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Weekly Alibi íViva la Alianza!

Thirty Years After the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid

By Kevin Klein

"You're not going to find Reies--he's out of the country," says one of the Tijerinas, a distant cousin of "Rey" Reies Lopez Tijerina. The relative is reluctant to talk. "I see a lot of good in people and a lot of bad. I don't trust hardly anybody, myself. My father told me when I first moved here to New Mexico: 'Watch what you do, watch what you say. You don't know anything,' and I didn't--until I met Reies. It's still a very touchy situation--there is still anger and stuff about it, and I've felt the prejudice. I went to rent an apartment in Albuquerque, and when the guy found out my last name, he changed his mind."

This Tijerina's phone number is not listed. He originally agreed to talk to Weekly Alibi, but then recanted, trying to find a relative of his that would talk instead. He did not. A number of Tijerinas that were able to be found through the phone book and listings would not return calls either. "You won't find his daughters, and I'm not surprised that nobody will talk to you," he says. "Rey is doing good. Everybody on one boat that came from Spain named Tijerina were brothers," he says. "I went up to Rey's place in Coyote three, maybe four years ago with my dad and my kids. He explained how we were related. We talked the weekend away. He had a lot of stories that were about people being tricked out of their land. He had the gift, you know. My teenage boys won't listen to anybody, but when they were around Rey, that's the first time that I saw them sit and be absorbed." That house in Coyote was recently lost to fire, perhaps to arson.

Tijerina's relative was 11 when Reies Lopez Tijerina and his political party, Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Grants) became the subject of the state's largest manhunt. At the courthouse in the tiny town of Tierra Amarilla near Chama, the Alianza Twenty shot a State Trooper and critically wounded a court guard.

Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Spanish-American ex-evangelist with a wicked gift for captivating a crowd, tapped into the social and economic fault line created by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the settling treaty of the Mexican-American war signed in 1848. Charged with nervous energy and raw charisma, Tijerina was born to a poor Texas sharecropper. Self-educated past the sixth grade, the raven-haired man with dark eyes and a sharp nose arrived in New Mexico in the late 1950s "with a checkered past of a fugitive from the law and the fire of a Bible Belt fundamentalist turned political insurgent" wrote Peter Nabokov (nephew of Vladimir Nabokov), a Santa Fe New Mexican reporter and author of Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid. Tijerina had been a migrant farm worker, had known years of Anglo prejudice and had spent years refining his Episcopal traveling reverend's skill at seizing the soul of a crowd. He spoke the necessary words among people who felt their land was stripped from them--people who were unable to graze their animals on ancestral lands now belonging to the U.S. Forest Service. He spoke better than anyone about la justicia. He was one of them, one of the people--one of la Raza--who knew that they had been ripped off.

Organizing a loose band of people into a genuine one-issue party, the Alianza sought one thing: the return of lands back to the people. "They were the latest in a string of land-grant-heir clubs," writes Nabokov. "They had consolidated around memories of ancestral acreage and the common experience of economic and cultural alienation." From their office on Fourth Street in Albuquerque, established in the early 1960s, the Alianza became more legitimate, more powerful and more visible. They had found where grants had been shaved between Guadalupe-Hidalgo and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service was, through the early '60s, beginning to seriously restrict the number of cattle that grazed in forest lands. Permits were given along with allotments, and for the dryland rancher, having one was a matter of life and death. The land in parts of Rio Arriba County was seriously compromised by years of misuse and grazing, yet the ranchers wanted to adhere to their ancestral ways of life. Obviously, Alianza appealed to many Hispanics. The party's membership went from 6,000 followers in 1964 to 14,000 one year later. While Tijerina was at the front, the Alianza was a broad-based movement that struck chords with people of all races, all economic classes.

Known as the Appalachia of the West, the towns and rural areas north of Santa Fe were settled largely by Spanish grant holders, and, by the 1960s, had become poorer than anywhere else in the West. The grants, given by the Spanish monarchy and Mexican governmental officials before 1846, held that named families and their descendants would collectively hold title to acreage spelled out in specific land charters.

After 1848, what was not lost by surveyors and politicians or conscripted into Forest Service use was stolen for profit. Of the hundreds of Spanish grants, dozens of them were shadily transferred, unscrupulously acquired or taken outright. Hundreds of thousands of acres were taken by lawyers known as the Santa Fe Ring. Not the only villains, some of the grant holders themselves placed their collective asset in jeopardy, often losing the entire tract of land, homes, water rights--everything. Many grant holders borrowed against their portion of the whole grant, and upon default the entire grant had to be sold to recover the defaulted portion, often at as little as 6 cents on the dollar; this particular scenario seemed blatantly unfair but was technically legal. Banks and mercantiles sold the vast tracts of land to timber companies for harvest.

The 600,000 acres around Tierra Amarilla, a vast tract of prime timberland near Chama, N.M., were lost to a bank and an auction by a single grantholder before 1912 when the United States adjudicated the entire state of New Mexico. It was one grant of many that did not pay out all of its heirs upon its sale, nor did it solve the resentment held by grantholders that were screwed in the deal. If they didn't want to sell, it was just too bad. These were instrumental to the feelings that created the conditions ripe for Alianza. Everywhere, fear, distrust and increasing poverty made the conditions ripe for a wildfire of rebellion.

In the five years leading up to the armed conflict at the tiny courthouse, the Alianza party staged protests, performed a three-day long march from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in the heat of July, inhabited a Forest Service section of land (and held Forest Service rangers at gunpoint for several days) at Echo Amphitheater in October 1966, set a rash of fires at homes, hayracks and barns of Anglo ranchers in Rio Arriba and amplified existing social and racial tension at its roots. Alianza members believed they were fighting for the stolen land that was their birthright.

Not willing to sit idly by while armed takeover of private property was being planned, Tierra Amarilla District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez intervened. Sanchez, a proud Hispanic American, was, like Reies Tijerina, from a family of 10 children. But Sanchez, like many Hispanics, was not proud of the "antics" of the Alianza, particularly their violence. Sanchez tried to serve Tijerina a summons to prevent an upcoming mass meeting of Alianza in Coyote. Eight members of the group were arrested as Sanchez grabbed whomever he could find. The arraignment of the eight was set for June 7, six days after the proposed Alianza meeting.

Then all hell broke loose.

Twenty armed men stormed the crumbling Tierra Amarilla courthouse to make a citizens' arrest on Sanchez because he had abused their constitutional right to meet. While searching for Sanchez, a sheriff and a jailer were shot, police cars were riddled with bullets, two other policemen were beaten--one seriously--and a UPI reporter, a young Larry Calloway, now a columnist for the Journal, was detained. The judge escaped by locking himself in the bathroom. And the search was on.

Two hundred military vehicles including tanks, almost four hundred soldiers and scores of police and lawmen plowed into Rio Arriba County to find Tijerina and the Twenty, converging on the tiny town of Canjilon. They found not armed insurrectionists, but a band of picnickers who were detained nonetheless. Police found Tijerina in Albuquerque two weeks later, and he was booked on two counts of assault to commit murder, kidnapping, possession of a deadly weapon and destruction of state property. Eulogio Salazar, the jailer who was shot in the face during the raid, and the one man that identified Tijerina as being among the Twenty, would later be beaten to death in his car, the perpetrator(s) never found. Albuquerque jurors stunned the onlooking press in 1968 by finding Tijerina innocent of all charges stemming from the raid. (Later, he was convicted on federal charges related to the Echo Amphitheater incident and spent several years in an El Paso prison.)

"There were twice as many people in that area than there are now," says former Governor David Cargo, looking north through his thickly framed glasses from the fifth floor of the Simms Building Downtown. Shrouded in the reflected light from the old federal courthouse across the street, and just in view of City Hall, Cargo in all likelihood will be running for mayor this season. Back then, Cargo was a newly-elected governor who canvassed by car some of the rural communities long ignored by Republicans. He came with a Hispanic wife, an Atrisco land grant heir herself. He swept the north, then and still a Democratic stronghold. When the raid broke out, he was in Michigan giving a Lincoln's Day speech for Gerald Ford's campaign for Congress. "It would have gone down differently if I were here," Cargo says. "I did a lot for them. I invited the Alianza up to talk, I even took them up to the mansion and fed them all dinner."

Years later, Cargo sometimes bumps into Tijerina but hasn't seen him for 12 years. "I'll never forget the call I got from the lieutenant governor, E. Lee Francis. 'They're taking over the whole state, they shot the District Attorney, they killed a judge.' I knew the state trooper that was shot, and his wife. This whole thing--Alianza--it had little to do with grants. Their real fight was poverty. The Alianza was a historical aberration. It was about their social condition. They were poor, dirt poor, and they had no opportunity, no infrastructure." And, little if no future.

The Mysterious Tijerina Appears in Albuquerque

Despite the many people interviewed for this story who stated that Tijerina would probably never be seen in New Mexico again, Reies Lopez Tijerina indeed appeared in New Mexico last week. He granted an interview to reporter Rebecca Roybal, and her story about Tijerina appeared in last Thursday's Albuquerque Journal. According to the story, Tijerina spoke of a conspiracy theory linking the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and the courthouse jailer from Tierra Amarilla who was beaten to death months after the raid. Tijerina also predicted that, on Oct. 17 of this year, a nuclear holocaust would destroy the world with the exception of New Mexico and Mexico. Could the incredible allegations and prediction be the words of a man who has become unstable after a difficult life fighting for a cause he passionately believed in? Or was he just having a little fun at the expense of the white establishment, pulling their leg and keeping them guessing about Reies Lopez Tijerina one more time? Roybal said of the interview,Weekly Alibi contacted Roybal to ask about her impressions of Tijerina during the interview. Roybal said she would have to speak with her editor before speaking with the Alibi. Attempts to reach her again before press time were unsuccessful.

--Angie Drobnic







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