This week on From the Vault, guest producer and host Gabriel San Roman pays tribute to“El Tigre,” the late Chicano movement leader and land rights activist Reies Lopez Tijerina.
Born to Mexican cotton farming parents in Fall City, Texas, Reies Lopez Tijerina spent much of his adult life in New Mexico. Together with José Angel Gutiérrez and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles, Tijerina would later help form a formidable triumvirate of the Chicano Movement. Before that he studied at a seminary school becoming a charismatic Pentecostal preacher giving him a fiery, prophetic edge that proved to be pivotal the realm of activism. An early leader of the emerging push for civil rights, Tijerina founded La Alianza Federal de las Mercedes in 1963 and focused his attention on land recovery in New Mexico.
The organization fought to reclaim Spanish and Mexican land grants that were supposed to be honored under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the U.S. war of aggression against Mexico in 1848. Tijerina, who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of land ownership history, came to dominate headlines and history after he lead an armed raid on a county courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico on June 5, 1967. The action brought widespread attention to the issues he and others struggled for while echoing the ‘Tierra y Libertad’ (Land and Liberty) slogan of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
Authorities arrested Tijerina after the daring raid but all charges were eventually dropped. He did spend about two years in prison for federal destruction of property in an unrelated case. Dubbed by the press as “El Tigre” or the Tiger, Tijerina took his experience networking with Indigenous and Black activists in Northern New Mexico while meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the inclusive Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Tijerina moved back to Texas and lived in El Paso since 2006. In failing health over his final years, the longtime activist died of natural causes at the age of 88 on January 19, 2015.
Looking back at the life of Reies Lopez Tijerina, “El Tigre” was interviewed in-studio on KPFA Radio in Berkely by Elsa Knight Thompson. The program preserved by the Pacifica Radio Archives was recorded on April 5th, 1968 the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the discussion, Tijerina talks about his childhood, the Tierra Amarilla raid and Poor People’s Campaign.