“The Anglo press degradized the word ‘Chicano’. They use it to divide us. We use it to unify ourselves with our people and with Latin America.”
Reies Tijerina

UPDATE JANUARY 20, 2015: Reies Lopez Tijerina died Jan. 19th in Texas. He was 88 years old.

Sometimes history is sitting across from you at the kitchen table.

In 1996, I was assigned to a project in Las Alamos, New Mexico, for several months. I was in my Grand Junction cubicle getting ready for another trip “down there” when a co-worker began to talk about his experiences working in the area in the 1960s. He was an engineer on a dam project and at the time there was a lot of concern about some “Mexican radicals who wanted to take back their land that was given to them by Spain.” In other words, the Spanish Land Grants. The group was serious and was threatening armed revolt, my co-worker remembered.

Huh, I thought, interesting story, then went home for lunch.

Tom, my boyfriend (later my husband) was eating a sandwich at the kitchen table. As I fixed one for myself, I told him what I had just heard, about Mexican revolutionaries and armed bandidos terrorizing the New Mexican countryside only 30 years before.

“Yeah,” he mumbled, “that was my great uncle.”


OK. So I peeled my eyebrows off the ceiling, sat down, and asked, “What?”

With the help of his parents, who had a newspaper article in the Martinez Family Archives (a wood box), the story comes out over the next few days.

And like most American stories, it goes back several centuries – and starts in Spain.

As the Spaniards explored South, Central, and North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they claimed the lands they traveled for their various kings and queens – and the royals took this very, very seriously. We know there were no objections from anybody (who would object? The rest of Europe hadn’t quite caught on to the New World yet, and the natives? We know what was happening to them).

The first recorded land grant was in 1692 in New Mexico; hundreds followed in what is now Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and California. Grants were made as rewards for service to various individuals and families, a number to the Church for missions, but it was also a way to ensure loyalties (and, perhaps, distribute the royal name and potential troublemaker wannabes to the other side of the globe).

There are some interesting side notes to the land grants:

  • None of the kings or queens of Spain EVER visited their royal domains;
  • Among the ships carrying soldiers, explorers, priests, etc., there was a dearth of surveyors, in fact there didn’t seem to be any. That led to some problems down the road (fun pun!), since the land grants were ascribed using rivers, mountains, and canyons – natural features, not metes and bounds;
  • Millions of acres were eventually granted, and virtually all were handed down generation to generation;
  • The government of Mexico continued the practice after it had achieved independence from Spain, causing some problems with Texas.

Fast-forward a bit to 1846 and the Mexican-American War. We the People remember the Alamo with some clarity thanks to a lot of books and movies, which preceded the war be several years, but the Mexican-American War is a bit more obscure. The hot-button issue that started it was Texas. Both countries wanted it and the U.S. demanded it. The subsequent war wasn’t very popular; one of the reasons was the Texas was an avowed slave state and the anti-slave crowd didn’t like that a whole lot.

It was a messy, bloody affair, you can use dagoogle to find out a lot more, but the U.S. won in 1849, Mexico lost, but still ended up $18 million richer. The U.S. Government paid that amount for Texas and big chunks of California. Winning isn’t all that it’s chalked up to be.

And, pertinent to our story here, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo assured the Land Grant families that their land grants would be honored by their new country, that would be the U.S.

Haven’t we seen this movie before? The congenial Uncle Sam sitting down with the local Indian tribe, smoking the peace pipe, shaking hands, you bet, your lands are your lands, we won’t trouble you any more, your Happy Hunting Grounds are okee dokee fine…

Same thing happened with the so-called Treaty. Congress mish-mashed the agreement, and land owners were tasked with proving their claim – and remember, the lands were never surveyed and instead used geographical reference points. Big problem.

And so it went with the Land Grant Families. Particularly irksome, since some of them had sided with the U.S. against Mexico and even helped the effort:

“Native Californian lancers, led by Capt. Santiago E. Arguello, volunteered to serve with American forces under Commodore Robert Stockton. They participated in the Battles of La Mesa and Rio San Gabriel in January 1847. Nearly 200 Mexican citizens, led by Colonel Manuel Dominguez, formed the U.S. Army’s Mexican Spy Company, that served under General Winfield Scott in Central Mexico 1847-1848. Their duties included protecting U.S. troops and wagon trains that traveled between Vera Cruz and Mexico City and providing intelligence in respect to the movement of regular Mexican troops and guerillas. In August 1847, the Spy Company took part in the battle at the convent of Churubusco…”
(Source: Descendants of Mexican War Veterans)

Fast-forward again a hundred years. By now it’s 1950 or so and most of the land that had once been claimed by the Spanish Land Grant Families was pretty much gone. Some of the families sold out, some tried to fight but faced severe legal costs, some got scammed. (Source: Colorado State Archives, Spanish-Mexican Land Grants).

Enter Reies Tijerina – and Jose Martinez, my husband Tom’s great uncle (his father’s uncle).

Jose Martinez, age 70, as he is handcuffed and arrested Jun 4, 1967. This photo appeared in the Milwaukee Journal as well as the Denver Post.

Tijerna was born in Texas in 1926 and lived a very iffy life (he’s not particularly Googleable, but a reliable source is Borderzine.com). He was sometimes in trouble with various law enforcement types but soon became aligned with the Chicano movement; he is frequently mentioned with Cesar Chavez, a name that We the Peoples from a certain generation (i.e., oldsters like me) will recognize.

While Chavez was immersed in the rights of migrant farm workers (when I buy a head of lettuce, I remember…), Tijerna became a bit obsessed with the Old Land Grants. He wanted them back, or at least, given back to the modern-day heirs of the families, or maybe given to the cause…it seems a bit obscure, what he wanted.

Taking them back was problematic since the land grants had become a patchwork of towns, cities, subdivisions, public schools, colleges, universities, and casinos. Plus there were on-going and contentious Indian land claims. After all they WERE here first. There remained large tracts held by the U.S. for forests and parks, and Tijerna set his sights on those. To give him credit, he seems to have done a lot of research, traveling to Mexico and even Spain, looking for documents to prove his claims. Tijerna called his group the Alianza Federal de Mercedes. I cannot find how many men belonged but among them was Tom’s great-uncle, Jose Martinez.

The Martinez family is one of the larger, better known Land Grant Families, in and around Santa Fe and Taos New Mexico. We’ve driven through the area several times. You can’t go far without seeing signs, Martinez Plumbing, Martinez Car Repair, Martinez Mexican Restaurant. Getting some of the land back, perhaps restoring family honor, might have had strong appeal to Jose, who was already 70 years old.

A plot was hatched, and in early June of 1967, the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Espanola* was raided “to bring attention to the unscrupulous means by which government and Anglo settlers had usurped Hispanic land grant properties.” There was a fight, perhaps shots were fired, and Tijerina and his group fled to the south with hostages. The National Guard, FBI, and New Mexico State Police were called in. A sheriff’s deputy was later found dead and while certainly the gang was suspected, there were no actual charges filed against anyone.

Tensions were high and mistrust of Hispanics in the area remained bad for weeks. Eventually the gang was caught. Tijerina was sentenced to less than three years, Jose Martinez served several months in federal prison. I can’t find information about the hostages, how many there were, how they fared, how long they were kept.

I can’t help but find this particular saga interesting and a little sad, too. Today, Tijerina and his band would be called domestic terrorists and would disappear faster than you can say Guantanamo. I’m not suggesting that what they did was right, far from it, but this episode is no less important than, say, Pine Ridge – Russell Means was Tijerna’s contemporary, in fact. But unlike Means, Tijerna didn’t have CBS on speed-dial.

Tijerina wrote a book in 2000, “They Called Me King Tiger,” and it’s available on Amazon.

Tom’s great-uncle died just a few years after his release from prison. Tom met him once, in 1966, before the trouble in New Mexico, and remembers him as a big, rugged man, quiet. He was also somewhat infamous in the family as a bootlegger much of his life.

Hispanics make up about 18% of the U.S. population and is always mentioned by the media as the fastest-growing minority.

One of the issues from a marketing viewpoint is that the Hispanic identify is largely unidentified. I just used the word Hispanic, but I could have used the word Latino. What’s the difference? I don’t know, do you? (Shrug).

My husband, who does not speak Spanish but understands it, is a perfect case in point. He is a fourth-to-sixth-generation American on both sides of his family, and they are Southwest Hispanics.

When we go back East, he will listen to other tourists and visitors from obvious Latin countries, but cannot understand those from any of the Caribbean countries such as Cuba or Jamaica, has a very hard time understanding folks from South America, but has pretty good comprehension of folks from Spain. You might be surprised to know that he can’t understand hardly a word that folks from Mexico speak – while his mother – who has never been to Mexico except as a tourist in Baja – speaks and understands “Mexican Spanish” perfectly.

The Hispanic population has always been controversial in this country, stigmatized, ostracized, discriminated against. Growing up in Colorado, I saw this every day, but it is only in the last few years that Southwest Hispanics have moved to most of the rest of the country and it has now become one of the more controversial minorities – and you don’t have to Google that to know what I mean. When Tom and I first visited the D.C. area in the early ’90s it was rare to see any Southwest Hispanics, but now they are a large population base.

One thing is certain: Legal, illegal, generational, Hispanics remain largely distrusted and vehemently disliked by We the People.

At least they finally have a Hispanic History Month.

*I gotta tell this story. While working in Los Alamos, New Mexico, husband Tom drove down on a Friday to spend a weekend with me. I told him the best route to get to the hotel where I was staying – specifically, “Go through Espanola, and you’ll be on the right road.”

He’s supposed to get there Friday night, but it’s after 9 and I’m get a bit worried – this is pre-cell phone btw  Finally he pulls into the hotel parking lot, a little frazzled and very put out.

“They had these (expletive deleted) low riders in that (expletive deleted) town going up and down the street,” he rants. “I got caught in the middle and couldn’t get out! I HATE (more expletives deleted) low riders!” Come to find out that the local kids drive their low riders up and down the streets of Espanola every Friday night – and there are dozens of them. Oops, didn’t know that.

Two months later, we’re on vacation in Washington, D.C., and take a trip to the Museum of American History. They have a brand new exhibit that they’re extremely proud of. Guess what it was? LOW RIDERS  FROM NEW MEXICO!!!!

Didn’t hear the end of that for a while.