Chicanos, Aztlán and the Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid

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From an early age, Chicana activist and author Enriqueta Vasquez knew something was wrong about signs in front of businesses around her hometown in Colorado reading, "No Mexicans or Dogs allowed." Vasquez also knew something was amiss in her fourth-grade classroom when the teacher said the Southwest belonged to the United States. As a matter of fact, that land was stolen from Mexico, she pointed out to the teacher, just as her mother had pointed it out to her.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants who settled in Southern Colorado, Vasquez was raised with an acute political conscience, a different way of thinking in a country that considered her as undesirable as a dog.

Vasquez moved from Denver, Colorado, to a little adobe home in San Cristobal, just north of Arroyo Hondo, with her young children in the summer of 1968 - a politically fervent time across the country. The civil rights movement had been rocked by the assassination of Martin Luther King by a sniper in Memphis, Tennessee, earlier that year.

Vasquez came to Northern New Mexico already versed in the budding political and cultural revolution that would eventually call itself the Chicano movement. Her charge was to start a school in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where young Mexican-Americans could learn their history, language, music, mythologies and sense of national identity.

Her house was just down the road from the school and became a central link in the region's Chicano activism. When the movement needed a place for target practice, it was in her front yard. When Chicano activists needed a place to rest from the work at large, it was around her kitchen table. Vasquez would talk and strategize with leaders who spoke to her core, leaders of almost mythical proportions who preached justice, liberation and civil rights for all people.

One of those leaders was Reies López Tijerina.

El Tigre

Tijerina hailed from Texas and trained as a preacher there as a young man. But he eventually came to New Mexico with a mission of understanding his fellow people of Spanish and mestizo - Spanish and Native American - descent. 

What he learned, he shared.

Tijerina started educating New Mexicans and Mexican-Americans across the country about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the international law that ended the Mexican-American War and was supposed to let Spanish land grant heirs maintain control of their land even as the Southwest legally became U.S. territory.

By the time Tijerina set foot in New Mexico in the 1960s, many land grants - more than 1,100 were issued by the Spanish - were essentially gone. The former common lands were taken over by the government for use as national forest, bought by outsiders or swindled away by land developers who took advantage of rural illiteracy. Some of it was legal. Some of it wasn't. But Tijerina sought to educate his people about their right to the land.

Tijerina founded La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, or the Federal Alliance of Land Grants, in 1963 with the mission of returning Spanish land grants to their rightful owners. By the middle of the decade, the group boasted 20,000 members. La Alianza organized direct actions in legal arenas before moving on to more radical tactics, like taking over the U.S. Forest Service-owned Echo Amphitheater outside of Abiquiú, declaring a republic, electing officials, putting forest rangers on trial and occupying the ground for five days with nearly 300 people.

Standoff

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the day land grant issues combined with the rising wave of Chicano activism and, like an earth-shaking flood, came rushing into the small town of Tierra Amarilla.

The world focused on New Mexico on June 5, 1967, when a band of La Alianza members took up arms against their government and raided the Río Arriba County Courthouse. Their main focus was to conduct a citizen's arrest of former District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez and to set free members of La Alianza who had been arrested the day prior. After discovering Sanchez wasn't there, the raid quickly evolved to a standoff between the authorities and the courthouse occupiers. Bullets began to fly and the shootout left two officers wounded and a reporter and sheriff's deputy held hostage in the uprising. One of the officers died from his wounds and the band of La Alianza fled into the woods, sparking a massive, weeklong manhunt for both the group and its influential leader, Tijerina.

'Very Political'

While the raid is generally celebrated as a watershed moment in Chicano history, at the time, it was met with a mix of jabs, dismissiveness, war-addled worry and, among those in Vasquez's circle, genuine admiration.

Within hours of the raid, 47 members of the Taos unit of the National Guard were deployed to Río Arriba County. Even still, The Taos News ran an article that week about how jokes were flying across town. Feet were surely tapping when people read the lead to the story - "I'm in the Jail House Now, by the Tijerina Brass."

That irreverence wasn't unexpected in Taos. While La Alianza membership swelled, not too many Taoseños were accustomed to the philosophy and flamboyance of the Chicano activists.

"It was a time of great anger and confusion," said Larry Torres, University of New Mexico-Taos Chicano history professor. "We had lived under a delusion in Northern New Mexico that we were pure Spanish blood. ... The Chicanos said, 'No, you're also Native.' It was an identity crisis."

Furthermore, by the time of the raid, Taos was abuzz with counterculture happenings. Coming on the heels of the hippie invasion, self-fashioned Chicanos were thought of as a "hippified spick," according to Torres.

As for himself, Torres remembers the day of the raid clearly. "I had no idea what to think," said Torres, who was 13 years old at the time. "The local radio station began blaring what was happening in Tierra Amarilla, but we all thought the world was coming to an end. We equated it to the Vietnam War." His mom made a tea out of a type of milkweed to put him to sleep that night.

Torres called Tijerina - who may or may not have actually been at the courthouse raid, depending on various accounts - more of a "figurehead than a leader." But Vasquez, who would come to know Tijerina as a friend, remembered, "He made you very aware of everything."

"Reies was very interesting. If you met him, he made you very political," she said.

Indeed, within months of moving to New Mexico, Vasquez was writing for the small newspaper and official media arm of Tijerina's organization, El Grito del Norte, a publication that dominated the Chicano presses of the day for putting news on black power and red power next to Hispano folklore and by drawing revolutionary connections between the land grant struggle and land disputes as far away as Japan and Palestine.

Vasquez even mused on the question of violence as a means of achieving the social change envisioned by the movement. "How can one guarantee complete nonviolence when one lives in a completely violent country," she asked in one column in El Grito del Norte.

"We had three leaders who were very important to us," Vasquez said. "We had Rodolfo 'Corky' Gonzales in Denver, Cesar Chavez in California and Reies Tijerina. With those three, if they had all said, 'Let's go into revolution,' I think we probably would have gone. Everybody was fired up."

Aztlán

Before and during the 1960s, racial tensions in America were at peak levels when figureheads of the Chicano movement met in Denver in August of 1969 for a convention and decided to take the first steps of action against discrimination and hatred toward Mexican-American citizens of the country. Out of this convention came the "Plan Espiritual de Aztlán," which called for the liberation of the lands once hailed as Mexico in the Southwest and gave Vasquez a new way to look at life. Rising out of poor farm conditions in California to racial inequalities across the Southwest, the movement gained momentum with the growing civil rights movement reaching over the nation and spoke to a demographic of people tired of social injustice.

The raid on the Río Arriba County Courthouse sparked an important ember to the flame of the Chicano movement. Now, the people within an entire demographic were waking up to realize they had power and unity in their numbers and began educating themselves about their history and the world around them. Vasquez said it was only after this gathering that she first started using the term "Chicano" to describe herself and the movement.

The movement continued well into the 1970s alongside other pioneering groups, eventually reaching mainstream attention in the modern era, as many universities - even UNM-Taos - now offer classes on the history, literature and impact of the cultural and political movement and its leaders.

Minds of the movement gathered under the banner of Aztlán to share ideas, stories and ultimately to make the world aware of their struggles. For years, Mexican-Americans had to side with identities not genuine to them as individuals and the movement gave them a common bond to work toward. Writers like Rudolfo Anaya, Gloria Anzaldúa, Benjamin Saenz and even Vasquez continued the traditions of the Chicano movement into their old age and always remembered important events like Tierra Amarilla. Both Torres and Vasquez agree that the movement is just as important now as it was in the 1960s. Although many of their main figures are gone, the resilience and resistance has not left the movement, but given way to the sands of time.

"I'm too old to go to war," Vasquez, now 87, said with a smile.

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