Reis Lopez Tijerina died on Monday, Jan.19 — many have noted the significance of the date being MLK Day. Tijerina, was considered a hero to the Chicano movement and left a controversial legacy that included an armed fight and raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in Northern New Mexico in 1967 to restore Spanish and Mexican land grants to those who he pointed out were the rightful owners. He was born in Texas to migrant farmworkers and later became an evangelical preacher and then a crusader for social justice for the Chicano movement.
In the spring of 1968, I attended a presentation being given by a “movement heavy,” as the speaker was described to me. This was in the earliest days of my involvement, I had just joined UMAS, United Mexican American Students-later known as MECHA, and they were sponsoring the presentation. The speaker was Reis Lopez Tijerina.
He made his presentation in Spanish and as he spoke, I thought to myself, “He sure sounds like a Protestant minister.” The cadence, the gestures, the way he looked at the audience all reminded me of the ministers I saw in my youth. I am a fifth generation Chicano Protestant. My grandfather had attended a Presbyterian seminary and my uncles and cousins were lay ministers. There were many Chicano Protestants active in the movement including Burt Corona, Julian Nava and Rosalio Muñoz. As it turned out, Tijerina had been a evangelical minister.
Tijerina was known as “El Tigre,” the Tiger, for his fierce demeanor and militant activism. He was considered one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a title given to the four most important leaders of the Chicano Movement. Along with Tijerina, Cesar Chavez of the Farm Workers Union, Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzalez of Denver’s Crusade for Justice, and Jose Angel Gutierrez of Texas’s Raza Unida Party were considered the most prominent members of the Movement.
Reis Lopez Tijerina founded the Alianza Federal de Mercades (Federal Land Grant Alliance) in New Mexico. Unlike Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers whose dispute was primarily a labor dispute or urban Chicanos who organized around social issues, Tijerina’s issue was land. Spanish and Mexican land grants, protected by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican American war. In the fall of 1966, Tijerina and his band of followers occupied a portion of Kit Carson National Forest, which had been part of the Spanish land grant.
The local district attorney ordered Tijerina’s arrest and Tijerina countered by issuing a “citizen’s arrest” for the district attorney. On June 5, 1967, Tijerina and his followers raided the Tierra Amarilla courthouse, wounding a deputy and a jailer and taking two hostages. A massive manhunt ensued and Tijerina and some of his followers were arrested and charged with kidnapping and armed assault.
The “Courthouse Raid’ caught the attention of Chicano leaders throughout the Southwest. Gonzales in Denver and Burt Corona, labor leader and founder of the Mexican American Political Association, (MAPA), supported Tijerina. Chavez went to New Mexico where he embraced Tijerina and declared that if he had been New Mexican, he would have joined the Aliana. Later, in the Summer of 1968, Tijerina joined the Poor People’s March which called for joining of Native Americans, Chicanos and other Latinos, African Americans and sympathetic Anglos to fight injustice.
The Poor People’s March was somewhat of a high point for Tijerina. While he never regained the national prominence he had during the march, Tijerina’s impact should not be underestimated. Before the Courthouse Raid, the land grants were just a local property rights issue.
According to David Correia, author of “Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico,” Tijerina “brought international attention to land grants and made them part of a larger struggle.”
Tijerina, who had been battling a number of illnesses, including a heart condition, had to use a wheelchair in recent years but still occasionally gave speeches. Tijerina was born in Fall City, Texas, in 1923 to migrant farmworkers. On Jan. 19, Tijerina died of natural causes at an El Paso hospital. He was 88. He is survived by his wife of 22 years, Esperanza, and his children.
As Tijerina aged, Correira explained that he also spoke of numerology and an apocalyptic end of the world. It was part of his way of explaining his importance using dates and anniversaries. Correia said. “I think he’d be real excited that he died on Martin Luther King Day. Numbers meant something to him.”