Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Reies Lopez Tijerina, a fiery orator and land grant crusader who captured national attention as the leader of the armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in northern New Mexico in 1967, died Monday, leaving a controversial legacy.
Tijerina, the Texas-born son of migrant workers who became an evangelical preacher, rose to national prominence after leading a band of two dozen men, brandishing rifles and pistols, as they burst into the Rio Arriba County courthouse on June 5, 1967. They wounded two lawmen and took a sheriff’s deputy and a journalist hostage – all in the name of restoring Spanish and Mexican land grants to those who Tijerina and followers said were the rightful owners in New Mexico and the Southwest.
Many supporters saw him more broadly as an advocate for social justice.
“He opened the eyes of a lot of people to land grants in northern New Mexico,” Lorenzo Flores, an activist in Las Vegas, N.M., told the Journal on Monday. “His passing leaves a void. … Reies was trying to show that we are part of an international treaty. A lot of us still left are going to be wanting to continue his legacy. … He lived a long life, a good life, and struggled a lot.”
Rees Lloyd, Tijerina’s longtime friend and personal attorney who lives in Portland, Ore., said it was fitting that Tijerina died on the holiday that celebrates the birth of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He (Tijerina) was a great man,” Lloyd said. “He was always a man of the future. He was indomitable. He believed in what he was doing; he believed in the ultimate victory of human decency, that discrimination and other injustices would be overcome.”
To say Tijerina was a polarizing figure is an understatement, said Lorena Oropeza, associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis.
“People either hated him or loved him. And sometimes they loved him until they hated him,” said Oropeza, who has written extensively about Tijerina and the land grant movement.
Tijerina died Monday of natural causes in an El Paso hospital. He was 88.
With little formal education, Tijerina had Pentecostal roots and called himself a prophet, living for a time in a religious commune in Arizona before his arrival in New Mexico, she said. He talked about eating out of garbage cans as a child.
By the time he arrived in New Mexico, he “was truly interested in the injustice of land dispossession,” said Oropeza, who interviewed Tijerina several years ago. “He was the only one who really called attention to this and captured national publicity.”
Tijerina acted as his own lawyer in a trial in New Mexico on charges stemming from the courthouse raid and was acquitted by a jury. He was found guilty in a second trial and served more than 1,200 days in federal and state prison for incidents related to the land grant movement protests.
“To a certain extent, Reies was kind of frozen in time at the Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid because he becomes a hero to the Chicano movement and the Chicano protest movement in the 1960s and 1970s,” Oropeza said.
But his attempts to address social injustice in later years sometimes turned into anti-Semitic rants.
“He was put into this hero role, and he doesn’t quite work out,” she said. “It’s not good when your hero turns out to be someone who says anti-Semitic things.”
In 1987 interview with the Albuquerque Journal, Tijerina compared himself to imprisoned Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess. He blamed Jews in the same interview for the loss of Spanish land grants and for discrimination against Hispanics.
Toney Anaya, a former New Mexico attorney general and the state’s governor from 1983 though 1986, recalled first meeting Tijerina in the 1960s at a congressional hearing in New Mexico on poverty. Anaya told the Journal on Monday that the two became friends and always hugged when they met.
Anaya described Tijerina as “bombastic,” “very eloquent,” “forceful,” “strong in voice,” “passionate.” He called him a “large, imposing figure” with a “booming voice.”
“He was a very colorful individual, one of the early leaders … as far as advocating for civil rights and equal justice,” Anaya said. “He could work up the crowds into an excitable frenzy if he wanted to.”
Tijerina’s work extended beyond land grant rights to include advocating for jobs for the poor, voting rights and equal rights for Hispanics and Native Americans, Anaya said.
Anaya said Tijerina made a positive mark in New Mexico history by speaking out for the least fortunate and forcing political leaders and others to confront the issues of land grant rights and more.
Anaya said the raid grew out of Tijerina’s “sense of frustration in not being able to get a fair hearing. He was going to stir up controversy if he thought it would bring attention to the issues important to him.”
Roberto Mondragon, New Mexico’s lieutenant governor from 1971 to’ 74 and 1979 to ’82, also has been an advocate for land grant rights.
“He brought the issue more to the surface than anyone,” Mondragon said Monday, recalling Tijerina. “A lot of people loved him; a lot of people didn’t.”
Mondragon said Tijerina’s efforts helped lay the foundation for progress on the issue of land grant rights, including the creation of a state Legislature committee and a governor-appointed council on land grants.
Moises Morales, Rio Arriba County clerk and former county commissioner, took part in the 1967 raid.
Morales, as well as Mondragon, noted that Tijerina participated in the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C., in 1968, which King helped organize.
Morales said he began attending Tijerina’s meetings in Albuquerque and elsewhere in the mid-1960s after hearing Tijerina on the radio, and that he once served as Tijerina’s bodyguard.
“People loved him because they had a voice,” Morales said. “They were hungry for justice. He was a hero for the people. He was our champion.
“The only people who didn’t like him were the people that had stolen the land grants. They feared him,” he said.