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Reies Lopez Tijerina, a well-known Southwest activist in the... (Rudy Gutierrez / El Paso Times)
Reies López Tijerina looks more like a respected abuelito alone with his thoughts than the once-radical activist whose relentless struggle in the 1960s put the national spotlight on land rights issues in New Mexico and the Southwest.
"Some people think I'm dead," he said. "But the spirit of the cause still excites me."
Tijerina, who now lives in El Paso, is often described as one of the important leaders in the struggle for civil rights for Mexican-Americans.
He is routinely identified as a warrior in the early Chicano movement, along with César Chávez, the farm labor organizer in California; Colorado Chicano activist Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales; and La Raza Unida Party co-founder José Angel Gutiérrez in Texas.
At 85, Tijerina spends what's left of his days in a cramped two-room tenement in Downtown El Paso, surrounded by books, Bibles, newspaper clippings, paintings and pictures - countless reminders of his turbulent life as a social activist most active in the 1960s and '70s.
"I am happy and proud God has given me 85 years," he said. "Nobody can erase my story."
Born in Texas, Tijerina is the only major activist in the Chicano movement who served time in prison as a result of his activism.
Tijerina takes oxygen and medicine for angina, a heart condition, and acknowledges that his mind wanders sometimes and that he once came close to dying during the five years he has lived in El Paso.
He still talks with his hands like the traveling evangelical


preacher that he once was.
In 1963, Tijerina founded La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, a grass-roots organization, to reclaim Spanish and Mexican land grants held by Mexicans and Indians in the Southwest before the United States- Mexican War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed after Mexico was defeated, guaranteed that Mexican citizens could keep their land grants.
The Alianza argued that the U.S. government stole millions of acres of land from Hispanics.
Tijerina recently made a rare public appearance at the New Mexico Statehouse in Santa Fe at an event honoring the 164th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
In New Mexico, Tijerina is perhaps best known for leading an armed raid on June 5, 1967, at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. A state police officer and a jailer were wounded.
Tijerina said he has been invited to Tierra Amarilla this summer for a ceremony commemorating the 45th anniversary of the courthouse raid. A lawyer once affiliated with La Alianza is organizing the event.
Eulogio Salazar, the wounded jailer, was slain in 1968 just days before he was scheduled to testify whether it was Tijerina who shot him.
Tijerina has argued for years that the slaying was a politically motivated hit designed to taint him and the Alianza.
Tijerina still asks: "How could I kill him, my friend who fed my children while I suffered hunger?"
José Angel Gutiérrez, a Dallas-area lawyer and co-founder of La Raza Unida Party in Texas, translated Tijerina's memoir, a manuscript first written in Spanish, and published by Arte Public Press in Houston as "They Called Me King Tiger."
Gutiérrez was a young Chicano in South Texas affiliated with MAYO, the Mexican-American Youth Organization, when he first learned about Tijerina and his land-grant fight in New Mexico through underground newspapers.
"What he did for my generation and the Chicano movement was to capture our imagination about our true birth certificates," Gutiérrez said in a phone interview. "He introduced us to this whole idea that we have rights written into basic documents and that treaties were the supreme law of the land."
Many Chicano activists embraced Tijerina's persistent message that the federal government and others blatantly disregarded the law and stole land across the Southwest.
"That gave us a homeland, the reason that land was stolen and a cause to try to get it back," Gutiérrez said.
A much circulated photograph shows Tijerina, Gutiérrez and "Corky" Gonzales, three of the four most influential figures in the Chicano movement, raising their locked hands in a Chicano power salute during the 1972 La Raza Unida Party national convention at the El Paso County Coliseum. That image, missing only union farm-labor organizer César Chávez, remains etched in the minds of activists from that era.
Gutiérrez credits Tijerina with having the courage to take on the federal and state governments with few resources at a time when other activists such as the African-American Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam only talked about engaging the government.
"That's why he had the National Guard and the entire judicial system against him. He fought them on his own," he said. "That made him a very important icon in our history, and that's the legacy that he leaves."
Gutiérrez laments the press and others who continue to try to associate Tijerina with Eulogio Salazar's brutal beating.
Over the years, Tijerina alleged public officials were responsible for burning his house, for bomb threats against him and his family, and for trying to discredit him and his cause. "Everybody thought he was crazy," Gutiérrez said. "You would hear that and also that he was very anti-Semitic. Well, he may be anti-Semitic, but he wasn't crazy about all the allegations that he was saying because I have proof."
Gutiérrez said he has documents in which a man identified as Tim Chapa and as an undercover agent for New Mexico State Police corroborates that he and others were responsible for many of the crimes allegedly committed by Tijerina. Gutiérrez will present a paper on his research at a conference in Oregon this spring.
Dennis Bixler-Márquez, the director of Chicano Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, describes Tijerina as one of the political pillars of the Chicano movement.
"Tijerina addressed the land title issue in New Mexico," Bixler-Márquez said. "He fought to regain the lands that were lost by the Mexican population after the Mexican American War, by hook or by crook, and paid dearly for it."
Bixler-Márquez suggests that history will remember Tijerina for helping form La Raza Unida Party and for his quest to restore landownership to those he believed to be rightful heirs.
Lorena Oropeza, then an associate professor of history at the University of California-Davis, wrote an essay in which she said Tijerina remained a controversial figure even 40 years after the courthouse raid.
While some New Mexicans denounced Tijerina as a "con man, a swindler, a born rabble-rouser and a bully," others portrayed him as "a dedicated defender of his people, someone who, despite the violence of the courthouse raid, was a sincere promoter of peace and equality for all," Oropeza wrote.
Tijerina's third wife, Esperanza, has been with him for 19 years since they first met in Michoacán, Mexico. He had 10 children with his previous wives.
"He encouraged people to struggle for their lands," she said. "And they still turn to him for advice."
Carlos Ortega, a Chicano Studies lecturer at UTEP, pointed out that Tijerina was among the first Hispanic leaders to reach out and try to form coalitions with African-American activists.
Tijerina still reminisces about his past relationships with black leaders such as Jessie Jackson and Elijah Mohammed and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign.
These days, Tijerina lives a simple life far removed from his often turbulent past.
What does Tijerina want his legacy to be after all the years of defending his honor and his cause, all those years of being despised and idolized by others?
"The truth," he said. "Humanity will decide what I deserve or what I left behind."
Ramón Rentería may be reached at; 546-6146.
About Tijerina
  • Born: Sept. 21, 1926, near Falls City, Texas, to a family of migrant workers. 

  • Education: He once studied for the ministry in Ysleta near El Paso. 

  • Early life: Served briefly as a minister with the Assemblies of God before founding a utopian community in Pinal County, Ariz., in the early 1950s. He took up the cause of land-grant restoration in the 1960s. 

  • Best known: As one of the earliest Chicano social activists. (He prefers the term Indo-Hispano). He became famous for his 1967 armed raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, N.M. 

  • Honors: He has received numerous awards, most recently the Mexican government's Ohtli award in 2009 for his lifetime commitment to human rights and civil rights for Hispanics in the United States. In 2011, the city of Las Vegas, N.M., presented him a key to the city. 

  • Quote: "Tierra Amarilla made me bigger than any man can expect on this earth."