Thursday, April 13, 2006

Guest Blogger: David Breeden

Which Immigrant?

Most US-Americans can place César Chávez into the context of 1960s-era civil rights. For those who know a bit more history the names Rodolfo "Corky” Gonzales and José Ángel Gutiérrez may come to mind. Nearly forgotten is Reies López Tijerina. By way of analogy, if Chávez is La Raza’s Martin Luther King, Tijerina embraced the “by any means necessary” philosophy of Malcolm X. Unlike Malcolm X, however, Tijerina is today very much alive and nearly forgotten.

A bit of historical background: The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican American “war” in 1848, and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase allowed for the rather unfortunate fact (by North American views, anyway) that Mexican nationals owned, by legal title, often from Spanish-colonial days, most of northern New Mexico, the land Mexico found itself compelled to sell after the 1848 treaty. What to do with the legal titles? They were, at the time of the Gadsden Purchase, held to be legal. However, over time, they were ignored, much as—again by analogy—Jim Crow laws slowly but inexorably reversed Black rights in the south after the Federal army left in 1890. In other words, the loss of the land was de facto, not de jure.

Tijerina was born into a sharecropper family in 1926. His family was eventually dispossessed of even this tenuous hold on stability and became migrant workers. As a young boy Tijerina began having mystical visions. These visions led him to become an itinerant revivalist preacher. His religious fundamentalism is both why Tijerina did what he did and probably the reason he is often conveniently left out of accounts of history. Tijerina was Pentecostal. He took the Bible literally. Trained in an Assembly of God seminary, Tijerina lost his credentials when he began preaching against tithing. Though his loss of paperwork did not slow him down, Tijerina eventually stopped preaching (and founded a commune) when he decided that religion was not helping the poor.

Tijerina also took the land grant documents of the nineteenth century (and earlier) literally and used his considerable powers as a preacher to spread the word that people had been robbed of their land. In 1966 Tijerina and the group he founded, La Alianza Federal de las Mercedes, basing their action on the land grants, occupied a portion of the Kit Carson National Forest in New Mexico. The group arrested and tried two park rangers who came to investigate. The result was predictable.

Subsequently, Tijerina led an attack on the courthouse where jailed members of La Alianza were being held. He claimed to be attempting a citizen’s arrest of the district attorney who Tijerina accused of not upholding the legality of the original land grants. Two people were shot during the raid. Federal and state authorities, with the help of the Minutemen, rounded up members of La Alianza.

For the courthouse raid Tijerina was ordered never again to discuss the land grant issue in public and sentenced to two years in federal prison. With his original prison term nearly up, Tijerina was transferred to a mental institution. He was freed in 1974 and now lives in Mexico.

Needless to say, the legal titles to New Mexico’s land have not been honored any more than have the Civil War-era promises to slaves for forty acres and a mule. And though there isn’t much chance that the United States will honor broken promises, it is well to remember that the poorest among us are often the children of those the United States has lied to. As we wrestle with the “immigrant” issue, we do well to remember the past. Reies López Tijerina was one American crazy enough to fight for justice.


—David Breeden

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