Rio Grande Pioneer
The first person of record in the Vela family is Bernardo Vela, born near Cerralvo, Mexico, around 1726. He was granted porción 47 (a land grant) in 1776, located in Mier, Mexico (west of Rio Grande City). These land grants were rectangular pieces of land with 9/13 of a mile of frontage along the Rio Grande River and ranged from 11 to 16 miles long. The Viceroy of Mexico City ordered the granting of these "porciones" in order to colonize the land.
Bernardo's grandson, Salvador Vela, married Leonor Zamora in Reynosa, Mexico, in 1822 and had 8 children. The time period from 1820 to 1870 were hard times for Texans. Mexico, which claimed Texas as a territory, was an independent empire from 1821 to 1823, and in 1824 it became a republic. This status held until 1836 when Texans won their independence from mother Mexico; however, the border was still disputed: Texas claimed the Rio Grande as its southern boundary and Mexico claimed the Nueces as its northern boundary. The United States annexed Texas in 1845 and formally went to war with Mexico in 1846. The Treaty of Guadalupe (1846) established the Rio Grande River as the international border. Hidalgo County (where Laguna Seca Ranch is located) was formed from the larger Cameron County in 1852. The Civil War would follow nine years later; in 1861 Texas joined the Confederacy. Further to the south, the French invaded Mexico in early 1862. The Union won the War in 1865, and Mexico forced the French retreat in 1867. Around the time of the end of the Civil War, a cholera epidemic, an outbreak of yellow fever, a blizzard, and a hurricane all struck the Mexican/Texan Rio Grande Valley. In addition to all this, bandits raided the Valley, taking advantage of families' vulnerability.
The Velas survived this difficult era while living in Reynosa, Mexico. Macedonio Vela, the son of Salvador and Leonor, was ordered to be executed by either the Rojos or Crinolinos (two feuding factions) in the midst of a skirmish as part of a larger battle. As an agreement made by a third party, a man named Gómez, Macedonio's execution was pardoned on agreement of him leaving the country. So he and his wife immediately crossed the river in 1857 and settled in Peñitas, Texas, where Macedonio worked as a foreman for El Tule Ranch.
Within ten years Macedonio and his wife, Mercedes Chapa Cantú, bought one square league of land (4,428 acres) in the Santa Anita Land Grant from John McAllen and Salomé Ballí. Macedonio agreed to pay $1,000 within seven years, but he managed to pay it back in three. This 4,000+ acre plot was the start of Laguna Seca Ranch. The original name was Buena Vista, but it later became known as Laguna Seca, which means "Dry Lake" in Spanish. The legend has it that at one time there was a large watering hole along an Indian trail, but in time it had completely dried. From 1867 to 1877, Laguna Seca increased to about 80,000 acres. Macedonio and his family (now with six children and eventually eight) raised mules and horses and sold donkeys to Cuba shipped from Corpus Cristi or Galveston. In 1893, the Oblate Fathers came from Brownsville to build a church that also served the surrounding ranches of El Desierto, La Noria Cardeneña, and Santa Anita, among others. Missionaries would visit every three months and a bishop would visit once per year. In addition to a church, Macedonio built a school for his children, and he brought teachers to the ranch. Macedonio's wife, Mercedes, died in 1913, and Macedonio died in 1916. They are both buried at the Laguna Seca cemetery.
In 1871, Macedonio's fifth child, Carlota, planted orange seeds given to her by a traveling priest. This marked the very first orange tree planted in the Rio Grande Valley and most likely the first orange tree in Texas. (This little-known fact has been verified by the Texas Historical Commission.) According to the Texas State Historical Commission, the 1970-1971 orange production in Texas was an estimated 5.9 million boxes. Carlota's planting of orange seeds sparked an agricultural epoch and opened the doors to a huge citrus market. Carlota Vela died in 1952 at Laguna Seca, where she lived her entire life.
Macedonio and Mercedes's first child, Ramón, died just 11 days after his birth. Their second child, Ramón II, was born in September of 1859. Ramón II grew up on Laguna Seca Ranch and lived there until he and his second wife, Josefina Chapa, bought their own ranch west of Mission, Texas. Prior to Josefina dying in February 1914, she gave birth to a fourth child, Ramón Reynaldo. Josefina would live less than a month after giving birth to him (see the poem below). Ramón Reynaldo, who went by Reynaldo, was raised by his aunt, Carlota Vela, the same woman who planted Texas' first orange tree. He spent his life managing the ranch his grandfather bought from John McAllen in 1867. Reynaldo lived a long life and died in February 2002 at age 88, at his home on Laguna Seca Ranch. He left a 700-acre piece of Laguna Seca to his daughter. This is "Laguna Seca Ranch" as it is known today.
Poem by Teresa C. Alamía
In 1914, a new baby arrived at Laguna Seca,
Reynaldo, third son of Josefina and Ramón.
With joy came a tragedy on that day,
As his mother died when he was born.
Ramón’s sister, Carlota lovingly said,
“I will raise this child,
He needs me…I will nurture,
And love him for the rest of my life.”
And so, among thousands of acres,
Of red land, mesquite and citrus so fair,
Little Reynaldo grew up loving this ranch,
With Tía Carlota’s loving care.
As years passed, problems arose,
Families and ranches were diminished,
There came a depression…hard times,
Would Laguna Seca also be finished?
Not so, never…Reynaldo, now a grown man
Worked relentlessly…did not rest.
He vowed this ranch would never die.
Instead he would make it great, the very best.
His efforts were duly rewarded,
With hard work and determination,
This frugal, aggressive rancher,
Had proven his worth, his dedication.
The legend of the first orange trees,
He remembers with a special pride.
Thanks the woman who planted these,
Tía Carlota, who loyally stood by his side.
He built a large, beautiful lake,
Then added something unique…tall.
Amazed all his friends with a…
Magnificent, beautiful waterfall.
This place has deer, quail, waterfowl,
It is a wildlife paradise,
As a conservationist and hunter too,
His goal has been to love, protect and utilize.
This secluded Texas ranch has a charm,
Natural beauty, history…indeed a treasure.
Relatives, ranchers, history buffs,
Gather here, it is a special pleasure.
Today this fabled pioneer,
Reflects Texas ranching at its best,
Peacefully, savoring his sunset years,
He is a living legend…a history of success.
Source: Ramirez, Alfonso R. Four Generations of Velas. Edinburg, Texas: New Santander Press, 1986.