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Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid

by Peter Nabokov
University of New Mexico Press, 285 pp., $6.95

La Raza: The Mexican-Americans (to be published in January)

by Stan Steiner
Harper & Row, 432 pp., $8.50

Uprooted Children The Early Life of Migrant Farm Workers (to be published in February)

by Robert Coles
University of Pittsburgh Press, 100 pp., $3.95

To call Peter Nabokov’s book on Reies Tijerina and his curious and moving career superb—which it is—is in fact to underrate it, or at least to miss the point of its manifold excellence. The complexities of his subject require of Mr. Nabokov a high degree of mastery in several distinct genres. Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid is centrally the history of a social movement: the formation and development, under Tijerina’s leadership, of the Alianza Federal de los Pueblos Libres—the Federation of Free City States—and of the remarkable events in which the Alianza has been involved in its organizing of so called “Mexican-Americans” in the state of New Mexico.

The most dramatic of these have been the occupation, by supporters of the Alianza, during the week of October 15 to 22, 1966, of a natural amphitheater in a campground in Kit Carson National Forest; and the subsequent raid, on June 5, 1967, on the Rio Arriba County courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, in an apparent attempt to seize the Alianza’s bitter enemy, District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez. Sanchez was a hundred miles away in Santa Fe, however; and the immediate effect of the unsuccessful raid was to precipitate an assault by state police and the New Mexico National Guard, under the command of General John Pershing Jolly, on the Alianza’s leaders, who were gathering for a combination barbecue and planning session on a ranch owned by one of them at the nearby mountain hamlet of Canjilon.

As might have been expected, the complex of charges and countercharges that has resulted from these events has by no means been fully resolved. Mr. Tijerina himself has been in and out of jail on a variety of charges and bail-revocations, in response to variations in the intensity of local paranoia and political pressure. On December 13, 1968, he was acquitted of three charges arising from the courthouse raid—one of them a capital charge of kidnaping with great bodily harm. But other charges remained. In November, 1967, he had been convicted of assaulting Forest Ranger Walter Taylor during the occupation of the amphitheater a year earlier, and sentenced to two years imprisonment; last June his appeal bond was revoked and he was jailed.

On September 27, he was convicted of a further offense of aiding and abetting the destruction of federal property—two Forest Service signs—and assaulting a Federal officer during a police stakeout at Coyote, New Mexico, two days before the courthouse raid, which seems to have been precipitated largely by harassment of the Alianza’s efforts to hold an announced meeting at Coyote. This conviction resulted in a three-year sentence; on October 13; the US Supreme Court upheld the earlier two-year sentence, to be served after the three-year sentence has been completed. To help Mr. Tijerina pass the time, the State of New Mexico scheduled a trial on five additional state charges in connection with the courthouse raid. A mistrial was declared in October when one of the jurors was seen talking to a man in a bar; and a new trial, which began on November 13, is still going on at this writing.

Meanwhile, last June 12, a federal jury in Albuquerque found for the defendants in a suit filed by thirteen men, women, and children against General Jolly, District Attorney Sanchez, New Mexico state police chief Joseph Black, and minor officers in complaint against the treatment accorded them at Canjilon. One plaintiff only was awarded damages against four policemen. This exoneration of the police seems inconsistent with the testimony given at open hearings held by the American Civil Liberties Union after the raid, as well as with statements Mr. Nabokov—who was present at Canjilon—quotes General Jolly as making to the press at the time:

Guards were described as having their rifles pointing towards the people mingling inside the stockade, preventing anyone from coming closer than fifteen feet to the barbed wire. It was later alleged that a pond at the lower end of the slope was the only available water supply. Intended for sheep and cattle, it was pictured as “stagnant, green and muddy.” In one case it was used to mix a baby’s formula. By noon Tuesday the picnic supplies were all used up. Jolly ordered in two canvas trailers of C-rations, which the Alianzans refused. Officers expressed concern that the prisoners were growing “very restless.”

General Jolly had first displayed bewilderment when asked why the prisoners were being held. “That’s a good question,” he said, “I really don’t have an answer.” He did try to emphasize that they were not exactly arrested…. At one point General Jolly was asked just what species of confinement this was. He was short with the reporter.

Let’s don’t get involved in civil liberties. None of them has complained.”

Before the Canjilon compound was dissolved about 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, there were stories of families split up by the mass detention. Some children were reported hungry in isolated homes where they awaited parents or relatives.

In recounting this series of events, Nabokov thus provides the reader with one of the most concrete and detailed accounts yet of the response of the American legal process to the demands of insurgent social groups; and especially how such process is used to harass them and break them up. Tijerina and the Courthouse Raid is a vivid and horrifying case study that precisely illustrates the points made as clearly but more abstractly in Jerome Skolnick’s The Politics of Protest. Nabokov’s book is even more valuable as sociology than as history, because it shows so clearly how things work, and on the basis of such carefully and quite literally painfully gathered evidence, both by observation and documentation.

Though Mr. Nabokov is presented on the dust jacket as “a young journalist and free lance writer who lives in California” who “at the time of the Courthouse Raid…was on the staff of the Santa Fe New Mexican” his presentation is better and more extensively annotated and more thoroughly indexed than works of formal scholarship usually are. Few sociologists, however, would have set off at dusk for a rendezvous with Tijerina at the end of a jolting mountain journey, through most of which he would be blindfolded and handcuffed, as Nabokov was. It is possible, and certainly understandable, that this experience may be responsible for a certain acerbity and skepticism in the tone of his comments on Tijerina, whom Nabokov perceives as excessively flamboyant and trapped in the postures he assumes, as well as being an exceptionally creative, courageous, and charismatic political leader.

Born on a mound of cotton sacks in a field near Fall City, Texas, on September 21, 1926, Tijerina,” Nabokov notes, “received his first insult from the Anglo world that very day. The infant who was later to champion the ‘new breed’ offspring of Spanish and Indian union—who coined the phrase ‘Brown Power’—was listed as ‘white’ on his Karnes County birth certificate.” The problem recurs; the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, addressing a group in Albuquerque preparing to set out on the Poor People’s March in 1968, “reached to clasp Tijerina’s hand, looking him full in the face. ‘My yellow brother,’ he proclaimed. Tijerina whispered to him, behind a cupped palm. ‘My brown brother,’ corrected Abernathy with an apologetic grin.’ ”

Mexican Americans often identify themselves as La Raza but they find their own ethnicity problematic. Of all the cultures conquered and shattered by invading Europeans, that of the Indians of Mexico was among the most difficult to dismiss as primitive even by the conqueror’s ethnocentric standards. When Cortez took Mexico, Fray Diego de Dorán, the chronicler of the expedition, reported the existence of, among other resources, libraries of magnificent religious and historical manuscripts which the Spanish attempted to destroy with almost total success—a few works survived, to be rediscovered later. But the Hispanic emphasis on machismo and dignity has blended with the quieter forms of Indian pride and courage to yield a style which seems especially dysfunctional for the militant poor when locked in prolonged combat with a bureaucratic adversary.

There is not even a proper, precise term for La Raza’s ethnicity; “Spanish-American” ignores the substantial Indian component of the heritage; “Mexican-American” excludes the specific reference to Iberian sources that the more pretentious members of the group still find honorific. And at their worst, members of La Raza can be very pretentious indeed; they seem to lack the saving grace, more often developed by blacks, of caustic and obscene irreverence, at least when taking a public position.

Interclass hostilities within La Raza also seem more bitter than among black Americans. Successful black businessmen and officials are unlikely to support black militants. But today they are quite likely to try to speak in the rhetoric of militancy, up to a point; and the lust of the black bourgeoisie for respectability, though doubtless still as keen as Franklin Frazier found it to be, does not lead its members to condemn and seek to destroy the militant black leadership as District Attorney Sanchez has sought to destroy Reies Tijerina and the rest of the Alianza’s leadership, or as the assimilated Mexican-American middle class of South Texas has sought to disown and stultify its poor brothers.

That this interclass hostility is the rule rather than the exception is made clear by Mr. Steiner’s book, which is much wider in scope than Mr. Nabokov’s, though written in a mechanical pseudo-paisan style and less brilliant in its perceptions. La Raza: The Mexican-Americans discusses not only the situation in New Mexico and the role of the Alianza and of Mr. Tijerina in its development, but the desperate plight—economic and political—of the Mexican-American agricultural worker in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and of Chicano youth in Los Angeles. Mr. Steiner gives a full account of the journey that led Cesar Chavez from the boyhood of a California migrant farmworker to the grape fields of Delano and far beyond.

I find Chavez the most interesting living American, since his peculiar style of greatness, which has consistently combined very high levels of saintliness, toughness, civility, and administrative skill, is supposed to have become impossible in the modern world, but evidently has not. Steiner offers a good introduction to Chavez, and also to the less distinguished but still remarkable Denver-based journalist and politician, Rudolph “Corky” Gonzales. Mr. Gonzales seems the most modern of the major contemporary Mexican-American leaders discussed in Mr. Steiner’s book, and the only one with an urban base and an urban style; and since Mexican Americans, like the rest of the poor, are rapidly becoming urbanized, he may become a powerful political leader, and a very effective addition to the general staff of the movement toward redistribution of wealth and power in America.

Robert Coles’s Uprooted Children is not about Mexican-Americans; the poor families in his account are either Louisiana blacks or not identified as to ethnicity and treated as merely and tragically human. Since many poor Mexican-Americans are also, of course, migrant farm workers, his observations are directly relevant to the lives and social conditions examined in Nabokov’s and Steiner’s work. But the indirect relevance is greater and more fundamental. All these books contribute to a thorough understanding of the dynamics, as well as the desolation, of poverty in the United States. Even at this relatively late stage in the development of the poverty industry in the United States, and the proliferation of ambitious and well-nurtured cadres who build their careers in it, these dynamics may be imperfectly understood.

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