Remembering Controversial Chicano Leader Reies Lopez Tijerina

Photo by Jakob Schiller

While we were celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this past Monday, another civil rights leader’s work was brought back into the spotlight, this time because of his controversial contribution to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

Reies Lopez Tijerina, an uncompromising crusader for land grant rights in New Mexico and leader of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid in 1967, died of natural causes Monday in El Paso at the age of 88.

Tijerina was born in Fall City, Texas. He was the son of migrant worker parents and had little access to formal schooling. Tijerina became an evangelical preacher, and in 1963, founded La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, a group that worked to help Mexicans and American Indians reclaim the Spanish and Mexican land grands they held before the U.S.-Mexican War in 1846.

La Alianza’s most notable endeavor happened in 1967, when Tijerina led 20 members of the organization in an armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in New Mexico. Earlier that year, State District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez used police force to shut down a rally organized by Tijerina in Coyote, New Mexico. The gathering would have united hundreds of civil rights activists from all across the country.

Tijerina and his men entered the courthouse with the intention of performing a civilian’s arrest on Sanchez. Instead, they took the sheriff and a reporter hostage, and shot and wounded a police officer and a jailer. When the National Guard was called to take down the group, Tijerina fled to the nearby mountains, where he could quietly observe the troops looking for him both on land and in helicopters overhead. It was the biggest manhunt in New Mexico history.

Police did not find Tijerina. In the mountains, he had the protection of local ranchers and the Alianza, who knew the land. It wasn’t until police arrested his wife that the leader turned himself in. Tijerina was greeted at the prison with cheers from his followers.

Eastern press swarmed to New Mexico for coverage of the event, but didn’t seem to take the severity of the land and water issues seriously. The violent means by which he achieved his newfound celebrity opened the door to peaceful and positive opportunities, as well. In the years after his arrest, Tijerina worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King to organize the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C.

In 1969, the NBC T.V. documentary, “The Most Hated Man in New Mexico,” painted Tijerina as a dangerous, sensational criminal. (This documentary also credited Southwestern Chicano passion to “years of isolation and inbreeding.”) He was even labeled by many as a Communist, although he was very much anti-Communist. This made it all the more amazing when 18 months later, at his trial for the Tierra Amarilla attack in which he served as his own defense, Tijerina was found not guilty.

Despite the win, Tijerina and his family and friends became targets for many bombings and attacks. His old arrests and charges caught up with him, and when his wife Patricia torched a forest service sign on land she claimed belonged to the surrounding community, Tijerina served nine years in prison. Rejected appeals added 26 more years to his sentence.

In 1970, Tijerina was sent to a prison for the mentally deranged. Upon his release two years later, he spent time organizing conferences to create harmony among Black, Native American, Chicano, and Anglo communities. He returned to prison in 1974 and later retreated with his wife to Mexico.

Tijerina held strong to his belief that Americans had the right to use force when their government had done wrong, but during the rising of the new Chicano movement of the 1970s, support was cloudy. Some felt his “at all costs” means to change outweighed his good intentions.

The conversation today remains divided. Many laud him as one of the Four Horsemen of the Chicano Movement, among Cesar Chavez, Corky Gonzales, and Jose Angel Gutierrez. Some call him by his media-given nickname, “King Tiger,” and compare him to Malcolm X. Others cite his poor treatment of women and anti-Semitic comments made in his later life, and note that he wasn’t even from New Mexico to begin with.

The social justice advocate knew he was both loved and hated.

“…As much as the enemy, as much as the oppressor would like to have the world believe that I’m a King Tiger, that I’m a militant, that I’m a violent man,” Tijerina once said, “He’s mistaken, for I am as violent as Jesus Christ.”

Hero or otherwise, Tijerina’s urgent mission to bring widespread attention to previously disregarded land and bodies continues to inspire generations of Chicano activists to raise their voices and boldly shine light in the places no one is looking.