The 20th-Century Outlaw Who Raided A New Mexican Courthouse

“Tijerina was really good at inflammatory rhetoric, but he knew nothing about planning a military type of raid.” —Professor Lorena Oropeza speaking to the LA Times about Reies Tijerina

In A Nutshell

Reies Lopez Tijerina was mad. He believed the US government had stolen land from his ancestors, and he wanted it back . . . through any means necessary. And in 1967, things took a bloody turn when Tijerina and his gang of activist-outlaws grabbed some guns and stormed the Tierra Amarilla courthouse, leading to the largest manhunt in New Mexico history.

The Whole Bushel

Reies Lopez Tijerina was a fire-and-brimstone preacher—loud, angry, charismatic—but when he grabbed hold of a microphone, he didn’t talk about Heaven or Hell. He talked about land grants, real estate that was handed out by the Spanish and Mexican governments to hardworking farmers and ranchers, people who’d colonize the land and keep the Native Americans at bay.

Then the Yankees showed up. Mexico lost the Mexican-American War, and the US stripped the farmers and ranchers of their land, land that eventually became New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California. That was in 1848, and even though over a century had gone by, Reies Tijerina was still angry.

But while he went to Bible school, Tijerina wasn’t a turn-your-cheek kind of guy. He wanted the land restored to its rightful Latino owners. He wanted to establish a country where his people could stay true to their culture, and he was willing to do anything to right these horrible wrongs, even if it meant getting his hands bloody.

Finally, in 1967, things got violent. Sick of the protests, Santa Fe’s district attorney, Alfonso Sanchez, cracked down on Tijerina’s group, and 11 activists were arrested for “unlawful assembly.” But when they showed up in court, in the town of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, the judge thought the charges were ridiculous and let the men go.

Only Tijerina didn’t know that. All he knew was the government had arrested his people, and it was time to strike back. So he gathered his men, and on June 5, they stormed the Tierra Amarilla courthouse. They were going to free his followers (who’d been released) and place District Attorney Sanchez (who wasn’t there that day) under citizen’s arrest. Things didn’t end well.

After wounding two law officers, the activists decided to call off the raid when they learned the New Mexican government was sending the National Guard to Tierra Amarilla. Outgunned, the land grant people grabbed two hostages and fled, but while the prisoners were quickly rescued, Tijerina escaped into the mountains. He stayed there for nearly week, waiting out the largest manhunt in New Mexico history. It took authorities six days to finally catch up with the man known in the media as “King Tiger.”

Eventually, Tijerna was sentenced to 10 years behind bars, although he only served six months. For a little while, he was a folk hero. His wild stunt drew attention to his cause, and he met with leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Caesar Chavez. He even started to change his tune, emphasizing values like “brotherhood awareness” over violence.

But in the end, it didn’t matter. His followers weren’t happy with his new message, and they didn’t like his heavy-handed way of leading. In 1978, he was kicked out of his own movement, and in 2015, Tijerina passed away at the age of 88, an old outlaw who never saw his dreams come true.

Show Me The Proof

LA Times: Reies Lopez Tijerina dies at 88; Chicano rights movement leader
Snap Judgment: Legendary