I knew Reies Tijerina, slightly. I admired him, in spite of, and partly because of, his outrageous flaws. Every day during the famous trial I would go to the courthouse and sit, spellbound, as the story of the courthouse raid unfolded. I spoke to him occasionally at his headquarters in Albuquerque.
I first heard about Tijerina while in Quito, Ecuador, on a Fulbright scholarship. One morning I picked up a newspaper and saw a picture of a tank in the lower right-hand side of the front page and a headline that read “Uprising in New Mexico.” The story didn’t make sense, but my friend John Aragon, later to become president of Highlands University, was in Quito at that time so I called and asked him to fill me in. The tank was National Guard, part of a manhunt; the “uprising” was a shoot-em-out at the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla; the cause was land grant ownership claims from decades before, promoted by a group calling itself the Alianza Federal de Mercedes.
The trial pitted the conservative Hispanic political establishment against a young upstart from Texas who stood them down while promoting downtrodden Hispanic populations of the North. It also pitted the larger New Mexico social establishment, already nervous about Viet Nam, black power, and the Chicano movement, against the national forces of change during the crazy 1960s. The national press corps, mostly favorable to Tijerina, took to the story like a herd of thirsty cattle sniffing the breeze of a distant pond of water.
The presiding judge was Paul Larrazolo, son of former Governor Octaviano Larrazolo—the epitome of Hispanic establishment. The courthouse raid had begun as an attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of Rio Arriba District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez, who had blocked some of the activities of the Alianza. So the power structure in Rio Arriba County was in play as well, the same power structure that would later consolidate behind the leadership of patron Emilio Naranjo. Sheriff Benny Naranjo, Emilio’s son, was one of the key witnesses in the trial. Opposing this behemoth of political power was a band of rusty pickup-driving scraggly nortenos with names like Baltazar and Tobias, looking like characters out of the Milagro Beanfield War, and led by an impoverished, uneducated but ingenious Texan outsider and former Protestant preacher named Reies Tijerina. He was also dangerous, and so were they. The contrast was irresistible.
Tijerina defended himself in trial, brilliantly, with the help of Bill Higgs, a disbarred Harvard-educated lawyer from Mississippi who had worked for Martin Luther King, and Beverly Axelrod, who had defended Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver. She was in New Mexico, I was told, chilling out after an impossible romantic, public, affair with Cleaver. Key to the kidnapping charge against Tijerina was a moment during the raid in which Tijerina allegedly forced Sheriff Benny Naranjo at gunpoint to release prisoners from the courthouse jail. The term kidnapping was carefully defined by the prosecution as forcibly holding or confining a person against their will, even for a short period of time.
Tijerina to Benny Naranjo (this is from my memory, not from a transcript): Did I have a gun on you? Yes. Did I told you to release the prisoners? Yes. When I told you to release the prisoners did I pistol whip you? Did I force you physically? Did I follow you to make sure you released the prisoners? No. No. No. Were you afraid of me? I was known as King Tiger. Did you tremble with fear because of me? Are your afraid of me now? (Tijerina grimaced in mock fear, facing Naranjo up close): No, I wasn’t afraid of you, and I’m not afraid now. Did you release the prisoners because I told you to or because you were afraid of me? I went downstairs to release the prisoners because you told me to, not because I was afraid of you. Tijerina had challenged Naranjo's self image in a very personal way. No one but Tijerina could have made this work. Naranjo's macho response pretty much destroyed the kidnapping case. Tijerina was acquitted of all charges.He was later convicted of conspiracy in a separate incident.
On the day of his acquittal I went to the Alianza headquarters, arriving just as Tijerina got out of his car. A group of Brown Berets surrounded him. All of a sudden there was a fight. One of the young Brown Berets had tried to punch Tijerina. Tijerina admonished the young man, saying, “why would you want to fight me on this happy occasion?” Tijerina’s brother Cristobal broke the tension, saying, “No es nada, una borrachera.” It’s nothing serious, just too much liquor. Not being part of the Alianza, I left the premises as the celebration began.