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Monday, Sep. 7, 1998

Kinenos recall their culture's creation on King Ranch

Staff Writer

   Alberto ``Beto'' Maldonado, 68, has led bulls into skyscrapers and ballrooms.
   Alberto ``Lolo'' Trevino was 10 years old when he broke a crippled horse that went on to win the 1946 Triple Crown.
   Cowboy Encarnacion ``Chon'' Silva III retrieved a herd of cows from Padre Island by roping them from boats and then forcing them to swim to the mainland.
   These men are Kinenos, or King's men, descendants of the cowboys brought by Capt. Richard King to the King Ranch from the Mexican village of Cruillas.
   Since then, their skills, traditions and customs have been passed on from generation to generation, creating a unique culture shared by about 300 families who live and work on the King Ranch.
   Here are some of their stories:
    A mother's wisdom

   Most King Ranch cowboys learned their skills from their fathers and grandfathers.
   But Alberto ``Lolo'' Trevino, 68, learned his first cowboy lessons - tough, gritty ones - from his mother.
   ``She was the husband of a cowboy and the daughter and granddaughter of a cowboy. She told me that a cowboy has to learn to eat dirt. She told me to never ride through a field with beautiful flowers blooming, because the flowers might hide holes in the field and my horse would stumble. She taught me to always carry a knife outside my jeans, instead of inside. That way, if a horse fell on me and died, I could cut his intestines out of him and he would be lighter to push off me.''
   Trevino stayed home with his mother until he was 7. She taught him to rope, giving him little bits of rope so he could learn to lasso the furniture.
   At 7, he joined his father on the range and went on the King Ranch payroll.
   ``But I will always remember what my mother taught me. My mother could not even write the first letter of her own name. But every day she would take us out in the back yard and put her hands on our heads and bless us. She said that cowboys had to expect to get hurt, but I think her blessings kept me from getting hurt any worse.''
    A cowboy's promise
   Chon Silva, 52, learned early that a cowboy has to keep his promises.
   When Silva was 10, he was on a roundup. He heard an older cowboy brag that he could make a horse buck wildly by spurring him, while holding a dime between the sole of each boot and his stirrups. The cowboy spurred the horse to violent bucking, and when the horse had finally settled down, the dimes were still in the stirrups. The veteran cowboy had kept his feet in place throughout the wild ride.
   ``I said, `I can do that! I can do that.' I didn't realize that my father was riding right behind me.''
   His father told him that if he was going to brag, he would have to back it up.
   ``He told me I had to do the same thing the older cowboy did, but I had to do it on the meanest horse we had out there. And he told me that if the dimes came out - that if I failed - he would spank me in front of all the men. I got on that horse and it bucked and bucked. But when I was finished, the dimes were still there.''
    Bulls in skyscrapers
   Beto Maldonado, 68, talks freely about the accomplishments and innovations of the King and Kleberg families.
   ``Did you know that Bob Kleberg designed a fence so that if a horse or cow got its foot caught in it, it would be not injured?''
   Maldonado is more reticent when speaking about his own famous father, Librado Maldonado, who led the prize Santa Gertrudis bulls in sale rings all over the world.
   Once he found his father crying after a sale. The bulls had not sold well, and his father felt responsible.
   Beto Maldonado followed in his father's footsteps and has led Santa Gertrudis bulls in the ring during his 50-year career with the ranch.
   ``Once I had to take one of the bulls up to the top of a skyscraper in an elevator. Another time I had to take a bull into a fancy ballroom. But they have always behaved themselves.''
   He has traveled to Europe and Morocco, and attended a fancy dinner in the King of Morocco's palace in Casablanca.
   Now Beto Maldonado has retired in a house across from the cattle pens where the bulls were raised. Cowboys a few years younger raise dirt as they dash down the road on horseback, waving at Beto as they pass and gracefully bending over to close the gate to his road.
   Last week, he walked down the road a quarter of a mile and watched cowboys yelling and prodding cattle into a chute, searing the calves' flanks with the Running W brand with an electric branding iron.
   ``I am glad I got to retire on the ranch. I like to still be a part of things. I love the peace and tranquility. If I lived in town, I think the railroad train coming through would keep me awake.''
    A day at the races

   Lolo Trevino was the cowboy chosen to break the famous King Ranch thoroughbred Assault, who won the Triple Crown in 1946.
   ``I was 10 years old when I broke him. I think they picked me because I didn't weigh much. He was a very easy horse to break. His name wasn't Assault then. It was Igual.''
   Trevino said he didn't know Assault would be a winner.
   ``He had some serious problems. He had an injury to his foot. So we designed a special shoe for him and always put medicine in it to make it better. He was almost crippled. He didn't walk very well. But when he ran, well, it was amazing.
   ``When he won the Triple Crown in 1946, I was watching the race at a friend's house because we didn't have a television. I didn't know they had changed Igual's name to Assault. When they said Assault had won, I thought that Igual had lost. But then they took the blinders off Assault and my brother recognized him by his eyes. He said, `Look! Look! It is Igual!' ''
    Life imitating art, imitating life
   ``We used to go into town every Saturday to see a cowboy movie,'' Beto Maldonado remembered. ``We would look at all the tricks the famous cowboy movie stars would do on their horses. Then we could come back home and try it ourselves that evening.
   ``We would do things like get our horses to jump over big cactuses. I never would have done that when I was older because the horse could have stopped and we could have been thrown on the cactus. But we didn't know. We used to go riding around with toy pistols pretending we were bandits running away.
   ``We were really impressed with the roping we saw at the movies. We couldn't do all of the roping tricks they did, but we could do a lot of it. We used to go out to the pen where there were Jersey cows and rope them and then ride on them until they started bucking and bucking. Once we were hollering so loud that my father heard us from the house and came out and whipped us. We had to quit riding cows after that.
   ``But our heroes were still Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. We never missed a movie.''
    No hesitation
   Chon Silva learned from old cowboys that power comes from action.
   ``They always told me never to hesitate, to do the very first thing that comes into your head, because by the time you have had time to think it over, it will be too late.''
   Once, a friend was riding and his horse fell on him. He appeared to be crushed and couldn't move.
   ``His brothers were just standing around staring, very upset. I rode up behind him and roped that horse and pulled him off the man. The cowboy was OK. You have to think fast like that sometimes.''
    Beach cowboys
   Once Encarnacion ``Chon'' Silva III had to go to the beach to round up cattle in boats.
   ``Somehow, the cattle had swum the Laguna Madre,'' Silva said.
   It was a Sunday morning and the Border Patrol called saying they had spotted cattle on the spoil islands, stuck in the mud, and across the Intracoastal Waterway, loose on Malaquite Beach. The cowboys were standing, looking across the water at the cattle running wild across Padre Island. They had walked downwind with a storm all night and right across the Intracoastal.
   The cowboys brought in helicopters and boats, and Silva roped the lead cow in each group, pushed her nose up against the bow of the boat and pulled her across the deep waters of the Intracoastal. The other cows followed the lead cow, pushed by the helicopter and with cowboys in boats shooting at them with rat shot from handguns.
   ``It was a floating herd,'' Silva said.
   The cattle's bellies blew up like life jackets and they floated along, paddling on their sides. It was more difficult to get the cattle that were entrenched hip-deep in mud, Silva said.
   ``We just roped them from the boat and pulled. There were some people from Wisconsin there and they kept saying, `We don't treat our cows like this in Wisconsin. This is awful.' We just told them these were King Ranch cows and they had a rough life. I told them that any of the cows that died we would leave on the beach for them to barbecue. They looked really shocked. I was just joking.''
    Buggy rides

   ``When I came from Cruillas, Mexico, there were plantations of orange trees by the Main House,'' said Irene Castaneda, 85. ``My father was the gardener. I met my husband when I was 13. He passed by the school every day. Finally, he got up the courage to write me a note. He was the carpenter. When we got married, I was 15 and he was 21. My father said he wanted us to live with them for a while because I didn't know how to do anything, like cook or wash clothes. But my husband just sat there, very silent. He won, and I went to live with him. But my mother only lived a few houses away, so I went back to her and I learned to wash clothes. I hardly ever went into town. Sometimes, there was a boy with a horse and buggy who would take us. We would ride through the fields to Kingsville, fast. I was very happy.''
    Pressed clothes

   Julian Buentello remembers how cowboys used to keep their clothes clean when they were away for weeks.
   ``We would take our dirty clothes off at the end of the day and we would hang them by the chimney in the camp house - the one in the bedroom, not the one in the kitchen. That would air them out. At night we would fold our clothes under our pillows and they were all neat in the morning, almost like they had been pressed.''
   ``My parents used to sit up at night and tell us ghost stories, about a wagon that came through with its chains rattling in the night,'' Beto Maldonado said. ``We believed them.''
   At cow camps, ghost stories were a popular way for cowboys to entertain themselves.
   ``We used to sit up and tell scary stories,'' said Pedro Alvarez Sr. ``One night we saw this man in a white sheet galloping into the camp and everyone was saying, `It's a ghost! It's a ghost.' But I got out my slingshot and started shooting rocks at it. He screamed, `No, no it's me, Juan, the cook.' I kept shooting at him and he started tearing the sheets off.''
    Almost the same
   ``In some ways it's not that different from when our parents and grandparents were growing up, '' said Noelia Torrez, whose father was a butler at the King Ranch Main House for 50 years. ``It is our own little colony. We stick together. Half of the girls I grew up with married boys from the King Ranch. But a lot of things are changing. People are getting more educated. They are leaving our little world.''
    Different hopes

   Pedro Alvarez Sr. says he isn't sure what he wants for his son's future. Pedro Jr. wants to be a cowboy, like his father and grandfather. Pedro Alvarez Sr. was a cowboy until he was gored by a bull. Now he does less taxing ranch labor.
   ``All my son wants is to be a cowboy, but I'm not so sure it is best. I dropped out of school early. I couldn't speak any English. I had to learn English from my own children. Being a cowboy is a rough life. I would like to see my son get an education. I wish I had had that chance. But I guess if he wants to be a cowboy, he'll be a cowboy.''
    Good cowboys
   ``When I was 10, I thought I was a good cowboy,'' said Lolo Trevino, 68. ``Now I know I'm not. I still have a lot to learn. Each year there are new things that I don't know about, new advances. But sometimes when I see the cowboys riding past, I want to stop them, and tell them what I know. I want to tell them to be good listeners. I want to tell them to listen to young and old because we don't know who is going to bring new things to this life.''
    Jesus rode with them

   ``Being a cowboy is a real dangerous job,'' Lolo Trevino said. ``Every day before we rode out, we would invite Jesus to come with us. Sometimes we would do everything we could to bring the cattle back around to us, but they wouldn't come. Then finally they would come. We knew Jesus had done it for us. You see, Jesus is very quiet and the cattle can't hear him.''
   Staff writer Mary Lee Grant can be reached at 886-3752 or by e-mail at

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