In the year of sixty-seven
June fifth was the day,
There was a revolution
Over there by Tierra Amarilla.
The “revolution” was a bungled plot, with Keystone Kops overtones, in which rebels seized an isolated courthouse in northern New Mexico on June 5, 1967, and it lasted only 90 minutes. But it would be immortalized in ballads (as in “El Corrido de Rio Arriba”), elevate a former itinerant evangelist into a quixotic national prophet and propel a radical Chicano property rights movement into America’s consciousness.
The onetime evangelist, Reies Tijerina, who died on Jan. 19 at 88, never had the tangible success of Cesar Chavez and his nonviolent campaign to improve the lot of migrant workers. He never achieved his goal of reclaiming — for Mexicans, Indians and descendants of the original Spanish settlers — the millions of acres that changed hands when northern Mexico became the American Southwest in the mid-19th century. And his legacy was later marred by apocalyptic and anti-Semitic undercurrents.
Nonetheless, in the view of Lorena Oropeza, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, and author of a coming book about Mr. Tijerina, “Probably no person did more to shift our understanding of the history of the American West from a celebratory tale of ‘manifest destiny’ to the now-prevailing notion of a ‘legacy of conquest’ than did Tijerina.”
“One way to think of Tijerina,” she added, “is that he led an anticolonial movement within the continental United States. With only a few years of elementary education, and then time spent in Bible college, he developed a devastating critique of the American empire at the height of the Cold War.
“To young people involved in the Chicano movement, moreover, he gave them not only a militant alternative to Cesar Chavez, but also an understanding of the long history of Spanish-speaking people in the American Southwest,” Professor Oropeza said.
Mr. Tijerina, who died in a hospital in El Paso, had diabetes and heart problems, said Estela Reyes-Lopez, a family spokeswoman, who confirmed the death.
Reies Lopez Tijerina (pronounced tee-heh-REE-na), the son of cotton-picking sharecroppers, was born on Sept. 21, 1926, in Fall City, Tex. After he served as a Pentecostal pastor, he and more than a dozen families who constituted his followers bought 160 acres in Arizona in 1956 and founded Valley of Peace, a utopian commune. Often skirmishing with neighbors, the group did not live up to its name.
Mr. Tijerina, inspired by what he said was a heavenly vision, later uprooted his followers and led them to New Mexico, where by the early 1960s they had formed the Alianza Federal de los Pueblos Libres, or alliance of free city-states. Members of what he called his republic staged symbolic land seizures and citizen’s arrests and held mock trials of forest rangers. (Much of the land they claimed was in national forests.) There were arrests, prosecutions and prison terms.
The raid on the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, the county seat, was their most dramatic action. Mr. Tijerina and about 20 armed followers sought to liberate 11 Alianza members who they believed were being held there. The 11 had been charged with threatening to seize the 600,000-acre Tierra Amarilla land grant and to make a citizens’ arrest of the district attorney. But neither the prisoners nor the prosecutors were at the courthouse.
In the raid, a state police officer and a jailer were wounded. (The jailer was later beaten to death just before he was to testify that he had been shot by Mr. Tijerina; that crime was never solved.)
Pursued by tanks and helicopters in a National Guard manhunt, the rebels fled for the hills with two hostages. The getaway car got stuck in the mud, and the kidnapped men were eventually recovered and most of the suspects captured.
Mr. Tijerina successfully defended himself at one trial but was tried a second time and convicted of charges stemming from the raid. He served six months in a state penitentiary. He also spent more than two years in federal prisons on charges arising from other protests. Nicknamed King Tiger, Mr. Tijerina was likened to other Chicano activists like Corky Gonzales of Colorado and José Angel Gutiérrez of Texas. But his views were more idiosyncratic.
He prophesied an apocalyptic future linked to American policy in the Middle East. He also “turned many previous supporters away as he moved toward a singularly novel, but unmistakable, anti-Semitism,” Rudy V. Busto, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in an interview. Mr. Tijerina argued that Spanish speakers in the United States were the rightful descendants of the House of Israel.
“When there is war we are all Americans,” Mr. Tijerina once said. “When it’s voting time, then we are Mexican-Americans. But when it comes to jobs and land,” he said, using an epithet for Hispanics, “we are nothing.”
By 2006, after returning from self-imposed exile in Mexico, he was living in a two-room cinder-block house in a run-down barrio in El Paso, seeking legal residency for his Mexican-born third wife, Esperanza, who survives him along with eight of his children.
“My philosophy is that of the cricket against the lion,” he often said. “The cricket is the king of the insects and the lion is the king of the beasts. 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 him to death.”