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Reies Lopez Tijerina fights for New Mexican land
 
(Photo courtesy: Tijerina family)
 

By James Mejia
news@lavozcolorado.com
 
10/14/2015

El Chicano Movimiento
Part III of V


When Robert Martinez was 8 years old he remembers his father answering a knock at the door and being questioned by uniformed men. Robert’s father, Baltazar Martinez shared a name with a bandit who, along with Reies Lopez Tijerina, had just raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla County, New Mexico, taking hostages and fleeing into the hills. Robert Martinez’ house was not the one the FBI were seeking. The men they sought with their armed protest of the unlawful seizure of indigenous and Mexican-American land made them instant renegade heroes to Robert and generations of New Mexicans living under racist conditions.

By the 8th grade, Robert Martinez’ path would once again cross with his heroes. He chose to write his capstone project about Reies Lopez Tijerina and his life in and out of prison, always advocating for the return of New Mexican land to indigenous and Mexican landowners prior to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe. Robert Martinez and other Latino students knew they were being discriminated against by Sister Catherine Mary at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Albuquerque. They had to do the gruntwork to keep the classroom tidy while their white peers were given more cerebral tasks. So when he turned in “A” work replete with an extensive first hand interview with the protagonist, and received a “B” for his final 8th grade report, he understood the place from whence the judgement came.

Ironically, it was the same disrespect and debasement experienced by Lopez Tijerina - the once destitute child of farmworker parents turned ringleader of New Mexican land advocates and permanent thorn in the side of established politicians and landowners throughout New Mexico.

It was also the same discrimination felt throughout the country by people of color in the 1960’s, and although it began as an isolated movement, Reies Lopez Tijerina’s fight in New Mexico would coincide with other Chicano actions throughout the southwestern United States. Even if each were an organic, homegrown movement, each with its own distinct local flavor, the commonalities were starkly apparent – fighting against systematic discrimination, asserting the rights of indigenous and Mexican communities, and giving a voice to the disenfranchised. Colorado had the Crusade for Justice, California had the United Farm Workers Union, and New Mexico had the fight for land rights.

Prior to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe, New Mexico in its entirety, along with California, Texas, Arizona and parts of Colorado were Mexican territory. Under Mexico, substantial indigenous land was taken away. After the treaty, indigenous populations and Mexican landowners were forced to give up almost all their land in favor of white ranchers, farmers, and the US Forest Service. After a lifetime of witnessing the progressive loss of land and increasingly difficult work conditions for Mexicans, Tijerina and colleagues had enough. In giving shape to the movement to reclaim their land, they formed the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes comprised of more than 20,000 members by 1966. The Alianza worked to restore land grants under Spanish colonial rule and Mexican ownership and successfully fought against the structure allowing the white land grab. [1]

Once an isolationist preacher who had established a commune separate from what he viewed as a corrupt system, Tijerina used his religious past and intense study of land rights, colonial history, and research into Mexican and Spanish land records to battle on behalf of indigenous and “Indo-Hispano” (as he referred to Mexican Americans) land owners. The issue of New Mexican land ownership came to a head when Tijerina and a small group of “bandits” raided the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. They took hostages into the hills and brought national attention to violations of the Treaty of Guadalupe by U.S. authorities.

The Tierra Amarilla raid was one of many occasions when Tijerina took up arms against authorities. While Chavez and the United Farm Workers touted nonviolent action, Tijerina and his posse were usually armed to the teeth. Much like the Black and Brown Berets who armed themselves to prepare for conflict, Tijerina’s willingness to resort to violence struck a chord with disenfranchised across the country tired of getting pushed around by a racist system.

While the Tierra Amarilla assault was the culmination of Lopez Tijerina’s actions, many other actions led up to the raid. In the prior year, López Tijerina and 330 Alianza members marched from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in peaceful protest and Lopez Tijerina also led a seizure of the Carson National Forest, proclaiming the Republic of San Joaquín on the former San Joaquín land grant. [1]

Tijerina wrote a memoir in 2000 to document his struggles in New Mexico against the authorities - They Called Me “King Tiger”: My Struggle for the Land and Our Rights. The autobiography explains Lopez Tijerina’s attempt at peaceful resolution, reasoning for armed struggle and the need to break US law to bring attention to land ownership violations. Peter Nabokov wrote about the raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in the book, Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid.

For Robert Martinez, the fight to reclaim New Mexican land started with Lopez Tijerina but continues today, “Tierra Amarilla, where Tijerina was raised, is sacred land for indigenous and Spanish descendent Mexicans. Some former land owners including tribes with casinos have been able to buy their land back but many others are unable to afford the process. In New Mexico, it’s just like the Tierra Amarilla billboard with a big picture of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata says, ‘Tierra o Muerte.’”

[1] A History of New Mexico Since Statehood, Melzer, Tórrez, Matthews-Benham, 2011 – UNM Press

Part 1 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8071
Part 2 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8082
Part 3 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8093
Part 4 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8102
Part 5 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8112
Epilogue www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8111

 

 

 

 

 
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