SANTA FE – Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Pentecostal preacher turned activist who led a violent raid of a northern New Mexico courthouse more than 50 years ago and helped sparked the Chicano Movement, is the subject of a new Spanish-language documentary.
Mexican director Angel Estrada Soto is showing his film, “They Called Me King Tiger,” around the U.S. and it will make its debut in New Mexico on Friday, the Santa New Mexican reports. Tijerina died in El Paso, Texas in 2015 at age 88.
The documentary attempts to offer a balanced view of Tijerina, detailing his Texas upbringing as the child of poor ranchers, the religious commune he founded in the 1950s in the southern Arizona desert, and his eventual adoption of the struggle of New Mexicans to reclaim ancestral land grants that had been usurped by the U.S. government and white settlers.
Estrada Soto said was fascinated by the way Tijerina described divine inspiration for his activism, detailing religious visions and a near-death experience at age five.
“That was the hook for me to tell this story – more than his political activity, more than land grants,” Estrada Soto said. “When you want to understand why someone goes so far in his beliefs and struggle, you will find that someone like him has to have this other motivation, this divine motivation.”
Estrada Soto said he wanted the film to address all possible aspects of Tijerina’s story, especially his troubled relationship with his family.
Tijerina and his 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.
Tijerina and his followers in 1967 raided the courthouse in the small community of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, to try to make a citizen’s arrest of the local district attorney. The group shot and wounded a state police officer and jailer, beat a sheriff’s deputy, and took the sheriff and a reporter hostage.
Tijerina and his followers then escaped to the Kit Carson National Forest.
Tijerina was arrested but ultimately acquitted of charges related to the raid. He eventually spent about two years in prison for federal destruction of property.
The armed attack outraged some, but inspired Mexican-American college students of the late 1960s and early 1970s Chicano Movement that stressed ethnic pride, ethnic studies and opposition to police brutality.
It came amid urban race riots, the emerging Black Panther Party and the militant American Indian Movement.