Who is Reies López Tijerina?
A reappraisal of a folk hero
Smoke from the Thompson Ridge fire burning in the Jemez drifted north last Wednesday, June 5, and settled thick over Española, mixing with dark rain clouds to the north. I was driving from Albuquerque to Alcalde to hear Reies López Tijerina speak at an event commemorating the 46th anniversary of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid, but when I made it out of the smoke and into the rain in Alcalde, I found that 86-year-old Tijerina had—for the first time in many years—skipped his usual June 5 pilgrimage to New Mexico. Despite his absence the commemoration went on and, as it always does, provided an opportunity for land grant activists to honor Tijerina’s celebrated role in New Mexico’s land grant history. Speaker after speaker gave speeches that mixed stories of Tijerina’s important legacy with familiar laments of treaties broken and land grants stolen.
Though no one said it, not much has changed in 46 years. Then as now New Mexico was on fire. Forest fires raged in the canyons below Los Alamos in the spring of 1967, and new fires seemed to erupt every few days on the Carson National Forest. So much burned in fact that officials sighed with relief. “The worst was over,” reported one sheriff, “because there was so little left to burn.”
But it was arson, not drought, that filled New Mexico’s skies with smoke in the spring of 1967. These were fires of discontent and officials suspected land grant group La Alianza Federal de Mercedes was to blame. The charismatic leader of the Alianza, Reies López Tijerina, formed the group as a way to reclaim Spanish and Mexican land grants in New Mexico. According to the Alianza, the large private ranches and huge federal forests of northern New Mexico were the illegal spoils of a colonial invasion. Aided by officials, 19th century speculators had robbed scores of land grant communities of their land. Their poverty was a monument to this colonial greed.
Tijerina’s dramatic Courthouse Raid appears tame compared to the spectacular tactics these heirs have used for generations.
On June 5, 1967, Tijerina and 18 aliancistas armed with pistols and shotguns stormed the Rio Arriba County Courthouse looking for district attorney Alfonso Sánchez. Just days earlier Sánchez had ordered the arrest of 11 Alianza leaders after the group threatened to take over the nearly 600,000-acre Tierra Amarilla land grant in northern New Mexico. The raiders planned to liberate them and place Sánchez under citizen's arrest, but neither Sánchez nor the arrested aliancistas were in Tierra Amarilla that morning. After shooting a cop and the jailer, Tijerina and the other raiders fled into the surrounding mountains. Hundreds of state police officers searched New Mexico's land grant villages, while National Guard tanks prowled the dirt roads of the Carson National Forest looking for the raiders.
The courthouse raid made Tijerina a national figure. He spoke at Black Panther demonstrations, advised Elijah Muhammad, rallied with farmworkers in Texas and marched at the side of Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy in Washington, D.C. His rhetoric electrified civil rights activists as much as it alarmed authorities. J. Edgar Hoover personally supervised a wide-ranging investigation of Tijerina. The New Mexico State Police employed agents provocateurs against Alianza. Tijerina was eventually jailed for his land grant activism.
This has been the official, heroic version of Tijerina, one in which he alone resurrected a moribund land grant movement at great personal cost. But this beatification of Tijerina has placed the land grant movement forever in his shadow, both blessed and burdened by its association with this courageous but contradictory leader.
It is blessed because Tijerina, always dogged and determined, galvanized thousands in a struggle for the return of land grant land. But it has also become burdened by his legacy. As I listened to the speeches at this year’s commemoration, I realized that his absence provides an opportunity to reconsider his legacy and maybe even imagine a land grant movement out from under Tijerina's shadow.
... It has been a mistake to make Tijerina the patron saint of land grant struggle.
Any honest appraisal of Tijerina’s legacy would have to come to terms with the fact that the man who became synonymous with land grants built the Alianza on the backs of women, who did much of the work but received none of the recognition. It would have to admit that Tijerina’s celebration of Spanish empire deferred a more honest and searching examination of Spanish and Mexican land grant violence directed at Indian nations. It would have to admit that his idiosyncratic, religiously based notion of social justice has grown increasingly anti-Semitic over the years. And, finally, it would acknowledge that his view of himself and his role in the land grant movement has grown so large that it crowds out any history that doesn’t place him at its center.
There is no doubt Tijerina is a significant figure in New Mexico’s dramatic land grant history, but his absence from this year’s anniversary is a reminder that there were other heroes in this history.
And it’s no accident that the place to look for this history is precisely where Tijerina first looked for answers. When Tijerina arrived in New Mexico in the late 1950s, the organized and militant heirs of the Tierra Amarilla land grant were among his first teachers. Fernanda Martinez educated Tijerina on the history of the land grant struggle and Gregorita Aguilar tutored him on the provocative methods he would later take up. Tijerina’s dramatic Courthouse Raid appears tame compared to the spectacular tactics these heirs have used for generations. When fences first arrived in Tierra Amarilla in 1915, the heirs formed a clandestine group called La Mano Negra to defend their common rights. They cut fences, burned barns and threatened private ranchers. They frightened elites and terrified political officials for decades.
In the late 1930s, the heirs organized a group called La Corporacion de Abiquiu and spent 30 years suing private ranchers in quiet title and ejectment lawsuits. Theirs was a sophisticated legal struggle that understood—in ways Tijerina never did—that the land grants were not “stolen” but rather were trapped in a legal system incapable of understanding common property.
In the 1970s land grant activists built a free medical clinic, opened a legal aid office and scuttled an airport that boosters hoped would turn Tierra Amarilla into the next Taos and condemn locals, as one activist put it, to a life of "cleaning up the shit of tourists and hunters who have no respect for our culture and get mad when we speak Spanish."
Tijerina was no doubt an important leader, and the Courthouse Raid was no question a transformative moment, but it has been a mistake to make Tijerina the patron saint of land grant struggle. To do so has meant ignoring the possibilities of a land grant movement honest about its role in Indian removal, committed to gender equality and willing to sacrifice charismatic laments of lands lost for clear-eyed and historically based proposals for a socially just land grant future.
There are people who have done these things and it is they who should now define both the history of New Mexico’s land grants and its way forward, not Reies López Tijerina.
David Correia is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and the author of Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico.