In this 1967 photo, New Mexico National Guard tanks and troops search northern New Mexico for Reies Lopez Tijerina. New Mexico is marking the 50th anniversary of a violent courthouse raid by Mexican-American activists that generated national attention and helped spark the Chicano Movement. The raid was connected to age-old Spanish land grant disputes and catapulted Texas-born activist Tijerina into the spotlight as a radical Chicano leader. (Ray Cary/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

50 years later: The New Mexico courthouse raid that inspired Chicano activists

It was a local dispute over land in rural, northern New Mexico that turned violent, forced the governor to call the National Guard and catapulted a former Pentecostal preacher into a national radical leader among a growing but frustrated Mexican-American population during the turbulent 1960s.

Five decades later, the violent courthouse raid orchestrated by Mexican-American activists that helped spark the Chicano Movement is hotly debated in a state that now boasts the nation’s highest percentage of Hispanic residents.

New Mexico marked on Monday the 50th anniversary of what is now known as the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse Raid. The attack was connected to age-old Spanish land grant disputes and began after activists from the group La Alianza Federal de Mercedes sought to make a citizen’s arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez.

The group wanted local officials to start honoring Spanish land grants outlined in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — the treaty that ended the U.S.-Mexican War of 1848 — and give land back to the descendants of Hispanic pioneering families they say had been illegally seized by whites.

“The raid boosted the legitimacy of the land grants,” Ralph Arellanes, chair of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico and a descendant of a land grant family.

During the June 5, 1967, raid, the group, led by Texas-born activist Reies Lopez Tijerina, shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a deputy, and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage. The men then escaped to the Kit Carson National Forest, generating excitement among supporters and fear throughout others.

New Mexico Gov. David Cargo eventually ordered a convoy of the New Mexico National Guard to the remote mountain hamlet of Tierra Amarilla where they searched for Tijerina and his men while confused ranchers on horses looked on.

Tijerina was arrested but ultimately acquitted of charges directly related to the raid. He eventually spent about two years in prison for federal destruction of property.

The armed attack outraged some, but it inspired Mexican-American college students of the Chicano Movement. It came amid urban race riots, the emerging Black Panther Party and the militant American Indian Movement.

“The raid turned a property rights struggle into a civil rights struggle,” said David Correia, author of “Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico.”

After 50 years, the episode still divides residents in northern New Mexico, said Annette Rodriguez, a visiting Chicana and Chicano Studies lecturer at the University of New Mexico.

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 the raid, was later beaten to death. Olivas has long contended that Tijerina was responsible for his cousin’s death — a charge Tijerina denied until his own death in 2015.

“The area is forever spoiled for me in my mind,” said Olivas, 66. “I can’t even go up there to visit.”

Others, like Arellanes, said the raid encouraged more Hispanic activists to get involved politically.

Alexandro Jose Gradilla, a Chicana and Chicano Studies professor at California State University, Fullerton, said that unlike other civil rights struggles, the courthouse raid participants sought something tangible — land.

“They weren’t asking for something theoretical like voting rights or better housing,” he said. “They wanted a specific plot of land and they were willing to take up arms for it.”

While others activists like Malcolm X talked about armed struggle, Gradilla said La Alianza actually did it. “That’s why the event became such a powerful movement,” Gradilla said.

After five decades, researchers can begin to dissect the complexities of the raid now that many of the participants have died, scholars say. For example, Correia said scholars can examine the role of women in the movement that used to be dominated by men.

“We can start exploring the use of colonial documents to determine property rights,” Rodriguez said. “After all, this was once Native American land first.”

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