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Tijerina Heirs Ask Obama To Restore Land Grants

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          Settled into a chair on her patio, Rosita Tijerina shows none of the fist-pumping militancy that caused her famous father, Reies, to be described by some as "a creature of the darkness" and the most hated man in New Mexico.
        Her younger brother, Noé, on the other hand, has inherited all of his father's oratorical fire.
        "We're hungry for justice," he says, arms waving. "Evil will only triumph while good men stand by and do nothing."
        We're under a patio umbrella in an older Albuquerque neighborhood because Rosita and Noé are banding together with longtime community activist Andres Valdez to bring the land grant fight of Reies Lopez Tijerina back to life.
        A Texas native who was a traveling preacher, Tijerina landed in northern New Mexico in the 1960s and became the face of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, a collective of Hispanic land grant heirs he helped to organize with the aim of taking back property they claimed under the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War.
        In 1966, Tijerina led the group in an armed occupation of Echo Amphitheater in the Carson National Forest, land that was historically part of the San Joaquin del Rio de Chama Land Grant. A year later, Tijerina and others tried to make a citizens arrest and free members being held at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, an event that turned into an armed occupation — culminating in the shooting of a State Police officer and a jailer — and became known as the "courthouse raid."
        More than 40 years later, the Tijerina children are taking a different tack. They have sent President Barack Obama a certified letter asking, in a sentence, for title to millions of acres of national forest and Bureau of Land Management land in the Southwest.
        "We are requesting our land be returned back to us, the thousands of displaced land grant heirs that have been forced out of our homes, our towns and out of our livelihoods."
        Rosita and Noé Tijerina make it sound simple: They meet with Obama, he sees things their way, and directs the Interior and Agriculture Departments to identify which parts of the forests and BLM reserves were historically land grants and give that land to the collective heirs.
        They envision an arrangement similar to that of the Indian pueblos — land grant communities with their own police forces, governments and industries.
        The land grants were lands awarded by the Spanish and Mexican governments to individuals and groups as they agreed to move into the New World. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo recognized the property as belonging to the ancestors of the original settlers, people the Tijerinas prefer to call "Indo-Hispanos." But, over time, most of the land grant acres became folded into federal holdings, or purchased or swindled into private hands.
        There were hundreds of land grants, comprising millions of acres, and they cover much of New Mexico.
        Land grant activists are understandably unhappy about losing their land, although it's also reasonable to ask whether it was ever really theirs. Native Americans called this place home long before the "settlers" arrived, and they can make a good case that the land wasn't Spain's or Mexico's to give.
        Too bad about all this ancient history, you're thinking. What about me? I rather like scrambling to the top of Cabezon and strolling on the Aspen Vista Trail and fishing in the Santa Barbara and watching birds at Bosque del Apache. I think of all this public land as mine.
        Relax, the organizers say. Grazing, hiking, fishing — it would all be allowed under the land grant nations.
        "Hand in hand in brotherhood," Noé says.
        "We would not do to them what they did to us," Rosita adds.
        And what about the folks who've bought former land grant land and built their houses and ranches there? They would stay put, the organizers say. But the federal government would be expected to compensate the land grant heirs for their property.
        You seem pretty matter-of-fact about all this, I tell Valdez and the Tijerinas. But talking about a takeover of a good portion of the state will scare the daylights out of people.
        "Of course, it will scare people," Valdez says. "But there will be diplomacy and education."
        Tijerina did several years in prison for the amphitheater takeover and the courthouse raid. He had a conversion of sorts behind bars and emerged with a different view of the struggle. Tijerina, who is 82 now and lives in El Paso with his third wife, still believes in the land grant cause, Rosita says, but "he wanted brotherhood, peace among the races."
        Rosita was 18 during the courthouse raid, and she acted as a shield and decoy and remembers bullets flying. Noé was 9 and watched it on TV, worried that he was losing his father and his sister to the cause.
        Although the organizers don't rule out some kind of protest if Obama ignores the new Alianza (they're silent on the details), the elderly Tijerina won't have to watch his children engaged in armed conflict on TV.
        "We're hungry for justice," Noé says. "But militant activity has gotten us nowhere."
        UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com.

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