Reies Lopez Tijerina, founder of the Alianza Movement, has walked on at age 88 from a hospital in El Paso, Texas, as he would have called it, El Paso del Norte. The Texas-born Tijerina was perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the outsized personalities who anchored the Chicano part of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Alianza—Alliance in English—stood at various times as shorthand for Alianza Federal de Mercedes, Alianza de Pueblos Libres, or Alianza de Pueblos y Pobladores. Alliances of, respectively, Land Grants, Free Towns, or Towns and Townspeople. Mercedes Reales refers, in Spanish, to “royal grants.” The pole star of the Alianza Movement was the theft of the territories in the Southwestern U.S. from the indigenous occupants.
Not the least of the contradictions in Tijerina’s life was his insistence on respect for American Indians and a prominent leading role in the movement for them. He was acutely aware that the people we called Chicanos then and we call Hispanics now are primarily of indigenous blood, even after generations of color prejudice among the colonists. The historical fact that the Spanish carefully documented was that the conquistadores did not bring enough women to transplant Spain to the Americas.
First by rape and then by marriage, the colonists got browner. Limpieza de sangre, integrity of blood, was a cardinal value but remained as elusive among colonists as it is now among Indians. Blood quantum defined rights, but it was European blood quantum.
Old studies of church records found Mexicans to be of about 80 percent indigenous blood. New genetic studies (after more generations of intermarriage) vary by Mexican state, 37 percent to 55 percent Indian.
Understanding all this, Tijerina still based his land claims on first grants from the Spanish king and then the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The Spanish king’s right to make the land grants in the first place went unexamined.
Still, Reies Tijerina was able to mount a campaign based on treaty violations—albeit between the colonial U.S. and colonial Mexico—that fundamentally changed the political history narrative of the Southwest borderlands. Manifest Destiny as the unquestioned fact gave way to conquest and treaty violations and a story of deep moral ambiguity.
Tijerina paid steep personal prices for his accomplishment in challenging the established political narrative. He spent time in prisons and in mental facilities, most of the former for his armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, courthouse, for the purpose of breaking out Alianza members imprisoned after District Attorney Alfonso Sánchez broke up Alianza protests, claiming it was made up of Communists and outside agitators. They also intended a citizen’s arrest of Sánchez, who Tijerina believed had violated the First Amendment.
On the law, Tijerina was probably correct, but the raiders shot two law enforcement officers and took two hostages, resulting in a major manhunt all over Northern New Mexico for the man the press dubbed “King Tiger.” He became the subject of corridos and of a story by an Albuquerque reporter, Tony Hillerman.
The Tierra Amarilla raid on June 5, 1967 made Reies Lopez Tijerina the man into the legend. He did time in state prisons and federal prisons and in exile in Mexico. His mystical brand of Christianity got, if possible, even stranger than it had been.
King Tiger returned to the United States in 2006. His last crusade was, ironically, to acquire legal residency in the U.S. for his Mexican-born wife. The distinction between lands stolen by Spanish colonists and lands stolen by Anglo colonists dogged him to the end, but his life stands for the opportunity he created to view that distinction through a new set of glasses.