Reies Lopez Tijerina, New Mexico legend, land grant rights activist, and early Chicano activist, has died at the age of 88. Tijerina is known for the 1967 armed raid he led on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico in order to free a member of his movement to take the land grants back from the federal government.
The Spanish and Mexican governments encouraged northern settlement through the issuance of land grants, a semi-communal form of land ownership that allowed for vast common areas and a variety of economic activities, including sheep herding, logging, low-scale mining, farming, hunting, and other activities that were basically subsistence living. A very different form of land ownership than the Anglo-Saxon model of individual property ownership, the land grants were supposed to be guaranteed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But after the Civil War, wealthy whites managed to convince courts (the same courts that were repressing African Americans and Native Americans during the Gilded Age) to split the land grants up, allowing for the dispossession of basically all of northern New Mexico. Eventually, much of this land became the national forests and wilderness areas of the region today. Of course, the residents never recognized the theft of their land, leading to long-term tension between government agencies like the Forest Service and local residents, sometimes spiked with violence. The dispossession of the land also led to long-term poverty in the region among the Hispano population, a problem that remains unabated today among a group that has among the highest heroin death rates in the country.
Tijerina, a former evangelical preacher who had started his own experimental community in the 50s in Arizona, he felt a calling to go to Mexico to study the historical roots of the condition of Mexican-Americans in the United States. There he learned about the land grants and their thefts by white Americans. later turned his talents toward politically organizing the people of northern New Mexico. He stared the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, an Albuquerque-based movement for Hispano rights. By 1966, the group was staging large rallies in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
In October 1966, the group seized the Echo Amphitheater, a natural formation on what was once a land grant. As their demands increased, eight members of the group were arrested and placed in the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla. Tijerina and his followers then went to Tierra Amarilla to conduct a citizens’ arrest against the district attorney. This turned into a shootout. A state police officer and jailer were wounded. Later, that jailer was beaten to death by an unknown assailant. Tijerina escaped for awhile in Albuquerque but eventually served two years in prison. The Alianza died and land grant movement generally declined but the tensions remain in northern New Mexico today.
In doing this, Tijerina became one of the foundational figures of the Chicano movement, along with Cesar Chavez, Corky Gonzales, and others.
After his release from prison in 1971, Tijerina was active but not a leader in the Chicano movement. He certainly wasn’t influential in his last decades, but his actions in Tierra Amarilla and his demands for justice for New Mexico Hispanos certainly served as a call to the nation to take this minority group in a forgotten part of the nation seriously. Many hated Tijerina, some because he said controversial things throughout his life, some because he challenged the New Mexico power structure. But his importance cannot be overstated.