Reies Tijerina has lived a life full of adventure. He has started a "Kingdom of God", held up a courthouse at gunpoint, and triggered the largest manhunt in New Mexico's history. But for much of his life he has tried to regain the land grants in New Mexico taken by the US government.
Born on September 21, 1926, just outside of Falls City, TX, Tijerina was raised in a family of Mexican cotton farmers, who, at the time of his birth, were doing very well in the cotton business. However, during the Great Depression, Tijerina had to drop out of high school, when demand for cotton went down and his family was swimming in debt. Despite his lack of an education, Tijerina had another source that developed his mind, the Bible, which he would zealously read, and then reread, to find answers to life's questions. Later, at age 18, in the year 1944, he attended the Assembly of God Bible Institute, and was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, spending the next few years of his life traveling across the US, preaching to many communities and developing close bonds with them, especially the smaller Mexican communities in the Southwest.
Then, in 1956, Tijerina and 17 families of his 'followers' decided to start their own virtual "Kingdom of God" on 160 acres of land in the southern AZ desert, hoping to protect their children from the harshness of the world. Calling themselves los Bravos, or the 'Heralds of Peace', they chose to live a simple life. Originally living under trees, the Bravos eventually dug themselves subterranean homes, covering them with old automobile hoods salvaged from local dumps. Tijerina earned a license from the state to build a schoolhouse (which later burned to the ground), and teach their children. The Heralds of peace soon made friends among some of the surrounding communities, especially among African and Native Americans. But they also saw open signs of resentment, such as when some white boys rode their horses over the top of the Bravos shelters. At first, they dismissed it as childhood pranks, but when it kept happening and they reported it to the police, they refused to investigate.
On April 18, 1956, Tijerina's oldest daughter was born, the first in the colony. Her name was Ira de Alà, meaning 'Wrath of God'. A few months after she was born, Tijerina took a trip to New Mexico. While there, he first learned about the problems with land grants, which was one of the three root reasons of Hispanic problems, along with grazing rights and community spirit.
Following his New Mexico visit in June, Tijerina took a trip down to Mexico, researching both the Laws of the Indies and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, to further his knowledge of the land grants given out by the Spanish and Mexican governments. After he returned, Tijerina was charged with the theft of a six wheel trailer on March 19, 1957. Even though he was acquitted, he was later charged in April with the theft of hardware, made worst when they accused him of being a getaway driver in an attempt to free his brother from the Pinal County Jail. During his hearing, he left the courthouse, becoming a fugitive.
Tijerina and the Bravos fled to New Mexico, taking refuge in an abandoned church in the ghost town of Gobernador. While out looking for food with his brother, Tijerina met Don Manuel Trujillo, who he says was his "first and best teacher on land grants." After returning to the Gobernador church, Tijerina decided that to survive, they would need money, so he and two Bravos returned to the Valley of Peace to find jobs, where they were found and imprisoned in Florence, AZ, for three months. Tijerina and one of the Bravos were released, but his brother, Margarito, was not.
Two days after he was released, Tijerina was arrested again with charges of trying to free his brother. He was then urged by the attorney general to flee the state, and would spend the next seven years of his life as a fugitive, leaving his seven children at home with his wife.
1958 seems like it was a really boring year for Tijerina. He spent almost all of it on the run, and the only really eventful happening was when he was invited to speak in Chama, New Mexico. While speaking, he was attacked by a man carrying a club but was removed to safety when his brother attacked the attacker, giving Tijerina a chance to escape. Anselmo, his brother, was arrested afterwards for attacking the attacker.
In early 1959, Tijerina took a visit to Guadalajara, Mexico, to review some documents on land grants that he had heard could be found there. But he arrived there to be told that the documents were lost, saying that the last person to review them was a white man hired to convert them into microfilm. When Tijerina returned to the states, he sent a letter to President Eisenhower requesting that he look into land grant claims. The President disregarded the letter, though, since he said it didn't have a signature of one of the original signatories of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Since the US government wouldn't be of any help, Tijerina turned to the Mexican president, Adolfo Lopez Mateos. While in Mexico City, he took the time to gather more documents to present to the president, only to have them all stolen. Down hearted, Tijerina returned to the US in 1961. It was after this that he met with Mexican general Lazano Cardonas, who offered his support to Tijerina's cause, but warned him that to succeed, there would have to be blood spilt.
In August of 1962, while living in Albuquerque, NM, Tijerina began making his first plans for the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, or the Federal Alliance of Land Grants. 7 months later, on February 2, 1963, on the 115th anniversary of the signing of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Alianza became a reality and was incorporated. In June of that year, the newly-formed Alianza sent letters to both the US and Mexican governments, reminding them of their obligations stated in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Because of his constant moving, and believing it was taking a toll on his family, Tijerina and his first wife divorced in late 1963. While hiding out in Mexico and planning an automobile caravan, he was arrested and deported by the Mexican government, although he did suspect that it was the work of the FBI.
In April of 1965, Tijerina began his radio talk show "The Voice of Justice", which would later be converted to a television program in August, which about the time that he met Patricia. They were wed on September 25, 1965.
After returning from a visit to Spain in 1966, Tijerina organized a march on July 4 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. During the march, they were taunted and shot at by groups of white people. When they arrived in Santa Fe, they delivered a written demand to the Governor asking him to look further into their land grant problems. After all diplomatic demands failed to shed light on their problems, Tijerina and his Bravos decided to take physical action in October by taking control of the Echo Amphitheatre, just northwest of Abiquiu, claiming that it was a part of the San Joaquin del Rio de Chama land grant, and proclaimed it their own country, even going as far as arresting two forest rangers for trespassing. But after five days, the rebels turned themselves in. Only five of the 350 Bravos involved were convicted. Tijerina and his brother, Cristobal, and three others were charged with assault on government officials and the conversion of government property to personal use.
Released on a bond, Tijerina called a meeting in the small town of Coyote, which was broken up when the district attorney ordered police to arrest them. After escaping, Tijerina met with the other escapees in the mountains of Canjilon. On June 5, 1967, he led an armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse to find the district attorney. During the confusion that followed, a prison guard was shot, and a sheriff's deputy was wounded, before Tijerina escaped back to the mountains with two prisoners, triggering the largest man hunt in New Mexico history.
New Mexican Lt. Governor E. Francis called that Tijerina must be found, sending out the US National Guard, along with law enforcement agencies, including state police from all of the northern counties, local sheriffs, unofficial posses, Jicarilla Apache police, and cattle inspectors. In the days that followed, the local press dubbed Tijerina "King Tiger", a name that would stick him for the rest of his life.
Tijerina turned himself in the next Monday in Albuquerque, and was charged with 54 criminal charges, including kidnapping and armed assault. He was imprisoned for 35 days, and was visited by many supporters and Chicano activists. Although he was acquitted of all crimes in the Rio Arriba court, he would later be sentenced to 2 years in a federal prison in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
In 1968, Tijerina (unsuccessfully) ran for governor of New Mexico, and was elected to lead the Chicano contingent in the Poor People's Campaign in Washington DC. He happily agreed to do it, and met with Latinos from CO, Los Angeles, TX, and Puerto Ricans from NYC.
Then, disaster struck. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the organizer of the campaign, was assassinated on April 4th. But the campaigners were undaunted, and they marched with African and Native American delegations on May 2. Before the march, a group of Native Americans were detained outside of DC. To protest this, Tijerina set up a protest in front of the US Supreme Court Building on May 29, where they were constantly brutalized by the police. Eventually, 20 delegates got to meet the clerk of the court, John Davis, to discuss this and other problems, and would talk to the Secretary of State Dean Rusk the next month.
In 1970, Tijerina was finally called to court again for his role in the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse raid. He dismissed four lawyers, who had been working on his case for 18 months, on the day of the hearing, choosing instead to defend him. He was sentenced to two years in a federal prison in La Tuna, TX, where he wouldn't eat the food he was given, suspicious that there was a plot to kill him. Instead, he shared scraps of food from other inmates.
He was soon transferred to a prison in Albuquerque, and then to a mental hospital in Springfield, Missouri, where he spent time trying to "find a solution for peace among human beings.' He was discharged from the facility in 1971, on the terms that he couldn't hold leadership in the Alianza, which would soon dissolve, becoming no more. Although he couldn't be part of the Alianza anymore, Tijerina is still, to this day, an advocate for land rights and human unity. He would later serve a second prison term in 1974.
After a fire took his house in 1994, Tijerina moved to Uruapan, Michoacán, where he married for a third time. He presented his archival materials to UNM on October 19, 1999, and on November 5 of that year, met with the senior staff of TX governor, George W. Bush. Then, in 2000, he translated and published his memoirs, which were previously only available in Spanish.
After living for a year in Ciudad Juarez, Reies Tijerina moved to El Paso, TX, in April of 2006, where he still lives, happy and healthy, to this day. Although he never regained any of the land grants taken by the US government, he did do something beneficial for the Hispanic masses of the Southwest. He tried so hard to try to win back their land, even, at times, laying his life on the line to do it, which will have changed the future of Hispanics in America, just wait and see.