Written by Nancy Baker Jones
Read by Lulu Flores
Remembered as a South Texas philanthropist and matriarch of a large family, Petra Vela was born to modest beginnings in Mier, Mexico in 1823, one of 17 children and a descendant of the town’s settlers. At age 15, she began a liaison with Luis Vidal, a Mexican army officer with whom she had eight children. He married someone else but, in a common practice, maintained two families until his death in 1849.
Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy married in Brownsville in 1854, in a union of Tejano and Anglo cultures. The couple raised Petra’s surviving children and six of their own, creating one of the most powerful families in Texas. With her Tejano heritage and altruism and his investments in livestock, railroads, and ranch land, including a partnership with Richard King that transformed ranching practices, they influenced the development of most of South Texas. They survived the Civil War, yellow fever epidemics, a devastating hurricane, and the deaths of children and grandchildren.
Petra Kenedy gave generously to build Catholic churches and to alleviate poverty. In addition to caring for her children, she oversaw the health, housing, and education of the many workers and their families at the Kenedys’ 200,000-acre ranch south of Corpus Christi and often carried the payroll to Brownsville. In 1882, the Kenedys sold their ranch for over $1 million. She died of ovarian cancer in 1885, at age 62.
Crimm, Ana Carolina Castillo. “Petra Vela and the Kenedy Family Legacy,” in Arnoldo de León, ed., Tejano Epic: Essays in Honor of Felix Almaraz, Jr. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2005.
Monday, Jane Clements and Frances Brannen Vick. Petra’s Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.