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“Reies López Tijerina and the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

When the Spaniards claimed northern New Mexico as Spanish land in the 1600s, settlers from Spain and present-day Mexico formed ranching and farming communities on land long occupied by Native Americans. The Spanish authorities awarded land grants to individuals or groups of settlers who built villages, dug acequias (irrigation ditches), and cleared fields for planting.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1821, the new Mexican government took jurisdiction, or ownership, of all Spanish lands. The Mexican government continued to honor the Spanish land grants, so Hispano New Mexicans continued to farm and ranch as they long had done. Then, in 1848, the United States won a two-year war with Mexico and seized large parts of northern Mexico, including much of the present-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and California. To end the war, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This document determined the boundaries of the lands the United States took over and guaranteed that the Hispanic inhabitants would continue to own the land originally granted to their ancestors.

However, over the years, the Hispanic inhabitants of northern New Mexico lost much of their lands—both individual holdings and those held in common by communities of people—to US citizens who used the laws to cheat people out of their homes and lands. The US government also claimed much of the original Hispanic ancestral land grant holdings. Gradually, former land grants became part of huge cattle ranches or federal reserves controlled by the US Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. Hispanic landowners challenged this loss of land in court but often lost their cases.

The raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse on June 5, 1967, was one of the most dramatic events in the long struggle of Hispanic people to regain their lands from Anglo landowners and the US government. Long resentful of the loss of their land, some northern New Mexican villagers looked to Reies López Tijerina for hope. Tijerina was a former preacher deeply concerned about the social conditions and the rights of Hispanic people. A colorful and powerful speaker, Tijerina organized people to demand their rights to their original land grant claims.

Tijerina and his supporters organized as part of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants) and acted as a grass roots protest group. In July of 1966 they staged peaceful demonstrations and protest marches in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Then, on October 15, 1966, they occupied Echo Amphitheater. This US National Park site was originally part of a land grant north of Abiquiu. By seizing the building, the group hoped to draw attention to the claims of the nearby former land grant community of San Joaquín. After the protestors met with New Mexico Governor David Cargo, violence broke out at the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse on June 5. Shootings occurred, the protestors took hostages, and then the police undertook a manhunt. When the violence was over, then came the trials.

People in New Mexico hotly debated the claims and tactics of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, especially because the Civil Rights movement was taking place in the southern states at the same time. Some believed that the Hispanic villagers deserved to have their ancestral lands returned to them; others believed that their rights and claims to the land were false.

The conflicts over land ownership that began with the Treaty of Guadalupe are still not fully settled. Federal courts continue to hear claims brought by the Hispanic descendants of the original land grantees. The peoples of New Mexico—Native Americans, Hispanics, and Anglos—remain in perpetual negotiations over land and water rights.