The Courthouse Raid at Tierra Amarilla: Remembering Reies Lopez Tijerina

tijerinaWe note with sadness the passing of Reies Lopez Tijerina, one of the great leaders of the Chicano movement. We are republishing the following article—originally published in Forward Motion Magazine #59—which discusses the Alianza Federal de Mercedes that he founded, and their influence on the development of the Chicano movement.

As the sun rose over the Truchas (still snow-capped on this June morning), 20 armed raiders—led, some argue to this day, by a shadowy figure known only as El Tigre—rode into the sleepy northern New Mexican hamlet of Tierra Amarilla and seized the ramshackle county courthouse. When the dust settled after a two-hour gun battle, several police vehicles were destroyed and one deputy lay near death. The band fled into the mountains, taking a reporter and a sheriff’s deputy hostage.

Though this may sound like the opening of a dime novel from the 1850s (or perhaps the romantic reminiscences of a second-rate sportswriter and one-time gun thug named William Barclay Masterson), this particular confrontation took place in 1967.

These were not the first shots fired in Tierra Amarilla, however. This battle began with the war between the United States and Mexico (1846–1848). With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo, 200 years of Spanish-American culture was abruptly undermined. That tradition had included ejido land: large parcels to be employed for grazing, timber, or irrigation and held in the public trust. According to Mexican law this land couldn’t be bought or sold and was held in common by all the people. This policy encouraged village development and served the interests of the Spanish Crown (and later, Mexican nationalism) but stood as a roadblock to the railroads and the development that inevitably paralleled their tracks.

Although a guerrilla war had erupted in the Northern New Mexican hills in the late 1800s, nothing since had prepared the country for the shock of the Courthouse Raid of 1967 and the protracted conflict which followed. And by then, the struggle was not against the railroads or the huge Norte Americano cattle ranchers who had stolen the land in the 1850s, but against the federal government which had incorporated these previous thefts into U.S. national parks and forests. La Alianza Federal de Mercedes had previously marched on the state capital to try and legally reclaim the ejido grants. In October of 1966 Reies Lopez Tijerina and 350 Alianza members took over parts of Kit Carson National Forest to reassert the land grant of the Pueblo de San Joaquin de Chama, whose 1,400 acres lay mainly within the confines of that park. The reoccupation of that preserve by state police, sheriff’s deputies, and Rangers preceded the events in Tierra Amarilla.


In the aftermath of the Courthouse Raid, Alianza activists built ties to other national movements within the United States. Hopi elder Tomas Banyacya, SNCC representative Ralph Featherstone, and Maulana Karenga all appeared at the organization’s 1967 convention.

The Alianza action played a central role in sparking the modern Chicano movement, inspiring urban forces like the Brown Berets in the barrios of Sante Fe and Albuquerque. The heirs to the Courthouse Raid extended the struggle to many other land claims in the Southwest. Broadening the focus, the nation of Atzlán was proclaimed across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado south of the 35th parallel and extending into Texas from southeastern New Mexico as far as the mouth of the Rio Colorado. In the words of an Alianza spokesperson, “Okay, since the U.S. won’t recognize the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo… we won’t either. Give us what we had before the treaty, or at least a part of it.”

In many ways, land has always been the most basic of democratic demands. Whether the demand is for “national territory” or “land to the tiller,” any oppressed nation needs terrain to insure its long-range survival. The great upsurge of revolutionary movements among the people of oppressed nations in the 1960s and early 1970s reflects this. Armed struggle over national territory was not confined to the Courthouse Raid. Land was at the heart of the standoff between the American Indian Movement and the massed might of the state at Wounded Knee. It was a key factor in the shootout when the government attacked the Mississippi headquarters of the Republic of New Africa, a group organizing for the establishment of an independent state in the Black Belt South. Not since the era of Reconstruction had this country seen such fierce confrontations over control of the land. And as the national liberation movements revive and develop, this issue will come to the fore again.

Jon Levine is an activist living in New Jersey and a passionate ’ophile of the Southwest.

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