“Tijerina was truly the right person, in the right place, at the right time.”
— Maurilio Vigil, historian
As a young boy I recall a monument being erected at Apodaca Park in Las Cruces. It was a sculpture representing Native Americans. This event stuck with me because of a comment my father made as we drove by.
“First they commit genocide on them, and then they build monuments in memory of them,” he said.
You don’t have to look very far back in history to see a similar pattern, not only with our native population, but also with social justice leaders. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed, harassed, beaten, set up by the FBI, and eventually assassinated for his role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
The one thing most of these social justice leaders have in common is that after their death, the same establishment that opposed them now honors them. We now have a national holiday, schools, buildings and streets have been named after them.
“El Tigre” (The Tiger), Reyes Lopez Tijerina, was born on Sept. 10, 1926, in Fall City, Texas. Although he was a “Tejano,” he found common cause with “Los Nortenios” on the subject of our herencia (heritage).
Las Gorras Blancas brought the land theft to a standstill at the turn of the century.
Tijerina fought to return lost lands back to the people. Tijerina formed a grassroots organization, La Alianza Federal de Mercedes (the Federal Alliance of Land Grants), on Oct. 8, 1963. He argued that the United States was in direct violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
He also claimed that community land grants were illegally obtained and must be returned to their rightful “owners.” Specifically, he claimed that the national forest in Tierra Amarilla belonged to the Pueblo de San Joaquín del Río Chama. The battle cry of this movement was, “tierra o muerte” (land or death).
When the Forest Service restricted grazing, woodcutting, and water use on federal lands by small farmers, membership in La Alianza exploded from 6,000 people in 1964 to 14,000 by 1965.
Tijerina made national news when he attempted to make a citizens arrest on District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez at the Tierra Amarilla Court House. Tijerina charged that Sanchez violated their constitutional right to assembly. This event came to be known as “the courthouse raids.”
After Tijerina’s arrest, he insisted on representing himself. He used his trial as a platform to further the cause. Tijerina was a natural at cross- examination, and easily won over the jury. This trial ended in his acquittal.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invited Tijerina to lead the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. (The King museum in Atlanta, Ga. has photos depicting Tijerina and King marching together). Despite King’s assassination, Tijerina continued to assist in the mobilization of a large, multiracial “poor people’s” contingent from the Southwest.
Tijerina had nothing to gain by leading this movement. As a matter of fact, he had everything to lose. Like many other social justice leaders, he was finally incarcerated.
After his release, his approach was much less radical due the conditions of his release and pending appeals on other charges. All the Spanish and Mexican documents that supported his claims on land grants went up in flames when his home mysteriously burned to the ground.
I have personal knowledge of “El Tigre” because my father was his trusted ally during “el movimiento.”
On many occasions, I found Tijerina, along with others, discussing policies, strategies, and concepts in my father’s living room (up until the late ‘80s). It was during one of these meetings that I first met two of Tijerinas soldiers from Las Vegas, the late great Steve Flores and his brother Lorenzo.
One will find just as many opponents to Reyes Lopez Tijerina as did Dr. King. History will determine if his cause and tactics were just. If you travel to Tierra Amarilla today, you will still see a sign upon entering that boldly states, “Tierra O Muerte.”
Because of limited space, much has been left out of these columns. Be assured that the mural project will have a running summary of greater detail.
Rock Ulibarri is a local resident and educator. He may be reached at 505-440-9776.