Shortly before Ray Fernandez's grandmother died, he said she made a startling statement that made him question his family history.

"You look like your grandfather -- John Kenedy," Maria Rowland told him from her nursing home bed.

Fernandez, 44, thought she meant the former president or his son, and brushed it off as something said by an ailing 93-year-old woman.

But the words haunted him. He traveled to Waco to pull his mother's baptism certificate. The line for the father's name was blank. He asked a librarian, was there a local John Kenedy?

He learned about a wealthy rancher who died in 1944 without an heir. He found out that his grandmother had worked at the ranch house as a teenager. He thinks the two had an affair, and that his mother is the product.

Fernandez now seeks exhumation of John G. Kenedy Jr.'s body for DNA tests.

Potentially at stake is the Kenedy Ranch, a 400,000-acre expanse of Gulf Coast desert valued at as much as a billion dollars. Controlled by two large nonprofits, the ranch produces enough income from cattle breeding and oil and gas royalties to send millions each year to dozens of mostly Roman Catholic charities. The legal team guarding it includes some of the biggest names in South Texas law.

Many Mexican Americans have asserted claims to South Texas land. But Fernandez, a county medical examiner, knows about forensic evidence and DNA. From some saliva taken from an envelope licked by Kenedy's mother and from DNA taken from Kenedy's surviving cousin, he was able to prove enough of a genetic match to persuade a judge to order exhumation.

Fernandez says it is not about money.

"We'd be doing this, no matter what," he said "Whether it was a little house, whatever. It's our heritage, our lineage. It's our family."

At Fernandez's urging, his mother, Ann Fernandez, filed a lawsuit in 2001 making a claim to Kenedy's land, its mineral rights and profits. Lawyers for the charities that control the land have stalled the exhumation with questions about the judge's jurisdiction. They also contend that too many years have passed for anyone to contest the land's ownership.

An appeals court ruled on June 16 that the exhumation could go forward on July 10; lawyers for the charities say they will continue to fight it.

"Why disturb a body that's been in the ground for over 50 years?" attorney Richard Leshin asked. "It's too late to object. . . . Even if she is the daughter, she will not win. So why disturb the body?"

Fernandez said his mother, now 79, is suffering from dementia. Ann Fernandez, he said, had believed that Rowland's first husband, Desiderio Pena, was her father, until Rowland made her statement about Kenedy in 2000.

On the baptism certificate Fernandez found in Waco, the year was listed as 1925. His grandmother would have been 17 or 18 then, and Kenedy, who was believed to be sterile because of childhood illnesses, would have been in his thirties.

Researching old documents and photos related to the Kenedy Ranch, Fernandez got a copy of Kenedy's obituary and was unnerved by the photo. He said the resemblance to himself was undeniable -- the same fleshy jowls, frame of eyes, nose and mouth, and the broad build.

He noticed it again when he visited the old offices of the Kenedy Pasture Co., now a museum, where the faces of the ranch dons stare back from murals and grainy photos.

The Kenedy family laid claim to its land 40 miles south of Corpus Christi more than a century ago.

Kenedy's grandfather, Mifflin Kenedy, the son of Pennsylvania Quakers, made a career on riverboats and helped transport troops to the Rio Grande during the Mexican War. In 1850, he formed a riverboat partnership with Capt. Richard King, namesake of nearby Kingsville, and what is now the legendary 825,000-acre King Ranch.

The family openly lamented that Kenedy and his sister, Sarita, the town's namesake, were sterile and unable to carry on the lineage that ruled the ranch for decades.

The Kenedy ranch is a desolate place, with Sarita now the seat of a county with a population listed at 414 people on 1,389 square miles. The ranch would have been even more desolate in the 1920s, when Maria Rowland worked there as a maid.

Fernandez believes the Kenedy family knew about the affair and the pregnancy, and that class consciousness and perhaps racism caused them to keep the birth of his mother a secret.

After Ann was born, Rowland went to work for the Kenedy family again, at their house in Corpus Christi. She worked there for several years before marrying Pena and starting a small real estate business.

Kenedy died of uncertain causes in Saltillo, Mexico, where he was living with his wife, Elena. His handwritten will, about a page and a half long, left everything to her, though it did not mention his Texas land.

The other half was controlled by his sister, Sarita, who befriended a Catholic monk who helped her set up foundations to control her wealth after her death. After Elena Kenedy's death in 1984, her land also went to a nonprofit foundation. The foundations now grant between $6 million and $8 million a year to charities around the world, 90 percent of them Catholic.

Ann Fernandez's legal claim argues that under Texas law the property should have gone to her. Upon her death, the land would go to her son and daughter.

"This case could get very complex on a lot of different angles," said Mark Ascher of the University of Texas Law School. "The way the law seems to be moving on a national basis, if you can prove the relevant relationship, you are treated to be that relative."

Meanwhile, Fernandez hopes his family can eventually get answers. He has met with an archbishop to promise he is not out to bankrupt the charities funded by ranch trusts.

"I guess what we're doing," he says, "is kind of rewriting history. Rewriting it so that it's correct."

A sign denotes a portion of the Kenedy ranch along the Texas Gulf Coast. The land is controlled by foundations aligned with Catholic Church.Fernandez in Sarita at Kenedy Pasture Co. museum. Sarita, the seat of Kenedy County (population about 400 people), is named for John G. Kenedy's sister.Ray Fernandez looks at a mural of landowner John G. Kenedy's bloodline. He sees a physical resemblance via his grandmother, who was a maid at the ranch.