Reies López Tijerina was one of the four acknowledged major leaders of the 1960s’ Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement; the others were César Chávez, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, and José Ángel Gutiérrez.
Of these four, Chávez and Tijerina were the most connected to, and involved in, grass-roots community organizing, while the latter two were more dedicated to political change. But where Chávez consistently advocated non-violent protest, López Tijerina increasingly turned to militancy. He and his followers even took up arms against the authorities. And of these four, Tijerina was the only one to spend significant time in prison for his acts.
Tijerina is, significantly, the only member of this historical group to have penned his memoirs, perhaps in an effort to explain the trials and frustrations that brought him and his Federal Land Grant Alliance members to break the law: reclaiming part of a national forest reserve as part of their inheritance; invading and occupying a courthouse, inflicting a gunshot wound on a deputy sheriff in the process; and challenging New Mexico and national authorities at every opportunity. But the acts that placed him in most danger were also the ones that won the hearts and minds of many young Chicano activists.
What is clear from López Tijerina’s testimony is his sincerity, his years of research on the issues of land grants and civil rights, and his persistent spiritual and political leadership of the disenfranchised descendants of the original colonizers of New Mexico. All of the passion and commitment, as well as the flamboyant rhetoric of the 1960s, is preserved in this recollection of a life dedicated to a cause and transformed by continuous prosecution.
They Called Me “King Tiger” is an historical document of the first order, clarifying the motives and thinking of one of the Chicano Movement’s now-forgotten martyrs who sought justice for those who have been treated like foreigners on their own soil.