BOOK OF THE WEEK REVIEW
A book that should be of abiding interest to New Mexicans is “The King of Adobe: Reies López Tijerina, Lost Prophet of the Chicano Movement” by Lorena Oropeza.
The subtitle refers to Tijerina as a “lost prophet” because, Oropeza said in a phone interview, “a lot of people don’t know him or what he was about. But his ideas are powerful and he contributed a lot more than people realize. …Tijerina has been largely forgotten compared to Cesar Chávez,” the farmworkers’ leader.
Tijerina’s prime time in the national spotlight came in June 1967, when he led an armed raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. The violent takeover resulted in several lawmen being shot and two other people kidnapped. The takeover brought attention to long-simmering northern New Mexico land issues, especially communal land-grant claims by nuevomexicanos stemming from the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War.
Tijerina was head of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants). The Alianza sought redress from the U.S. government which the Alianza alleged had stolen millions of acres land that rightfully belonged to land grant heirs. Under the treaty the government promised to respect property rights of Mexicans who chose to stay in the United States after the war.
Books published soon after the raid, at the height of the Chicano Movement, painted Tijerina as a “singular action figure. He was brave and committed and inspirational” when it came to promoting the cause of land grant claimants, Oropeza said.
Oropeza, a historian, said she’s spent the last 15 years researching and writing the book and that stretch of time allowed her the luxury of going through Tijerina’s papers so she could present a full picture of the man. He died in 2015 at age 88.
Oropeza’s book describes Tijerina’s character and mercurial, dictatorial behavior over time and how his evolving leadership roles influenced his political activism.
Tijerina was born in Texas to a migrant farmworker family that had no treaty-related claims to land grants. The author discusses his life in 10 periods of reinvention, beginning as a youthful charismatic preacher, then transitioning to an Old Testament-like prophet who led followers to live an underground desert outpost near Casa Grande, Arizona. Tijerina lived there for two years, until he had a dream in which God’s angels gave him a new assignment. Oropeza writes he interpreted the dream to mean he must investigate and record the true history of land grants.
In the next chapter, he wears the cloak of being Mexican, spending time in “mother” Mexico to study the history of land grants and to make political contacts, including leftists who might aid Mexican Americans.
“If nuevomexicanos were really Mexicans, then they were by definition not Americans,” hence they were a “conquered and subjugated” people within the United States, Oropeza explains Tijerina’s logic. That’s an important point, she writes, because it rejects the American concept of Manifest Destiny and replaces it with American colonization.
Chapter four describes Tijerina reinventing himself in the role of patriarch in his public life with the Alianza. Oropeza writes that he expected to dominate – and did dominate – the Alianza as its president.
That behavior mirrored his heavy-handed rule over his family. He brooked no dissent, especially from women.
The Alianza was formed in early 1963 and after the raid it stumbled through part of the next decade, Oropeza said. Many of those years it was headquartered in Albuquerque.
Chapter seven offers yet another revised ethnic origin definition – to Indo-Hispano. Tijerina argues that the Indian, not the Mexican, is the “true mother” of nuevomexicanos. By doing so, Oropeza writes, “the maternal metaphor now served to exempt nuevomexicanos from any responsibility for the negative repercussions of Spanish colonialism.”
The descriptive “Hispano” might remain, but the conquistador fades.
At the same time by invoking “Indo,” Tijerina glosses over competing land grant claims between Native Americans and the Spanish-speaking population.
Oropeza said readers should take Tijerina seriously. There are still New Mexicans today, she said, who see treaty-related land grants as a living issue.
“I say Tijerina was neither hero nor villain,” Oropeza said. “He was a political leader. They’re not perfect human beings. He’s brilliant in some ways and not in others. I’m OK with those complexities.”
The University of North Carolina Press published “The King of Adobe.”
The title derives from priest/historian Fray Angélico Chavez’s comment that the Kingdom of New Mexico after its founding in 1598 didn’t generate wealth. Instead it survived as an “isolated frontier outpost of adobe for centuries to come.”
Oropeza concludes that whether leading religious followers or land-grant claimants, Tijerina’s “kingdom dreams, just like old adobe, turned to dust.”
Oropeza, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, is currently writing a book on “A Mexican History of the United States.” It is part of the Beacon Press series “ReVisioning History.”