New Mexico’s Stolen Lands–And The Fight To Win Them Back

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Members of the New Mexico National Guard on a tank and on a horse. A donkey stands behind the horse.
The New Mexico Army National Guard moving into Tierra Amarilla in 1967, to curb protests against land theft.

When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed previous Spanish and Mexican land grants, as well as rights for Native Americans to their ancestral homelands. However, organized property theft began soon after. Hispanic and Indigenous people were methodically dispossessed of their homes through manipulation, conspiracy, and even organized crime rings, leading to widespread poverty and isolation.

But in the summer of 1967, those people fought back. It was a roiling time in America–the same summer that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated–and in the middle of all of it, a group of New Mexico activists charged a local courthouse and stood up for their cause.

A Charismatic Leader

A newspaper cover with Reies López Tijerina pictured with the headline, "Tijerina Welcomed At Highlands: Reies delivers message of justice"
A 1971 newspaper front page shows Reies López Tijerina, still advocating against land loss and theft. Image sourced from New Mexico’s Stolen Lands: A History of Racism, Fraud, and Deceit.

Reies López Tijerina was a charismatic leader in the New Mexico struggle for civil rights–and especially for the efforts to fight the age-old struggle over these stolen lands.

Tijerina worked with the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes, or the Federal Alliance of Land Grants. But his enemies equated him and his fellow activists with communists, even calling Tijjerina a “Castroite terrorist.”

One of the biggest disputes centered on the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant and the more than half a million acres it controlled. In a heated region with a heated history, Indigenous and Hispanic people in New Mexico argued that they were simply trying to save their land, nothing else. They had been arguing this for generations against a government that did not respect their lands, traditions, cultures, and ways.

In the summer of 1967, Tijerina and his followers decided to do something about it.

A Chaotic Raid

A page from La Voz de la Alianza that reads, "How The Courts Have Stolen The Lands Of La Raza"
A page from La Voz de la Alianza, the periodical in which Tijerina kept people informed about the land grant movement. Image sourced from New Mexico’s Stolen Lands: A History of Racism, Fraud, and Deceit.

The local district attorney had tried to thwart the Alianza protests and meetings, and several members had been arrested and placed in the courthouse in the small and sleepy town of Tierra Amarilla

On June 5, Tijerina and his supporters stormed the courthouse. They hoped to free the members and to place the district attorney under a citizen’s arrest. Instead, they found that the district attorney wasn’t there — and that the members had already been freed.

The raid generated international headlines and a flurry of bullets in New Mexico. Two law enforcement officers were wounded, with one of them dying. And things were about to get only more intense.

Related: Billy the Kid is Dead, Long live Billy the Kid!

The Aftermath

The Alianza demonstrations and marches earned national and even international attention. Indeed, after the raid, all hell broke out. Major General John P. Jolly quickly deployed the New Mexico National Guard, with its troops and tanks and armored vehicles rolling into Tierra Amarilla. A squadron of fighter jets at the nearby Kirtland Air Force Base was placed on alert.

A panic swept the state. Peaceful residents and demonstrators alike were handcuffed and arrested and placed into livestock corrals. Warmongers believed that New Mexico was on the verge of a revolution, to secede from the United States. Tijerina was touted as the most hated man in America, and the most massive manhunt in the history of the United States was begun to track him down.

Tijerina was eventually convicted in a series of trials. But he remained committed to his beliefs and his methods. As he once told the New York Times, “The cricket had no chance against the lion, so he jumped into the lion’s ear and tickled him to death. That’s what we’re going to do to the United States — we’re going to tickle [it] to death.”

Want to learn more? Check out the book New Mexico’s Stolen Lands: A History of Racism, Fraud, and Deceit as well as its similar titles at arcadiapublishing.com!