Monday, June 05, 2017

Fifty years after courthouse confrontation, emotions remain raw

Daniel Chacon

TIERRA AMARILLA — On the side of the highway just a few miles south of this tiny mountain village in rural Northern New Mexico is an ominous handmade billboard with the image of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Painted in big, bold letters are the words “Tierra o Muerte,” Spanish for “land or death.” The timeworn marker serves as a reminder of a century-old dispute over the ownership of the 600,000-acre Tierra Amarilla Land Grant and efforts by descendants of pioneer families to reclaim the land under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848 and promised that the property of Mexican citizens would be “inviolably respected.” The battle over land grants in New Mexico exploded in a hail of bullets 50 years ago this week when angry followers of the now late activist and Chicano rights leader Reies López Tijerina stormed the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in a confrontation that generated national attention and resulted in the largest manhunt in New Mexico history. The group set out to free fellow members of Tijerina’s La Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants), who had been arrested days earlier, as well as to make a citizen’s arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez, who they later discovered wasn’t at the courthouse. The raid left two law enforcement officers wounded, one of whom was killed before testifying in a case against Tijerina, who always maintained he had nothing to do with the still unsolved murder. Five decades after the courthouse raid — a watershed moment in New Mexico history — the land grant movement has largely vanished from public view.
But at least for an older generation, the emotions that drove the raid and the angst over the lost land are still raw. If you scratch the surface up there, there’s still hard feelings,” said Em Hall, an emeritus law professor at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose research and writing has focused on the history of land and water in the Southwest. “There’s just not much going on right now that I know of, and I’m not sure the young people have picked up the cry,” Hall added. “It’s mostly the old-timers who are carrying that flag still.” Among them is Moises Morales, who was 20 when he participated in the courthouse raid June 5, 1967. “We have a valid existing right to these lands,” Morales, 70, said Thursday in an interview at the two-story courthouse. “We are native to this land like the trees and the rocks.” In his book, The Tierra Amarilla Grant: A History of Chicanery, land grant expert and author Malcolm Ebright writes that Thomas B. Catron, a former U.S. attorney general for New Mexico and a member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, acquired the land grant but failed to purchase the interests of most of the settlers. .

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