SANTA FE, N.M. — Reies Lopez Tijerina, a controversial figure who helped launch the Chicano Movement after leading an armed raid of a New Mexico courthouse over Hispanic land rights, made a rare appearance Thursday.
Resting in a wheelchair and using an oxygen machine, the 85-year-old Tijerina went to an event marking the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848.
Tijerina has often contended that the U.S. government stole millions of acres from Latinos following the war. The United States pledged in the treaty to respect private land holdings, including land grants made under the Spanish and Mexican governments.
However, the U.S. government didn't recognize many of those grants in New Mexico and courts have routinely turned away complaints made by displaced Hispanic families.
Speaking to an audience of ranchers and curious onlookers at the New Mexico Statehouse Rotunda, Tijerina urged activists to keep fighting. He also talked about his role in bringing the Spanish land grant conflict into the public's eye and the 1967 armed raid of a Rio Arriba County courthouse.
"I went in for God," said the former Pentecostal preacher, using Biblical references throughout his speech. "My Raza was filled with fear."
Tijerina and followers raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, N.M., to attempt a citizen's arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez after eight members of Tijerina's group had been arrested a few days earlier.
Sanchez wasn't at the courthouse at the time, but during the raid, the group shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy and took the then-sheriff and a reporter hostage. They later escaped.
The hunt for the raiders even involved the National Guard. Tijerina eventually spent about three years in prison.
But the raid sparked excitement among Mexican-American college students in California and Texas who identified with Tijerina's message of Latinos getting displaced and wronged in violation of the treaty and basic law, said Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of the Houston.
Tijerina's image began to appear on murals in Texas and California and he became a sought-after speaker on college campuses.
"He brought out a sentiment that resonated with a lot of people," Mindiola said. "In that respect, despite the tactics he used, he's going down in history."
Thursday was also the 49th anniversary of Tijerina's founding of La Alianza, a group organized to represent the heirs of Spanish land-grants in New Mexico covered by the treaty. The group sent letters to federal officials about treaty violations and eventually grew to around 20,000 members.
Tijerina's appearance brought out some of his longtime critics who say his violent raid hurt Hispanic families he aimed to help and who contend that his later speeches were tainted by anti-Semitism tirades.
Michael Olivas, a Santa Fe resident and law professor at the University of Houston, said his cousin, Eulogio Salazar, the courthouse jailer who was shot in the cheek during raid, was later killed by Tijerina's men. Salazar testified in a court hearing that the shooter was Tijerina, but that case never made it to trial after Salazar was found dead.
Tijerina was later convicted of assault on Salazar.
Still, Hispanic New Mexico ranchers say Tijerina's legacy gave them the confidence to recently file a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over its decision to limit grazing on historic land grant areas in northern New Mexico.
David Sanchez, 52, a rancher just north of Espanola, N.M., said ranchers are now educated enough to see how issues like grazing rights are connected to provisions of the treaty.
"It's not just a grazing issue," he said. "It's about access to roads. It's about our way of life."
Hector Chavana, publisher of the Houston-based bilingual newspaper, El Pueblo, said Tijerina's legacy also goes beyond land grant issues. He sees him as a figure who motivates young Latino activists because his message about fighting discrimination and aggressively correcting past injustices still strikes cords.
"All Malcolm X did was talk," Chavana said. "Tijerina acted by any means necessary."
Tijerina disputed news that he was "withering away somewhere over there in Mexico" or that he "ran away" after he moved south of the border and limited his public appearances.
"But I'm here after many years," said Tijerina, who now lives in El Paso, Texas, with his third wife.