It is summer and that always makes me think of how violence tends to occur when it’s hot. The storming of the Bastille immediately comes to mind, and so do the Whisky Rebellion and . Spike Lee’s more modern take on race riots – Do the Right Thing – happens on a hot day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York. For many, taking the Rio Arriba courthouse in northern New Mexico is probably not so memorable but it raises a lot of issues about the nature of violence and morality.
New Mexico joined the US through conquest. As a result of the Mexican-American War, General Kearny marched into the territory and annexed it. The previous rights of Spanish-era land ownership were often ignored and many in the region lost their lands through typical white-man chicanery. Over a century later there was the rise of the Chicano movement, and part of it consisted of radicals who wanted to retake the land, by force if necessary.
One such group was called ‘Alianza’ and they were organized to attempt to retake northern New Mexican land for those considered the rightful heirs to it. After a number of them were arrested, those not in jail stormed the Rio Arriba county courthouse in Tierra Amarilla to liberate those incarcerated and make a citizen’s arrest on the District Attorney for violating the rights of the citizens of the country. Numerous law enforcement agencies were alerted and stormed the courthouse, guns blazing and while they retook the courthouse, the leader of the movement, Reies Tijerino, escaped. He later turned himself in, faced criminal charges and was imprisoned. This turn of events galvanized the movement, even though men were killed and wounded.
To this day there is support for Tijerino; the Brown Berets stand guard over him when he appears in public, protecting him from real or percieved ills.
We tend to see radical movements as historically distant, but they continue to exist, appealing to those disenfranchised. We may often see the paramilitary groups of 1930s Europe as almost quaintly historical, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world.
This is an important concept to put forth to students – especially in the western world – who see such movements as past tense only. This is yet another place where history is anything but that.