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Reies Lopez Tijerina

Born: 9-21-1926

Will The Real Reies López Tijerina Please Stand Up?

By Lorena Oropeza

While seeking letters of recommendation last year, I explained to two senior colleagues in the field of Chicana/o History that I was currently writing a history of La Alianza de Mercedes, the land-grant organization founded by Reies López Tijerina in 1963. Mention of Tijerina provoked an immediate reaction. “You are not going to do a hatchet job on him, are you?” one asked. “You are not going to idolize him, are you?” asked the other.  The questions underscored the extent to which Tijerina remains a controversial figure more than forty years after he and the Alianza catapulted to national attention in the wake of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid.

Certainly sharp and divergent opinions about the land-grant leader abound in the document collections at the Center for Southwest Research in Albuquerque and at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archive in Santa Fe. In 1973 and 1974, for example, when Governor Bruce King was contemplating a pardon for Tijerina, hundreds of New Mexicans wrote the governor offering counsel. While about half of these letters praised Tijerina as an incomparable advocate for social justice, the rest strongly condemned the land-grant activist as a dangerous and repellant fraud. Negotiating among such diverse and often extreme opinions is one of the challenges I face in crafting a history of this particular era of land-grant activism. Eager to capture in a nuanced way  Tijerina’s significance both within the Alianza and beyond it, I sometimes ask myself in frustration: will the real Reies López Tijerina please stand up?

To those who advocated for his release, Tijerina was a dedicated defender of his people, someone who, despite the violence of the Courthouse Raid, was a sincere promoter of peace and equality for all. Letter-writers from throughout the state and from across the Southwest, Spanish-surnamed and Anglo-American alike, concurred on these points. Typical was a letter written by Lila A. Pfeufer of Albuquerque. “At first, I considered him just a rabble-rouser inflaming the hopeless people who would lose anyway,” she admitted to the governor. But careful observation had persuaded her otherwise. “He is a self-educated man who can very likely do much good for his people – perhaps in the long run help in overcoming some of the prejudice that exists in our beautiful state.[1]” Another letter-writer from Albuquerque, John M. Burton, struck a similar theme: “I admire Reyes Tijerina for his efforts on behalf of the Spanish-Americans,” he wrote. “Of course, he was a bit rash at one time, but he has been punished enough.” By this time, Tijerina had already served two years in federal prison on charges unrelated to the Courthouse raid. He also had successfully defended himself against charges related to the raid during an earlier state trial in 1969.  That he now was serving time because state prosecutors had tried him a second time smacked of double jeopardy to Tijerina supporters. Thus, James M. Herrera of the Raza Unida Party in Alamogordo insisted that, “no legitimate state purpose will be served to punish [Tijerina] twice for the same acts.” To Herrera, Tijerina was not a criminal but an “advocate for justice.”  For her part, Mrs. Robert Shanks, a Mexican American from Roswell who evidently had come to know Tijerina through their mutual involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign, invoked Christ-like imagery in her defense of the land-grant activist. “Why have you allowed a man to be crucified?” she asked the governor. Referring to Tijerina’s promotion in the early 1970s of what he called Brotherhood Awareness Conferences, Shanks credited Tijerina with “putting before us . . . the fact that we were all brothers and sisters and must try to live together in harmony.” Indeed, many writers saw Tijerina’s promotion in the early 1970s of these interethnic unity conferences as proof of not only his rehabilitation but also of his true leadership qualities. Among them was Dr. Myra Ellen Jenkins, the Official State Historian of New Mexico, who had previously been a fierce critic of both Tijerina’s militant politics and his historical interpretations. Yet in the interim between his leaving federal prison and entering the state penitentiary, she wrote to the governor, “Mr. Tijerina has done what many thoughtful New Mexicans, myself included, had long hoped he would do, turn his organizing abilities, his charisma and his deep convictions toward peaceful methods of securing justice.” Given his newfound emphasis on peaceful cooperation, Jenkins concluded that Tijerina’s “further imprisonment would not serve the cause of justice.”

Tijerina’s critics disagreed on nearly every point. Whereas his supporters emphasized his rejection of violence, his detractors invoking a Tijerina nickname (and mixing metaphors or at least their big cats) warned that “El Tigre [The Tiger]” could not be trusted “to change his spots.” Whereas his supporters cast Tijerina as a heroic ethnic leader, his Spanish-surnamed detractors, who were as well represented as Anglo- American ones, insisted that Tijerina was not representative of them. Notably, whether Spanish-surnamed or Anglo-American, opponents of a Tijerina pardon were more likely to be New Mexican residents. Perhaps that is why the criticism was much more personal.  Certainly, these letter-writers denounced the Alianza founder for his actions the day of the raid. As Frederick DuBois of Albuquerque reminded the governor, “The Tierra Amarilla action got people hurt.”  Like many other letter writers, DuBois also suspected that Tijerina’s release would only aggravate a still tense situation in northern New Mexico. Therefore, he insisted, Tijerina behind bars was “exactly where I like to see him, defanged.”

Indeed, DuBois’ objections to Tijerina extended beyond associating the Alianza with violence. He also repeated an accusation often made by Tijerina foes: that Tijerina was only exploiting the land-grant issue in an attempt to enrich himself. Dismissing the idea of a reformed and more peaceable Tijerina, DuBois concluded, “If [Tijerina] ever manages to do any ’good,’ it will be incidental to the real business of feathering his nest.” Adopting an even more vitriolic tone, J.R. Martinez, whose letter did not list a hometown, strongly agreed.  Calling Tijerina “a con man,” a “swindler,” a “born rabble-rouser,” and a “bully,” Martinez credited Tijerina only with the ability to cause trouble.  “But when did he ever do a day’s honest work?” he asked, “For years he has been living off others and from his wits.”

More rarely, opponents of Tijerina’s pardon put a racial spin on their objections.  As R. A. Crider of Socorro, NM, summarized the situation: Tijerina was “a Mexicano who hates Americans, defies the laws and customs of our society, and tries to tear it down at every opportunity.”  Clearly among these defied customs, moreover, was responsible parenthood. Several letter-writers noted with displeasure that Tijerina had divorced one wife after having six children together and then remarried and fathered another four. “Has he no respect for pop[ulation] explosion or [the] welfare of his children?” asked Mrs. Schneider of Albuquerque. To his critics, Tijerina needed to do a better job supporting his family instead of agitating on the land-grant question.  Not even his personal life escaped their scrutiny.

One of the greatest ironies arising from these contrasting opinions is how poorly they align with the existing literature on Tijerina and the Alianza, especially in regard to the use of violence. Within the field of Chicana/o history, of course, the shoot-out at Tierra Amarilla on June 5, 1967 securely enshrined Tijerina as one of the “Four Horsemen of the Chicano Movement” along with Cesar Chavez of California, Corky Gonzales of Colorado, and José Angel Gutiérrez of Texas. Deliberately evocative of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the term credited the four with being harbingers of a glorious new age, one presumably on the verge of vanquishing Anglo American oppression.[2] Contrary to the perspective of the pro-pardon lobby, however, what this movement-inspired historiography typically found most admirable about Tijerina was his willingness to pick up the gun, to truly fight for his cause. After all, as fellow horseman Gutiérrez noted with admiration as late as 2000, Tijerina “did what Malcolm X and the Black Panthers only talked about.”[3] Yet in this respect, the literature also clashed with the perspective of the anti-pardon faction. Although the association of Tijerina and militant action was one commonality between the two, any violence merited not praise but condemnation from the perspective of those opposed to Tijerina’s release. The upshot is that I cannot turn to the existing literature to help me resolve the clashing opinions regarding Reies López Tijerina. It remains too far removed from an understanding of how events played out in New Mexico itself.

For now I must live with a certain amount of uncertainty but also with a growing conviction that individuals are inherently complex. No evidence exists that suggests that Tijerina got rich off his land-grant activism. Plenty of evidence exists that suggests his family did suffer greatly because of his political work. His stature nationally as an ethnic leader does not negate the fact that many New Mexicans nevertheless considered him an outsider and an interloper.  His extensive charisma, inevitably perhaps, co-existed with an outsized personality. Finally, although Tijerina did a tremendous job at redirecting attention toward the land grants, he worked just as hard at trying to secure his own reputation.  For all these reasons, my work continues.

 


[1] All of the letters quoted in this essay come from Box 64 of the Bruce King Papers, First Term, 1971-1974 at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe. The letters supporting a pardon for Tijerina are found in Folder 1514: Militant Groups, Tijerina Pardon, Yes. Those letters opposing a pardon are found in Folder 1513: Militant Groups, Tijerina Pardon, No.

[2] For more about the Four Horsemen especially in regards to Tijerina, see Rudy V. Busto, King Tiger: The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Pres, 2005), 22-34.

[3] Reies López Tijerina, They Called Me “King Tiger”: My Struggle for the Land and Our Rights, translated and edited by José Angel Gutiérrez (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 2000), xvi.