TIERRA AMARILLA — On the side of the highway just a few miles south of this tiny mountain village in rural Northern New Mexico is an ominous handmade billboard with the image of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Painted in big, bold letters are the words “Tierra o Muerte,” Spanish for “land or death.”

The timeworn marker serves as a reminder of a century-old dispute over the ownership of the 600,000-acre Tierra Amarilla Land Grant and efforts by descendants of pioneer families to reclaim the land under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848 and promised that the property of Mexican citizens would be “inviolably respected.”

The battle over land grants in New Mexico exploded in a hail of bullets 50 years ago this week when angry followers of the now late activist and Chicano rights leader Reies López Tijerina stormed the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in a confrontation that generated national attention and resulted in the largest manhunt in New Mexico history.

The group set out to free fellow members of Tijerina’s La Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants), who had been arrested days earlier, as well as to make a citizen’s arrest of then-District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez, who they later discovered wasn’t at the courthouse. The raid left two law enforcement officers wounded, one of whom was killed before testifying in a case against Tijerina, who always maintained he had nothing to do with the still unsolved murder.

Five decades after the courthouse raid — a watershed moment in New Mexico history — the land grant movement has largely vanished from public view. But at least for an older generation, the emotions that drove the raid and the angst over the lost land are still raw.

“If you scratch the surface up there, there’s still hard feelings,” said Em Hall, an emeritus law professor at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, whose research and writing has focused on the history of land and water in the Southwest.

“There’s just not much going on right now that I know of, and I’m not sure the young people have picked up the cry,” Hall added. “It’s mostly the old-timers who are carrying that flag still.”

Among them is Moises Morales, who was 20 when he participated in the courthouse raid June 5, 1967.

“We have a valid existing right to these lands,” Morales, 70, said Thursday in an interview at the two-story courthouse. “We are native to this land like the trees and the rocks.”

Morales went on to serve as a Rio Arriba County commissioner and clerk.

In his book, The Tierra Amarilla Grant: A History of Chicanery, land grant expert and author Malcolm Ebright writes that Thomas B. Catron, a former U.S. attorney general for New Mexico and a member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, acquired the land grant but failed to purchase the interests of most of the settlers.

“Since 1874, Catron had been buying the interests of the family of Manuel Martinez, the successful petitioner for the grant,” Ebright wrote. “But the Martinez family did not own the grant. The grant was a community grant, which under Spanish law could not be sold.”

The protection afforded by the settlers’ hijuelas, or deeds, turned out to be illusory “when they were introduced in court almost one hundred years later,” Ebright wrote.

“Though not stated by the courts, the reason for rejecting the hijuelas was that they conflicted with the long established chain of title whose source was Thomas B. Catron,” he wrote.

The raid became the most visible symbol of a fight that has persisted for decades in Northern New Mexico, where most Hispanic land grant heirs had lost their claims over millions of acres by the turn of the 20th century because of lawyers, politicians and land speculators who took advantage of language barriers and complex tax and land title laws.

While the dispute over the ownership of the land continues, Robert Martinez, deputy state historian, said the courthouse raid 50 years ago has a multifaceted legacy.

“It kind of woke up a sleeping giant, which is the people of Northern New Mexico and the idea that we had land going back centuries that we no longer had,” he said.

“The raid caused a reawakening of the importance of land — the importance of having a culture rooted in land, language, religion and a government that represents you and doesn’t oppress you and steal from you,” Martinez told The New Mexican for a story that appeared Friday in Pasatiempo. “It was part of a bigger thing that was going on. It hit the national psyche. Revolution means going to what’s at the bottom and tossing it to the top and mixing things up. The courthouse raid did that.

Since the raid, only about 218 acres where the “Tierra o Muerte” sign stands have been reclaimed by self-described land grant heirs. In the late 1980s, the now deceased Amador Flores and other area residents maintained an armed camp for about 16 months after Flores claimed he had an ownership right to 500 acres under the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant.

“We built some Vietnam-type bunkers there, and then we put booby traps out on the bushes, there on the sagebrush,” said Pedro Archuleta, 71, who also camped on the property for 16 months.

“We dug quite a bit of holes, about two feet deep, and we buried dynamite with electrical detonators,” he said, adding that the issue was resolved after negotiations with an Arizona development company that also claimed ownership of the property and a push to avoid a repeat of the courthouse raid.

A Santa Fe judge ruled in favor of the Arizona investors, but Flores later received a settlement of 18 acres, and a group claiming to be the rightful heirs received an additional 200 acres.

The standoff, as well as the courthouse raid, weren’t the only times that area residents fought for land they claimed was theirs.

In June 1953, law enforcement officers dispersed more than 50 heavily armed men and “just barely stopped” what could have been a bloody new outbreak of the land grant feud, according to newspaper accounts.

Morales said the fight for land is far from over.

“I’ve been involved since I was a young man, and I took an oath that I was going to do this battle until I take my last breath,” said Morales, who has been meeting with other land grant activists behind the scenes with the goal of filing a class-action lawsuit against the federal government.

An effort to get the federal government to voluntarily intervene failed in 2009 when one of Tijerina’s daughters, Rosita Tijerina, and Andres Valdez, director of the community activist organization Vecinos United, sent a letter to former President Barack Obama asking for help in returning the land grant to its rightful owners.

“We were requesting a meeting to begin the process of giving back millions of acres of land that are still in possession of the federal government,” Valdez said. “We’re talking specifically about BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and national Forest Service lands. We said we want to begin negotiations so you can give us back the land that you stole from us. Those were Rosita Tijerina’s choice of words.”

According to Valdez, the White House agreed to a telephone conference call with land grant activists.

“A day had been picked. A time had been picked,” he said. “We called the White House and said, ‘We’re ready.’ They said, ‘OK, give us 10 minutes. We’ll call you back.’ They never did.”

Valdez, who said he’s an heir to the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, said he and Rosita Tijerina wanted to “test out” Obama to determine whether he was really “a people’s president.”

“When he was first elected, I had said, joking around, ‘Oh gosh, I’m so proud of Obama, first black president to represent corporate greed.’ Sure enough, I think that’s what he ended up being. Unfortunately, he chose the side of corporate greed, the establishment, that ‘Yeah, we did steal your land. So what of it?’ ”

Much of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant property is in private hands, but an estimated 60,000 acres are under the control of the federal government.

Morales said the Tierra Amarilla grant was taken by a “ring of thieves, of corruption in our judicial system.”

“Legally, these lands are ours,” Morales said. “But we’ve been denied due process since the beginning of time.”

In 2004, the U.S. General Accounting Office, now known as the Government Accountability Office, concluded that the Constitution’s procedural due process requirements “were satisfied,” though it acknowledged in its 200-page report that the processes “were inefficient and created hardship for many grantees.” The agency assists Congress with its investigations.

In an interview, Ebright, the land-grant expert and author, called the report a “whitewash.”

“You could almost predict that that’s what they would say,” he said. “I think pretty much people have realized that they’re not going to get redress from anybody.”

Jose Belarmino Archuleta, twin brother of Pedro Archuleta, said he hasn’t given up hope.

“It was stolen from us through fraud,” he said. It’s never too late for land grant heirs to reclaim the land, he added. “The government knows it’s not too late.”

Robert Archuleta, 72, said the land should revert to the descendants of the pioneering families, but it’s unlikely to happen.

“People already bought the property,” he said. “They’re not going to walk away just because they tell them.”

At the time of the courthouse raid in Tierra Amarilla, Robert Archuleta worked at the Chama Land and Cattle Co.

“They told us that they might burn the barns down in Chama Land, so our boss told us, ‘You better stay overnight and take care of the barns,’ ” Robert Archuleta recalled. “But me and a friend of mine, Joe Martinez, we took off to Pagosa Springs [Colo.]. We rented a room over there. We didn’t want to be involved with it, so we disappeared to Pagosa Springs.”

Walking through the halls of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse, Morales said he remembers the raid vividly.

“The memories come back to the same day, to June 5, 1967, every time I come around here,” he said.

“One of the jailers that was in one of these rooms started shooting out across the door. That’s when people got mad and then [state police Officer] Nick Saiz drew the gun at Juan Valdez, and Juan drew back and shot him,” Morales recalled.

Although there have been questions about whether or not Tijerina participated in the raid, Morales said Tijerina was outside the courthouse.

About three months before Tijerina died at age 88 in January 2015, Morales said Tijerina and others gathered outside the courthouse again.

Tijerina, a former preacher who had been dubbed “King Tiger” by the media, told the group he was old and getting tired, Morales said.

“One of these days I’m going to go,” Tijerina said, according to Morales. “But God is going to bless you and your people that want to continue this fight.”

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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