“Cowards die hundreds of times a day; a warrior only once,” my father once said to me. When I met Reies López Tijerina these words came to have meaning and impact. He was a warrior for our people’s rights. He learned to read and write from scripture in the bible; took up religion as a vocation; and, applied the Christian principles to La Causa as we called the Chicano Movement in the early 1960s. He saw parallels between the loss of Palestinian land to Jewish Zionists with the loss of native people, Spanish and Mexican land in the Southwest to whites. He internationalized the Chicano Movement with his travels to Israel, Mexico, and Spain in search of records to validate the land grant claims.
At first he followed the rules. He formed an organization to redress land claims and wrote letters, made appointments with important public figures, marched and protested, made speeches, signed petitions in an appeal for the return of these lands. Turning away from deaf ears and insensitive hearts, he borrowed from the U.S. Constitution and engaged in citizen’s arrests of public officials for crimes against the people. He tried to serve his arrest warrant on Chief Justice Warren Burger for not enforcing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; on the scientists at Los Alamos laboratory where they were perfecting the atomic bomb; and on courthouse officials at Tierra Amarilla. He joined with Martin Luther King, Jr., Native Americans, other African Americans and white activists to press for a new movement on behalf of the poor. He took over national parks asserting that the U.S. and state governments illegally hold over two-thirds of all land in the West and Southwest taken from land grantees and tribes without compensation.
For these actions he and his family were harassed, fire bombed, threatened, pursued, including rape of his wife and son by police officers. This, according to an oral history interview I conducted with Tim Chapa, an undercover agent of the New Mexico State Police. He told me he was asked to assassinate Tijerina but relented and never followed through. This interview is on file at the Zimmerman library at the University of New Mexico. Eventually, Tijerina went to prison but was barred from starting from where he left off as conditions of his parole. He became known as one of the “Four Horsemen” of the Chicano Movement. His passing brings home the reality that the activists of the Chicano Movement are a dying generation; at age 70 I am the only one left standing.