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the occupation of the amphitheater a year earlier, and sentenced to two years imprisonment; last June his appeal bond was revoked and he was jailed.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.
Uprooted Children is an extended essay based on a lecture given at the School of Education of the University of Pittsburgh; it will form a major part of the second volume of a trilogy called—as the first volume is—Children of Crisis. The title is misleading. What concerns Dr. Coles is evidently no crisis but a pattern of misery endemic to the very structure of the American economy and wholly functional within it. These poor are trapped in a system that does not merely exploit them but depends on their vulnerability and low status to validate its system of rewards and maintain the self-esteem of the slightly more successful.
A highly productive society in which the richer members exploited the poorer for the purpose of gaining some genuine satisfaction might nevertheless be humane and decent, though inequitable—if even the lowest standard of living provided comfort and a secure and honorable niche in the social scheme. But a competitive, open society, like ours, seems politically unable to do this even when it has the wealth. There are too many Americans who are rich only in the poverty of others. Uprooted Children is Dr. Coles’s account of the process by which the migrant poor are made into something the working and middle classes can feel superior to; when we consider how little of the price of food on the supermarket shelves depends on farm costs, relative to packaging, distribution, and merchandising, the lives of these children do not even make farm-produce more than a penny or two a pound cheaper in the market place.
As the first volume of Children of Crisis showed nobody else knows about children as precisely and movingly as Robert Coles; he writes rather as Dante might have if he too had been a psychiatrist. I still do not understand how he could have learned what he relates here. His informants are members of families whom he first met early in his extended career tending the medical and emotional needs, so far as he could, of civil-rights workers in the South; and he continued to move about with, listen to, and retain the confidence of some of these families, and especially of their children, for years.
But how could he have protected such a fragile network of relationships spun at such tension across such an economic and cultural gap? The case of the superficially similar situation faced by Oscar Lewis is easier to understand. His Mexican and Puerto Rican informants were not migrants, and the Sanchezes, at least—except for Roberto—were such unpleasant people that they could hardly have realized how awful they were—they would no more have known what to conceal about themselves than Jacqueline Onassis does. But Coles’s children are exquisite in their perceptions of their own plight, their almost infinite patience, and their ghastly realism when it finally breaks. One mother reports:
Now, they’ll come back at me, oh do they, with first one question and then another, until I don’t know what to say, and I tell them to stop. Sometimes I have to hit them, yes sir, I’ll admit it. They’ll be asking why, why, why, and I don’t have the answers and I’m tired out, and I figure sooner or later they’ll have to stop asking and just be glad they’re alive. Once I told my girl that, and then she said we wasn’t alive and we was dead, and I thought she was trying to be funny, but she wasn’t, and she started crying. Then I told her she was being foolish, and of course we’re alive, and she said that all we do is move and move, and most of the time she’s not sure where we’re going to be and if there’ll be enough to eat. That’s true, but you’re still alive, I said to her, and so am I.
For what it’s worth; and what it costs is more than it’s worth, as Dr. Coles concludes with bitter precision:
There is, though, the misery; and it cannot be denied its importance, because not only bodies but minds suffer out of hunger and untreated illness; and that kind of psychological suffering also needs to be documented. Nor can an observer like me allow his shame and guilt and horror and outrage and sympathy and pity and compassion to turn exhausted, careworn, suffering people into brave and honorable and courageous fighters, into heroes of sorts, who, though badly down on their luck, nevertheless manage to win out, at least spiritually and psychologically. I fear that rather another kind of applause is in order, the kind that celebrates the struggle that a doomed man nevertheless tries to make. I fear that migrant parents and even migrant children do indeed become what some of their harshest and least forgiving critics call them: listless, apathetic, hard to understand, disorderly, subject to outbursts of self-injury and destructive violence toward others, and on and on.
I fear that it is no small thing, a disaster almost beyond repair, when children grow up, literally, adrift the land, when they earn as a birthright the disorder and early sorrow that goes with virtual peonage, with an unsettled, vagabond life. In other words, I fear I am talking about millions of psychological catastrophes, the nature of which has also been spelled out to me by migrant parents and migrant children.
This is a most important conclusion as applied to the effects of poverty in industrial societies generally. Poverty is degrading; and there is no occasion whatever to extol its victims as models. The revolutionary rhetoric that cries “Power to the People!” as a basis for improving the quality of life in America seems willfully to ignore the effects of hardship and insecurity that have led to the condemnation of our social system in the first place. Poliomyelitis, at least, has now been eliminated; but if we had sought to eliminate it in the prevailing spirit of our attacks on poverty we would all, I suspect, be pushing one another around in wheelchairs in order to demonstrate our identification with its victims; while genuine polio victims were sought out and worshipped for their putative political virtues.
The fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt was, indeed, a polio victim and disinclined to cherish its ravages may be all that spared us this; about the effects of oblivion on “the forgotten man” he knew less. The admonition to hate poverty but love the poor seems to me profoundly irrational, and heavily burdened with Ressentiment. Poverty is hateful, precisely, because it makes people unlovable; if it did not it would be no more than a source of serious discomfort. Severe poverty in America, as the little girl in Coles’s tragic anecdote rightly insisted, is a living death; and there is a difference, or used to be, between socialism and necrophilia.
The Mexican-American poor of Northern New Mexico are not migrants; and though desperate in their poverty have so far been spared the profound psychological damage of uprooting. Unless the Alianza and its supporters prevail, they may not be spared this much longer. They have survived so far because the state of New Mexico has been slightly less ruthless than most of the Southwest in dishonoring the land-titles guaranteed by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
Most Mexican-American holdings have nevertheless been alienated by Anglo chicanery, fraud, and the defacing of records, some of which an earlier state government consigned to outhouses, to be gradually buried under shit. But the uncertainty that led the state to prefer chicanery to seizure had also greatly slowed the pace of development. Outside the cities of Albuquerque and Los Alamos, where clear titles have become established by usage and eminent domain, respectively, uncertainty of land tenure has made mortgage-money very hard to come by in Northern New Mexico, and has left rural farmers comparatively free of the ravages of development.
Their most damaging oppressor at present is the US National Forest Service which has been and is pursuing a policy of increasingly restricting grazing in huge tracts now being developed as middle-class recreation areas. Ranchers are further restricted by being punished like schoolchildren; the Forest Service cuts down the ranchers’ grazing permit for each head of cattle that wanders off to graze without permission. The Forest Service may be the only political entity in the whole world that busts steers for possession of grass.
The occupation of the campground in Kit Carson National Forest that touched off the series of ensuing hostilities between Mr. Tijerina and the state and federal governments is entirely understandable—indeed, perhaps inevitable—as an expression of the rage such destructive paternalism evokes from a people not only proud but self-conscious about their pride, and now more alert and sensitive to threats to their dignity than they were earlier in responding to threats to their economic rights.
The situation has moreover been made much worse by the actions of a state governor, David Cargo, who must be more infuriating to La Raza even than General John Pershing Jolly. Governor Cargo is a liberal who, contrary to local custom, campaigned very actively for the Mexican-American support which helped to elect him; his wife who is Mexican-American was a dues-paying member of the Alianza during 1966. Throughout the growing crisis in relations between the state and the Alianza he has maintained a course so lacking in candor and resolution that neither side can trust him at all. During the mass arrests at the Coyote stakeout that led to the courthouse raid, Cargo flew off to Michigan; among the unfortunate consequences of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid was the rescheduling of a Republican fund-raising dinner at which he was to have appeared with Governor Romney, to permit him to hasten back in a Michigan National Guard jet training plane.
“The red tape involved in clearing the loan of the plane,” Nabokov notes, “made Cargo’s flight home take longer than if he had boarded a commercial plane.” After Nabokov’s meeting with Tijerina, District Attorney Sanchez, who at least has the virtues of dedication, entered the Governor’s office and threatened to charge him with “aiding and abetting” Tijerina’s flight, though he never formally did so. Of this charge, Governor Cargo is surely innocent.
The tone of his response, quoted by Nabokov, to newsmen who were asking about his wife’s membership in the Alianza is suggestive: “On my Scout’s honor, my wife is seven months pregnant and she did not anticipate the Tierra Amarilla raid.”
This is not exactly what Mexican-Americans mean by machismo. La Raza must often feel as if it were not they who had become rootless migrants, but America and its leadership. Its defensive response, like that of the migrant children though in far less degree, is to become less noble and generous-spirited. El Grito del Norte—The Shriek of the North, “A Cry for Justice in Northern New Mexico”—the sprightly, approximately fortnightly semi-official newspaper of the Alianza, has recently been much preoccupied with hostility to hippies and longhairs, an attitude it does not exactly share but which is too strongly felt by too many of La Raza to be disavowed.
The same uncertainty of land-tenure which forms the basis of the Alianza’s legal challenge and delays the commercial development of the area has combined with its scenic beauty and the romantic attractions of La Raza and its culture to make Northern New Mexico exceptionally alluring to hippies, as it was to D. H. and Frieda Lawrence and Mabel Dodge Luhan, who made Taos a legend to the groovier members of an earlier generation. Alluring, yes; but not, as El Grito makes clear, inviting. It prints frequent letters from readers that might have been written by the enragés of South Buffalo, or the senior citizens of Whittier, California, including such as have been called to a higher station. I was particularly struck by the observations of Mrs. Josie Archuleta, of Fairview, New Mexico, a schoolteacher for thirty-two years, “a mother and housewife,” printed in El Grito for July 6, 1969:
Teachers and parents who have dedicated their lives to better our young do realize that hippies are human, but we do not approve their way of life. They are leading the life of the cave man. Is this decent? Hitch-hiking is no crime for anyone. Christ walked all the time, but he was clean and well-covered.
Long hair is beautiful provided it is clean and well-combed, otherwise it looks and smells like a mophead.
Yes, we all want love and peace whether we are rich or poor, young or old, yet who wants contaminated love?
Who, indeed? Yet, contaminated love is the only kind there is, among La Raza or anyone else, regardless of their race or religion. On the strength of Mrs. Archuleta’s comments and many others in similar vein, El Grito carries in the same issue a full-page editorial headed “Newcomers and Old Struggles”; “a message to the Hippies, or Longhairs, especially those who are thinking about coming to New Mexico. It is a message offered in a spirit of humanity and truth-telling.” The message is very clear. El Grito says, in block letters, though in sympathetic tone, “PLEASE DON’T COME…. The longhair has opted out. Most of the Chicanos and Indians have no option—except revolution. People here cannot flee to islands of peace in a nation of horrors, this is their nation. It cannot be said too often; there is a long, hard political and economic struggle in these beautiful mountains, a struggle for land and justice. That struggle calls for fighters and supporters, not refugees with their own set of problems. You may see the scenery and relief from an oppressive America. We see a battleground against oppression…. If you think, you won’t come. Not now. And when you do come, come as a revolutionary.”
But Mrs. Archuleta doesn’t sound like a revolutionary; she sounds like what she is: a schoolteacher. Reies Tijerina sometimes sounds like a revolutionary—and sometimes like a refugee with his own set of problems. David Cargo sounds like nothing at all; thus, he, too, is perhaps true to himself, after his fashion. Under the circumstances, however, “PLEASE DON’T COME” does sound like good advice. Or one might ask, in a phrase that perforce became familiar to my generation in its youth, “Is this trip really necessary?”
December 18, 1969