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Lessons yet to learn

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By Optic Editorial Board

As the murals go up celebrating The People’s History of El Norte, it’s hard to imagine a better guest for the occasion than Reies Lopez Tijerina, a dynamic leader of the Chicano Movement during the second half of last century. His personal history coincides with “the people’s history” in a way that gives added meaning to the day’s events.

Wednesday will be a special day in Las Vegas. The murals, painted by students at West Las Vegas High School under the direction of Casa de Cultura, will be unveiled beginning at 4:30 p.m. in their proper sequence, commemorating the history of northern New Mexico from the original Native American tribes who occupied these grounds to the recent “people’s victory” over the sale of White Peak. The day will also include dancing at a community celebration, from noon to 3:30 p.m. at Plaza Park.

Moreover, two giants in America’s diverse history — Tijerina and Dolores Huerta, a founding member of the United Farmworkers Union — will be on hand to support the unveiling, and to discuss land and water rights in an academic setting.

Heurta, a New Mexico native, is a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. In 1965, she directed the UFW’s national grapes boycott, which resulted in the first-ever collective bargaining agreement for the union. She has dedicated her life to advocating farmworkers’ rights, primarily through her work in California.

Tijerina is best known for leading an armed raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse at Tierra Amarilla in 1967. But his long life (he’s 84 now) encompasses a struggle for the rights of Hispanics in Mexico and the U.S., with a special dedication to New Mexico land grant rights as established in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A controversial figure, Tijerina evolved from a preacher to an organizer of La Alianza, an alliance of New Mexico villages and communities struggling with land grant disputes, before, finally, being broadly recognized as an authority on issues of land ownership in the Southwest.

He and Heurta will be part of an academic panel discussion at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Highlands University’s Ilfeld Auditorium. Eric Romero, assistant professor of Languages and Culture at Highlands University, will moderate the discussion.

The period of struggle for Tijerina and La Alianza over land grants is an important lesson for northern New Mexico. There are still plenty of land disputes, as there are water disputes. New Mexico’s history is replete with such conflicts, often stemming from unjust and illegal breaches in the treaties and contracts of yesteryear. We can learn from Tijerina and his experiences. This week, we have the opportunity to do so, up close and personally.