With lightning speed, in the same year he founded La Voz del Pueblo, Felix Martinez dedicated his newspaper to fighting both the entrenched political system, run by the wealthy and powerful Hispanic dons, and the increasing land grant acquisition by Anglo land speculators.
By the summer of 1890, La Voz had coalesced three disparate groups to form a new political party, El Partido del Pueblo Unido (United People’s Party) — and the new populist party spread like wildfire throughout Las Vegas and the county.
Three groups joined to fuse the new Partido: The disaffected Republicans led by Don Lorenzo Lopez, who openly challenged the absolute control of his brothers-in-law, Don Trinidad and Don Eugenio, oldest of the five Romero brothers; the small band of Democrats organized under Felix Martinez; and the most robust group, the “common people” who supported the cause espoused by Las Gorras Blancas, led by Herrera brothers Juan Jose, Pablo and Nicanor.
Under the rallying cry of La Voz, El Partido challenged the old order, defying the political rules and protocol under which the eminent dons had ruled here for more than a half century. In an unprecedented showdown at the 1890 general election, El Partido fielded candidates against the Romero Republican machine, and against all odds, the new party won, “storming” their way into office, as noted by historian Lynn Perrigo.
Even Las Gorras’ Pablo Herrera was elected to the territorial assembly, despite having previously served time in the penitentiary for killing a man in Tecolote, and his famous speech in the legislature still resonates: “There is more honor, truth, and honesty within the walls of the penitentiary than there is in this assembly.”
Tragically, four years after his oft quoted speech, Herrera would be killed, his fate entwined with that of Don Lorenzo Lopez.
The most important victory of the 1890 populist revolt, however, was that of Don Lorenzo’s son, Jose L. Lopez, who seized the office of sheriff, then the most coveted position of all — reserved for the patrón. The sheriff’s office symbolized the ultimate badge of power, and was always occupied by the Romero family and jealously guarded by them. As early as 1863, a Romero was sheriff, continuing through the 1870s, and Romero brothers Eugenio and Hilario had alternated the position since 1880. (At the time, there existed no other law enforcement official, and the sheriff’s power was intimidating and unchecked, and more often than not, the high sheriff was at once prosecutor, judge, jury and jail keep.)
As for Pablo Herrera, whose election to the territorial legislature symbolized the triumph of the poor and dispossessed, he was killed just four years after his election, in a tragic turn of events brimming with irony. On Christmas Eve 1894, Herrera was shot dead by Don Lorenzo’s sheriff’s deputies, after escaping from jail while awaiting sentencing for murdering Doroteo Sandoval at Vicente Silva’s Imperial Saloon on the south Plaza.
In his Las Vegas chronicle, Perrigo wrote that it was Sheriff Lopez himself who killed Herrera, but this is probably incorrect. Other reliable accounts indicate that Herrera was likely killed in front of Our Lady of Sorrows church by sheriff’s deputy Billy Green, not Don Lorenzo, who had become sheriff in 1892, succeeding his son Jose.
According to the Evening Citizen, an Albuquerque newspaper which reported the killing the following day, Herrera had been on the lam for sometime, and would brazenly come into town, and “came once too often yesterday, and last night he came in and filled up with whisky, and this morning went out visiting merchants and asking for Christmas gifts, displaying a six-shooter in each place.”
Don Lorenzo’s sheriff’s posse later caught up with him and demanded his surrender, but according to the Evening Citizen, Herrera “paid no attention to the order, though called on three times, when the deputies opened fire on him, which he returned, and he was shot four times from which he died in a few minutes.”
Other accounts indicate that Herrera was ambushed by the posse, who gave him no warning, and that after the shooting, deputy Green was attacked by an angry crowd.
Only 27 when he killed Herrera, Green had served time in the penitentiary for horse thievery and was a feared bounty hunter, typical of many “lawmen” of the day, who themselves had an outlaw past. A year later, Green himself suffered a gruesome murder, a single finger and spur found of his charred remains. (Green was the paternal great-uncle of Billy Rogers, owner of Gonzales Funerals and Cremations, who was named for his notorious uncle.)
What of Felix Martinez, who with his newspaper spurred El Partido to victory? Two years later, El Partido was again victorious and Martinez was elected to the Territorial council (senate), where his first order of business would be to establish a university in Las Vegas.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.