Book review

Reies López Tijerina: New Mexico's complicated antihero

Biography of controversial figure in Chicano movement just released

By Johanna DeBiase
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 9/11/19

Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, César Chavez, Elie Wiesel, Harvey Milk and Gloria Steinem are all names you may be familiar with because they …

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Book review

Reies López Tijerina: New Mexico's complicated antihero

Biography of controversial figure in Chicano movement just released

Posted

Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, César Chavez, Elie Wiesel, Harvey Milk and Gloria Steinem are all names you may be familiar with because they are famous civil rights activists. But there is another civil rights activist, not so famous, that you should be familiar with because he fought for the rights of New Mexicans: Reies López Tijerina (1926-2015).

Lorena Oropeza's new biography of Tijerina, "The King of Adobe," due out this month, is aptly subtitled "Lost Prophet of the Chicano Movement."

In the 1960s and '70s, Tijerina founded the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, which fought to restore New Mexican land grants to descendants of their Spanish colonial and Mexican owners. Why Tijerina is a "lost prophet" might have something to do with his controversial character. We live in an age when it is important to question whether someone's positive actions should be glorified despite the harm they might have done with their negative actions. Tijerina all the more because, unlike King and Gandhi, he used violence to bring awareness to his cause.

The action hero

Oropeza's biography opens with the most captivating and illustrative moment of Tijerina's activism. On June 5, 1967, Tijerina becomes notorious for his armed raid of the Río Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, 80 miles west of Taos. Oropeza writes, "The Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid, as it came to be known, represented a rare instance in U.S. history when minority militancy went beyond rhetoric to engage in armed confrontation. Like no previous event, the violence that day directed the nation's attention to a little-known but centurylong struggle for land within the United States."

The raid leaves two law enforcement officers wounded, one of whom is killed before testifying in a case against Tijerina, who maintains he had nothing to do with the unsolved murder. This incident inspires young folks in the emerging Chicano movement, who perceive him as a hero.

The revolutionary

Most New Mexicans are aware of the land-grant struggles and conflicts over land ownership that began with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed in 1848 to end the Mexican American War and continues to this day. The United States had guaranteed that the Hispanic inhabitants could continue to own the land originally granted to their ancestors, but as the history of our government goes, that promise has not been kept. Instead, Anglos cheated people out of their land and much of the land that had been used for cattle grazing was turned into federal public land, displacing Hispanics and destroying their livelihood.

"As early as the 1950s, [Tijerina] accused the United States of operating as a colonial power within New Mexico. As he pressed that point through petition and protest, he rejected the notion, which persists even today, that statehood ended the subordinate status of nuevomexicanos. The process of conquest began with the U.S.-Mexican War, Tijerina asserted, but still had not ended for the region's Spanish speakers," Oropeza writes.

The infamous

Other controversies surrounding Tijerina include the accusation by his daughter Rose that he molested her, to which an entire chapter of the book is devoted. Additionally, Tijerina's character is self-aggrandizing. He considers himself called by God and believes that God speaks to him in dreams from an early age.

"This intense religiosity fed a charismatic and autocratic personality that neither brooked dissent nor depended upon the approval of others," Oropeza writes. "Controversy continued to plague Tijerina until his death in 2015. After serving time in prison in the raid's aftermath and still eager to be heard, he turned toward new causes or sometimes refurbished old ones. These included halting nuclear proliferation, reestablishing traditional family values, challenging the field of psychiatry and, most important to him, warning of a vast Jewish conspiracy to take over the globe."

The contrarian

When discussing land rights, it is necessary to consider the indigenous people of America - fortunately, Oropeza does not overlook this topic. She writes, "As much as Tijerina lamented that Americans had taken the property of nuevomexicanos after 1848, he rarely acknowledged that Spanish speakers had encroached upon indigenous holdings long before that date."

Tijerina maintains a lasting love affair with colonial Spain. However, he does recognize what many New Mexicans, who prefer to be called Hispanos or Spanish Americans and not Mexican Americans, choose to ignore, "centuries of racial mixing between the indigenous groups and Spanish-speaking settlers." Tijerina coins a new ethnic label, Indo-Hispano, to be more racially inclusive.

Despite Tijerina's faults, his contribution to the Chicano movement and land-grant politics is undeniable and inspires many future activists. Oropeza writes, "Yet absent such outrageous aspirations, such a ferocious sense of destiny, and such an unswaying conviction in the righteousness of his anticolonial crusade, how else would this man, in all his imperfections, have managed to rewrite our understanding of American empire?"

The character

Oropeza breaks the book into chapters that demonstrate Tijerina's ever-shifting identity, which changes with the times and draws into question the stability of his mental state. For example, chapters are titled, "The Prophet," "The Mexican," "The Patriarch" and "The Gunslinger." Despite the sometimes blurred trajectory of this method of narrative organization, the overall effect allows the reader an in-depth understanding of this complex and intriguing character.

No matter how one looks at it, Tijerina is an interesting character. "The King of Adobe" is a timely biography written with conscientious depth and detail, covering the full extent of his life with an objective clarity. A great read for anyone interested in New Mexican history or civil rights.

Lorena Oropeza is professor of history at the University of California-Davis, and author of "¡Raza Si! ¡Guerra No! Chicano Protest and Patriotism during the Vietnam War Era."

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