His household included relatives, servants and a secretary. De Leon was one of the founders of the town of Cadereyta, Nuevo León, and was granted land in Cadereyta and Montemorelos. Captain de Leon also served as the military commander of the area.

In 1650, Captain Alonso De Leon wrote the “History of Nuevo León.” Nuevo León, at that time, included most of south Texas and the present Mexican states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. De Leon gave a detailed account of the Spanish colonization efforts in the province of Nuevo León, and described in great detail the local Indians and their customs. He made many expeditions of discovery, including one to the mouth of the Rio Grande River “por descubrir tierras y saber rumbos; por lo que pudiera importar en lo adelante.”

General Alonzo de Leon, son of Captain Alonzo de Leon, although not a direct ancestor, was a close kin and will be discussed because of his importance to Texas history. General Alonzo de Leon is the person who put Texas on the map and should be considered the Father of Texas. He led five expeditions into Texas from 1686 to 1690 and was the first to survey and map the interior of Texas, including both sides of the lower Rio Grande Valley. In 1689, de Leon founded the ruins of La Salle’s colony at Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast. A year later, de Leon established the first Spanish Mission among the Tejas Indians of East Texas. General Alonzo de Leon also named the following rivers in Texas: the Nueces, the Trinity, the Medina, and the Guadalupe. De Leon named other major rivers in Texas, but these names were later changed by historians and other explorers.

In 1655, Captain Alonzo de Leon was asked to go to Spain by the Governor of Nuevo Leon, Martin de Zavala, as a member of his envoy. De Leon wanted to get an audience with the King and requested more assistance to fight the natives on the frontier of Nuevo León. De Leon Took along his 16-year-old son, Alonzo Jr. While in Spain, the young Alonzo served in the King’s court before coming back to Nuevo León. While waiting in the port of Cadiz to return to Mexico, a hostile English fleet appeared off the coast, making their departure impossible. While a naval fleet was quickly formed to go out and do battle, the young de Leon obtained permission from his father to join the fleet (without pay) and was able to participate in the battle against the English. After the battle, young de Leon was given a certificate of service to the Spanish crown at the age of 16.

Juan Bautista Chapa came to Mexico from Italy. His last name was originally Chapapria. He was born in 1627, near the city of Genoa, Italy, and as a young man migrated to Spain and then to Mexico. While in Mexico City in 1650, he met Captain Alonso de Leon and was hired as the scribe for the town of Cadereyta, Nuevo León. Chapa was an educated man and served as the surveyor and secretary on expeditions under Captain Alonzo de Leon and on at least two expeditions into Texas under General Alonzo de Leon. In 1689, Chapa traveled with General de Leon’s expedition to find La Salle’s colony, and upon seeing the skeleton of a French woman who had been killed by natives, he was moved to write a 36 line poem lamenting her death, thus penning the first piece of literature written on Texas soil. Chapa also wrote a continuation of Captain de Leon’s “History of Nuevo León,” from 1650 to 1690, considered by some historians as the first official history of Texas. Chapa also served as secretary to several provincial Governors of Nuevo León.

The genealogical connection with Juan Bautista Chapa comes from Antonia Guerra’s paternal grandmother, Maria Gertrude’s Juana Chapa. She was the great, great granddaughter of Juana Bautista. Maria Gertrudis’ grandfather was Florencio Chapa, first alcalde, and captain of Mier.

Captain Ignacio Guerra Cañamar was the patriarch of the Guerra family in Cd. Mier. He was born in Mexico City in 1633. His parents were Captain Antonio Guerra Cañamar from the province of Asturias, Spain, and Luisa Fernandez de Rio Frio from Mexico City. Captain Ignacio Guerra served as alcalde of Monterrey in 1671 and held many other important posts in the provincial government of Nuevo León. Among his grandchildren were Francisco Antonio Guerra and Ramon Guerra, who were among the original founders of Mier. In 1767 Francisco Antonio Guerra was granted Mier Porcion 66, on the north side of the Rio Grande River, and Ramon Guerra received Mier Porcion No. 6, on the south side of the Rio Grande. Francisco Antonio was the great, great grandfather of Antonia Guerra of La Reforma Ranch. Porcion 66 and its ranch headquarters, Rancho Alamo, were the main crossing points from Mier to the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Even after 245 years, Rancho Alamo of Porcion 66, is still owned by Rene Molina Guerra and his brothers, direct descendants of Francisco Antonio Guerra.

Captain Santiago Barrera was the patriarch of the Barreras of La Reforma. He was the great-grandfather of Cayetano Barrera who married Crisanta Guerra, daughter of Antonia Guerra. Captain Santiago Barrera was probably born in Cerralvo, Nuevo León, and came to Mier during its founding in 1753. He was a lieutenant in the Spanish militia and was second in command to Captain Florencio Chapa, founder of the first alcalde in Mier. Santiago later served as alcalde and military captain of Mier for many years. Santiago Barrera was also the chief surveyor of the Mier Porciones in 1767 and received Mier Porcion No. 2 on the south side of the Rio Grande. Santiago Barrera’s connection back to Spain as to this day has not been made because the Cerralvo records prior to 1760 have been lost. An interesting paper found in the archives of Mier, dated 1781, has him taking soldiers from Mier to aid Reynosa, which was under attack by hostile natives. The soldiers were probably a “compania volante,” or flying squadron, which was the legal predecessor to what would later be the sheriff’s posse of the American West. These consisted of a group of soldiers or citizens that were always ready to give chase or go to the aid of other towns; their authority crossing many jurisdictions.

Antonia Guerra was widowed in 1865, and although she had property and cattle on both sides of the Rio Grande, she supplemented her income by being a trained midwife and also having a cigarette business in Mier. Antonia came from a long line of brave, strong-willed, frontier women such as (1) Ana Josefa de la Garza daughter of Clemente de la Garza, Governor of Coahuila, who as a widow, around 1750, raised two large prominent South Texas families, the Guerras and the Hinojosas; (2) Josefa Gonzalez Leal, wife of Captain Alonzo de Leon, who is experienced an arrow wound of the neck in 1651, while fighting natives in Cadereyta; and (3) Dona Maria Cantu, whose husband, Lt. Diego de Hinojosa was killed, and herself wounded, during an Indian attack. Around 1675, with her children and servants she moved further into the frontier to Cienega de Flores, north of Monterrey, and later historians would describe her as, “One of those persons whose life and deeds need to be remembered because she, together with the help of her servants and few neighbors, confronted rebel Indians and robbers that roamed this area and made it possible for these territories to be colonized and civilized.”

It was sometime before 1880, in Mier, that Antonia Guerra had a quarrel with the local priest during mass, and as a result, decided to become Methodist. As told to me, by Belen Guerra de Longoria, her granddaughter:

“It was a cold, rainy Sunday in January and only Antonia with her baby and her sister-in-law were in attendance at mass and the priest was angry because of the poor attendance. When her baby began to cry, the priest called out and told her to take ‘that bawling calf out of the church.’ She, in turn, gave the priest a piece of her mind and left the church.”

Methodist missionaries from the United States had frequented Mier since about 1860, holding services in private homes. The missionaries were undoubtedly Antonia Guerra’s connection to the new Methodist missionary school, Holding Institute in Laredo, Texas. Although not all of Antonia’s descendants became Methodist, many years later, some of them became the nucleus of a large Methodist community in Mission, Texas.

The Charco Redondo was isolated and at the time small bands of natives still hunted and roamed in the area. In 1898, after fifteen years and six more Barrera children, it was decided to move from Charco Redondo to La Reforma Ranch in northern Starr and Hidalgo counties. The reason for the move is not known, but it could be because of the drought that year or the brackish well water, or possibly to be closer to Mier. Several thousand acres were bought by Arcadio Guerra, Cayetano Barrera and Dario Guerra in the San Jose Grant located in northern Starr and Hidalgo counties. It is said that the name La Reforma or the Reformation was chosen because they were surrounded by ranches named after saints: San Isidro, San Juanito, Santa Rita, San Ramon, and Santa Elena.

A large well was dug by hand as the first order of business. The large, eight-foot square well, straddled the fence between the Barrera and Guerra ranches. The well wall and cistern were made of local caliche stone and plaster. Antonia’s cattle brand, which she had registered in Mier and Starr County, was the “Muñeca”, or doll, a variation of this brand is now used to by Felo Guerra and Guerra Brothers. It can be seen on the entry gate to the ranch today.

Aracadio, Antonia Guerra’s youngest child, apprenticed himself at a young age in his uncle’s store in Falfurrias, Texas. Arcadio would later become the merchant of the family and established stores in Falfurrias, Monte Cristo, Noria Cardeneña Ranch, and La Reforma. Arcadio also started a cotton gin and lumber yard at the ranch. By 1939, Arcadio had acquired over 15,000 acres of land and several businesses, but his family stayed at La Reforma. Arcadio Guerra became well known for his philanthropic activities, sponsoring many ranch children in obtaining their higher education, mostly at Holding Institute in Laredo Texas and Business College in San Antonio. Don Arcadio was a serious man, not much given to levity and ran a strict ranch through his caporales. Drinking alcohol and drunkenness was not tolerated on the ranch, and this rule was strictly enforced. In 1923, Don Arcadio was knocked down by a mule and sustained a severe concussion that left him partially incapacitated. He was taken to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota by Dr. Cayetano Barrera Sr., his nephew, but not much could be done at that time. He moved with his family to San Antonio to be closer to a doctor specializing in his condition. After eight years in San Antonio, Don Arcadio move back to the Rio Grande Valley and died in Mission in 1939.

Don Arcadia’s children, Arcadio Jr., and Rafael, and later Rafael’s children, known as the “Guerra Brothers”, gained national and international reputations as premier purebred cattle breeders, selling their cattle around the world. The family later moved from La Reforma to their ranch in Linn, Texas.

Dario Guerra sold his interest in La Reforma to his brother, Arcadio, and moved his family back to Mier around 1906. Dario’s family would visit La Reforma frequently, especially during the summers. In 1913, Dario had to leave Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and moved his family to safety in Mission, Texas, where he started a wholesale business and also a retail store. Dario later bought Los Ceballos Ranch, a few miles South of La Reforma, where he established a ranching operation.

Cayetano and Crisanta Barrera also moved to Mission, where he helped his children establish themselves in several businesses including a drugstore, a general store, and an auto supply store. Cayetano Barrera Jr. attended Baylor University College of Medicine, and in 1920 became the first Hispanic to graduate from the Texas Medical School. His brother Pedro later became a pharmacist in 1931. An older son, Francisco, bought out most of the Barrera heirs, and established his headquarters at Puerto Rico Ranch, on the southeast corner of La Reforma, about three miles from the main ranch.

The conical silo behind the Guerra house at La Reforma, built in 1905, is very unique. As far as we can tell, this is only one of its kind in South Texas, and the only other ones like it, that we know of, are found near the city of Zacatecas, Mexico. The silos in Zacatecas are thought to predate the Spanish colonial period.

La Reforma was the way station for families from Mier who traveled to their ranches in the Mier jurisdiction of South Texas, which extended from the Rio Grande to the Nueces River. At one time twenty families and over one hundred individuals lived on La Reforma. The ranch had a small school for children which was maintained by contributions from its citizens. Several children who lived in outlying ranches too far to commute daily were housed with families who lived at the ranch during the week and went home on weekends. At first, classes were in Spanish, but later, English was also taught. To continue their education, some of the ranch children were sent to Holding Institute, a Methodist boarding school in Laredo, Texas. At least ten of Antonia Guerra’s grandchildren and twelve of her great-grandchildren attended Holding Institute. Four other children who lived on La Reforma also attended Holding Institute.

La Reforma was a lively place and there was plenty of social activities. Birthdays, weddings and other celebrations were held there. There were several people that played musical instruments on the ranch and cylindrical phonographs of songs and poems in Spanish were bought in Laredo. La Reforma had its own baseball team that played other ranches. The girls at the ranch were taught the skills of sewing and knitting, among other domestic skills.

Cotton and cattle were the mainstays of La Reforma. In the early years of La Reforma, cotton was transported by wagon to a cotton gin in Falfurrias, until a gin was built in La Reforma. Cattle were sold to buyers from big outfits and the money was usually deposited in banks in Corpus Christi. Periodic trips to Corpus Christi were made to collect the money from a bank and to buy staples such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, flour and bolts of cloth, as well as supplies for the general store. Much of the clothing and some of the shoes were made at the ranch. Later, cotton and cattle were taken to the railhead at Monte Cristo, nine miles north of Mission.

Periodic trips were made to La Sel de Rey salt lake to obtain salt for local consumption, as well as for sale at the Guerra store at La Reforma. These trips usually lasted a week. Some of the salt was also taken to Falfurrias for sale.

Around the turn of the century, Antonia Guerra became very ill and expressed her desire to die in her hometown of Mier. In a semi-comatose condition, she was transported by wagon to Rio Grande City and from there to the Mier landing by steamboat. She regained consciousness before she died long enough to realize that she was back in Mier.

At first, when children of the three Barrera and Guerra families got married, they established satellite ranches within the La Reforma community. As the families at La Reforma grew larger, most of the new families moved to Valley towns, namely Mission, where they established businesses of their own. At one time, there were twenty-two households, members of these Barrera and Guerra families, living in Mission, all within a two block radius.

The family stories of La Reforma, with a few variations, are typical of hundreds of
families who form our unique culture in the South Texas ranch country. We hope that this modest account of one family’s history will stimulate others into inquiring into their own family’s past.


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