It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, a time designated by Presidents Johnson and Reagan to focus on the cultural heritage of the large U.S. Hispanic-descent population.
(Note: readers must know that citizens of Spanish Mexican descent originating in the Southwest are not immigrants to the U.S. Their dual (Indohispanic) ancestral footprints in New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Texas were planted long before the U.S. took the land from Mexico in 1848. This fact separates them from sister U.S. Spanish-surnamed groups that came later as immigrants.)
Interestingly enough, this past June, my wife and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico and while there attended a presentation on the 50th Anniversary of 1967’s Rio Arriba Courthouse Raid, Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico.
Reies López Tijerina, the raid’s leader, is a rarely-mentioned public figure whose endless energies fighting injustice are embedded in southwest social history.
Texas-born López Tijerina didn’t set out to make war against the government. Rather, the raid resulted from the second of his two main passions – (l) his dream to establish a religious community and (2) recovering New Mexico’s Spanish Mexican land grants (Mercedes) that the U.S. seized and kept after the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48.
As to establishing a religious community, Rev. López Tijerina began preaching at a small church. Ultimately, he decided to isolate his flock in a self-contained cooperative; far-removed from (in his view) a corrupt social system. Unable to find affordable land in Texas, he moved his group to Arizona.
A gifted speaker, he was persuaded to leave the pulpit and become a social justice activist representing the large marginalized population he fondly called “el pueblo”. He was especially concerned that mainstream white society generally misread indigenous/mestizo people’s demeanor for weakness. His goal was to change that view. Later moving to New Mexico, he quickly became a target of the FBI and law enforcement agencies, and they used every means available to derail his mission.
Consequently, he transitioned into his second passion – reclaiming Spanish land grants. After hearing heartbreaking reports, he set out to familiarize himself with the subject.
Specifically, Native Americans and Spanish-descent land grant heirs had two main claims: (a) they accused the U.S. of deceptively nationalizing their ancestral lands and incorporating them into the Forest Service; and (b) after 1848, manipulative land financiers had methodically (at times brutally) robbed Nuevo Mexicano families of their lands.
To Native Americans, it was an especially sore subject. Unfamiliar with European-style land ownership, they soon adapted and accepted the idea. Valuing their Spanish/Mexican land grants as deeds to their communal lands, they wanted the U.S. to honor their titles, just as the Spanish and Mexican governments had done before 1848.
Please note that in embracing Native Americans as blood-related kin within his umbrella of “Indohispanos” (Indohispanics), their cause was crucial to Mr. López Tijerina. He wanted the world to know that bigotry against America’s original inhabitants preceded prejudice against other minority groups in the U.S.
In this respect, he expressed one of his greatest insights affecting the human rights struggle dilemma in the U.S.: Unless First Americans receive justice first, no other minority group will be so blessed. Sadly, both the struggle and dilemma continue to this day.
Prepared with research collected in Mexico’s national archives, a list of U.S. violations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and armed with the U.S. Constitution, Mr. López Tijerina shared with the people a bold plan to reclaim their lands and combine them in shared ownership.
Confidently concluding that both the evidence and laws were on their side, the long land-claims pilgrimage appeared to be ending. Faithfully, the families relied on their charismatic leader, Reies Lopez Tijerina, to get it done!
Shortly, Reies became concerned that the authorities weren’t engaging. So, taking matters into his own hands, on October 15, 1966 he led a group representing over 150 families and occupied San Joaquín del Rio de Chama land-grant territory for five days. Openly, they asked state authorities to do a title search. Ostensibly fearing the consequences, the Anglo-controlled state officials denied the request.
Next, on June 5, 1967 he led armed members of his Alianza Federal de Mercedes group to the Rio Arriba Courthouse. Their intention was to confront the district attorney with a citizens’ arrest for ignoring the will of the people.
Alas, things went terribly wrong from the start. Shots were fired, wounding two individuals. Hostages were taken, but later released. The State National Guard was mobilized and innocent civilians were arrested and jailed without being charged.
On the run for several days in the very terrain they were fighting for, Reies López Tijerina turned himself in. Albeit at a great price, he brought world-wide attention to the U.S. illegal seizure of Spanish/Mexican land grants. Various hearings and court trials later, Reies was tried and sentenced to prison. After his release, he became a nationally-acclaimed human rights advocate.
The Voice of El Pueblo died at the age of 88 on January 19, 2015 in El Paso, Texas. He never abandoned his strong view that the three branches of the U.S. government (executive, legislative, and especially judicial) deliberately denied justice for Native American and Spanish Mexican-descent land grant heirs.
In retrospect, most 1960s Mexican-descent social justice leaders (Alianza Federal de Mercedes, Raza Unida, United Farm Workers Union, LULAC, American GI Forum, et al), Reies López Tijerina had admirers as well as detractors.
To Southwest indigenous/Spanish land grant descendants, he renewed a sense of dignity, especially after the San Joaquín reclamation. Their steady support was essential during López Tijerina’s days living as a fugitive.
On the other hand, the Anglos generally didn’t like him. Worse, most affluent Hispanics of that time rejected him, repeating the Anglos’ false claim that he was a communist agitator. Ironically, the children of those same uncooperative Hispanics continue to pass through the doors of opportunity opened wide by 1960s activists.
Quite honestly, few of us would have freely experienced a fraction of the suffering and deprivation that he, his family, and “bravos” followers endured throughout their justice journey.
Was Reies López Tijerina controversial? Yes. Still, great leaders often apply unconventional means to get results. Although land grants were not returned to their rightful owners (at least not yet), his success may be measured in other ways.
It’s not by accident that the 1960s brought human rights relief to the Southwest. In truth, civil, voting, education, fair employment, and equal housing legislation was passed, simply because Reies López Tijerina and fellow activists urged elected officials into writing and enacting those laws.
Frankly, if you are a Spanish surnamed citizen whose family roots originate in the Southwest, have a high school/college education, eat at restaurants of your choice, and work/live where you wish, realize that human rights activists pioneered the way for you.
Truly, the multi-faceted narrative is fascinating. To get the story in his own heartfelt words, recommend you read his book, “They Called Me King Tiger (My Struggle for the Land and Our Rights)”, translated from the Spanish language and edited by José Angel Gutiérrez.
Also recommend the books (l) “Trespassers on our own Land” by Mike Scarborough. Using a detailed interview approach, it contains the first-person account of Juan Valdez, a key member of the historic Rio Arriba Courthouse Raid; and (2) “New Mexico’s Stormy History”, by Elmer Eugene Maestas, an excellent account of one of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial (land grant) pioneer settler families.
Lastly, Hispanic Heritage Month 2017 and the 50th Anniversary of the Tierra Amarilla Raid remind us why, as Mr. Scarborough appropriately articulates in his book, so many Native Americans and Spanish Mexican-descent citizens today still feel “as foreigners in their own homeland”.