ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Pentecostal preacher turned activist who led a violent raid of a northern New Mexico courthouse nearly 50 years ago, died Monday. He was 88.
Family representative Estela Reyes-Lopez said Tijerina, who helped spark the radical Chicano movement, died at an El Paso, Texas, hospital, of natural causes. Nephew Luis Tijerina also confirmed the death.
Tijerina, who had been battling a number of illnesses, including a heart condition, had to use a wheelchair in recent years but still occasionally gave speeches.
While admired by some students, his activism was steeped in violence and his legacy remained controversial. He also drew criticism for his treatment of women and comments largely viewed as anti-Semitic.
In 1963, Tijerina founded La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, an organization that sought to reclaim Spanish and Mexican land grants held by Mexicans and American Indians in the Southwest before the U.S.-Mexican War.
Four years later, Tijerina and followers raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla to attempt a citizen’s arrest of the district attorney after eight members of Tijerina’s group had been arrested over land grant protests.
During the raid, the group shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy, and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage before escaping to the Kit Carson National Forest.
Tijerina was arrested but ultimately acquitted of charges directly related to the raid. He did eventually spend about two years in prison for federal destruction of property. The raid outraged some, but it sparked excitement among Mexican-American college students of the Chicano movement.
It also placed Tijerina as one of the leaders in “Four Horsemen of the Chicano Movement,” which included Cesar Chavez of California, Corky Gonzales of Colorado, and Jose Angel Gutierrez of Texas. Tijerina was later dubbed “King Tiger” and compared to Malcolm X.
After the Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid, the land-grant movement in the American Southwest became more widely accepted.
David Correia, author of “Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico,” said before the raid, land grant battles were just “local property right” issues. “He brought international attention to land grants and made them part of a larger struggle,” Correia said.
Some, however, can’t forget the violence he brought. Michael Olivas, a Santa Fe resident and law professor at the University of Houston, said his cousin, Eulogio Salazar, the courthouse jailer who was shot in the cheek during raid, was later beaten to death.
Salazar testified in a court hearing that he was shot by Tijerina, but that case never made it to trial. His death remained unsolved.
“He is not a hero,” Olivas said, referring to Tijerina, who he has long blamed for his cousin’s death. “He was not even from New Mexico.”
In his later years, Tijerina also spoke of numerology and an apocalyptic end of the world, Correia said. It was part of his way of explaining his importance using dates and anniversaries, Correia said.
“I think he’d be real excited that he died on Martin Luther King Day,” Correia said. “Numbers meant something to him.”
Tijerina was born in Fall City, Texas, in 1923 to migrant farmworkers. He is survived by his wife of 22 years, Esperanza, and his children, Reyes-Lopez said.
Follow Russell Contreras at https://twitter.com/russcontreras .
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix also contributed to this report.
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