- King Tiger: The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina
Reies López Tijerina is acclaimed in Chicano history as a leading movement activist of the 1960s in the company of other renowned figures like César Chávez, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzáles, and José Angel Gutiérrez. He is especially remembered for his efforts to reclaim Hispano land grants in New Mexico through the organization he founded in 1963, the Alianza Federal de Mercedes Reales. His 1967 armed raid on the Tierra Amarilla County courthouse in a failed attempt to arrest district attorney Alfonso Sánchez has frequently been deemed the defining moment of his life and a turning point in Chicano history.
Rudy Busto's superb study transcends the historical gaze on Tijerina as an armed revolutionary. He explores numerous virtually unexamined and widely unknown elements of Tijerina's life: his conversion from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostalism, training in an Assemblies of God Bible institute near San Antonio; years as an itinerant preacher; establishment of a utopian community in the Arizona desert during the mid-1950s; and, after his 1960s political activism and harrowing imprisonment in a federal psychiatric ward, his formulations of biblically literalist, premillennial, anti-institutional, cosmic, and at times anti-Semitic views of Spanish-descent peoples in the Southwest and the Americas.
Busto draws on interviews, secondary literature, and select speeches, correspondence, open letters, newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and other writings of Tijerina himself, especially his collection of published sermons Hallará fe en la tierra (1954) and his often overlooked memoir Mi lucha por la tierra (1978). Busto sheds significant light on the complexities of Tijerina, cogently arguing that his life is best examined through three primary lenses: his religious world view accentuating the importance of dreams, visions, and the miraculous; his [End Page 435] shifting analyses on race rooted in his struggles for Hispano/Chicano justice; and his literalist readings of texts from the Bible to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the Spanish Laws of the Indies.
As Busto himself admits, his "interpretation is only a beginning" (p. 10) and a fuller biographical analysis of Tijerina remains an ongoing challenge. In particular, Busto's heavy reliance on Tijerina's writings could be complemented with a more detailed examination of other primary sources, though some of these materials are not yet available to researchers such as prison and FBI records. Still, the treatment offered in King Tiger vividly illuminates "the intense power of Tijerina's charisma" (p. 136), which defies easy characterization. We hear of how Tijerina's devoutly Catholic mother frequently asked him to recount a "death dream" he had at the age of four or five (p. 38); his decisions on several occasions as a young preacher to "give away all of his possessions" in obedience to Christ's commands (p. 42); his search for enlightenment as a hermit in a cave near El Monte, California; his decision to return to Catholicism so he could gain the trust of New Mexican Catholics in his land grant activism; his conversations with noteworthy figures like former Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad; his depiction as "The Most Hated Man in New Mexico" in a 1960s NBC documentary and his acclaim four decades later in the Albuquerque Journal as "the most influential person in New Mexico history" (p. 76).
Tijerina, now eighty years old, continues to develop his vision and await the coming fulfillment of a divine plan for justice that he is confident will favor the dispossessed. King Tiger does not (nor could it) resolve the mystery of his life, but it makes an unparalleled contribution toward understanding a number of the strands which make Tijerina's ideas, convictions, and historical contribution such fascinating subjects.