Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging--Reies López Tijerina

One of the lesser known stories in American history is how the U.S. government, and post-war Republican flunkeys working in New Mexico in particular, robbed the local Hispano population of millions of acres of land. The Santa Fe Ring, a corrupt Republican political machine decided to rob Hispano New Mexicans of their land grants. These grants, given in common to the local population by the Spanish and then Mexican governments were supposed to be protected in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War, but in reality the courts refused. Ripping them off, the Santa Fe Ring ended up alienating millions of acres from Hispanos. Some of this ended up in private hands (in fact one of Ted Turner's ranches is part of the old Maxwell Land Grant), and much ended up becoming commonly held government land. To say the least, local Nuevo Mexicanos were unhappy. They didn't even really understand what was happening. Most didn't speak English or even read in Spanish. All they knew is that what was once their commonly held land was now controlled by Anglos.

Much of this land ended up in the National Forests. 22% of the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests consist of land grants that the US government recognizes as such while a large additional percentage consist of land grants never officially recognizes as such by the government, but which were granted by the Spanish and Mexican governments nevertheless. This caused intense long-term resentment among local residents, as you might imagine. This was particularly true by the early 1960s. The Hispano stockmen had denuded the forest land pretty badly and the Forest Service stepped in to reduce grazing allotments. This angered New Mexican Hispanos even more as they felt the US government was interferring not only with land that they didn't rightfully own, but with local traditions going back hundreds of years. It is important to note, however, that the Forest Service was right--the cattle and sheep herds were really tearing up the land.

Into this situation stepped Reies López Tijerina. Born in Texas in 1923, he spent much of his early adult life as an evangelist. He started a religious colony in Arizona called Valley of Peace where he ran into trouble with unsympathetic Arizona officials who didn't like a Hispanic religious colony in their midst. They went after Tijerina for not sending children to public schools and homeschooling them instead. He was later accused of being the getaway driver in an escape attempt to free his brother from a Pinal County jail. He left during the hearing and became a fugitive. For years, he remained on the run, traveling through Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. He didn't get involved in Hispanic politics until the 1950s but when he did, he did a big way, turning that religious energy toward nationalist politics. In 1956 and 1957, he went to Mexico to research the land grant issue so he could understand what it was all about. What he found outraged him. In 1959, he and his allies sent a letter to President Eisenhower asking the government to investigate this fraud. 2 months later, they received an unfriendly letter in return that said the government would do nothing.

Tijerina continued organizing the Nuevo Mexicano population and in 1963 founded the Alianza Federal de Mercedes in Albuquerque in 1963 to reclaim land fraudulently appropriated by white settlers and the Santa Fe Ring. He began publishing a newspaper showing how whites had exploited Mexican-Americans. By 1964, the Alianza had 6000 members. That grew to 14,000 in 1965 and 20,000 by 1966. The Alianza became a major threat to New Mexico's Hispano politicians. US Senator Joseph Montoya spoke out against Tijerina, claiming, "the last thing the Spanish-speaking people need is agitation, rabble-rousing, or creation of false hopes." Throughout 1966 and 1967, the Alianza staged demonstrations in Albuquerque and Santa Fe protesting how land grants were stolen from Hispanos.

They ultimately focused on the San Joachín del Rio de Chama land grant, norht of the village of Coyote in Rio Arriba County. They set up "camp-ins" on the disputed land in 1965 and 1966. On the second occasion, the Forests Service attempted to collect camping fees from them. This led to Tijerina and the Alianza placing them under "arrest" for trespassing. The state police then arrested Tijerina and others on charges of assault and battery and expropriation of government property.

From this point forward, the Alianza turned violent. Throughout 1966 and early 1967, Anglo ranchers found their homes and barns set ablaze by Hispano activists. On June 3, 1967, the Alianza scheduled a mass meeting in Coyote. County District Attorney Alfonso Sánchez feared an insurrection, and in fact said that the Alianza was a communist organization, and forbade the assuembly. He ordered the arrest of Alianza leaders, and over a dozen members were arrested, but not Tijerina.

On June 7, Tijerina led a band of 20 armed men into the Rio Arriba county seat of Tierra Amarilla where they stormed the courthouse to free their prisoners and make a citizen's arrest on Sánchez. He was not there but the Alianza shot two men and two tohers were beaten. The shootout between the Alianza and local police continued all day. Tijerina eventually escaped to Albuquerque where he was arrested 2 weeks later. He was booked on two counts of assault to commit murder, two counts of kidnapping, one count of destruction of state property, and one count of possession with a deadly weapon. The 19 others with him at the raid were also arrested on similar charges.

At a preliminary hearing for Tijerina, jailer Eulogio Salazar, shot in the face during the raid, identified Tijerina as the leader. Soon after, Salazar was beaten to death and found in his bloodstained car. His murder was never solved. Although Tijerina was tried for the raid on Tierra Amarilla, he was found not guilty by a sympathetic Albuquerque jury and freed. He continued working on the land grant issue but also was arrested and imprisoned on a different charge. After his release in the early 1970s, he began spending more time in Mexico and lives in Ciudad Juarez today. The Alianza lived on for awhile (and may still exist in a limited form today but I am not sure of this) but the land grant faded from view.

Despite Tijerina's violence, he served as a major inspirational figure for the Chicano movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. He also represents the frustrations of a whole lot of very poor people in New Mexico, dispossessed of their land and basically forgotten about by the American public and American history. Violence could erupt again--tensions between the local population and the Forest Service remain high. I don't know how to solve the land grant issue and I'm glad I don't have to. But until there is some kind of resolution, that potential for violence which sparked in 1967 will continue.