When Elijah Mohammed met Reies Lopez Tijerina in the early 1960s, the Nation of Islam leader told the Northern New Mexico Chicanx revolutionary that he wanted God to erect "a pyramid with only the skulls of gringos." Mohammed hadn't yet dispatched underlings to murder his star disciple, Malcolm X, and Tijerina saw himself in a similar mold, as a "prince of the Hispanics" fighting gringo rule, according to an interview with him more than half a century later.
Tijerina's recounting of this memory from his deathbed at 88 years old in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, was one of his final moments alive, captured and featured in the bilingual film They Called Me King Tiger from director Ángel Estrada Soto. For this remarkably rare and revealing piece of filmmaking, Estrada Soto's documentary immediately earns a spot in the canon of classic historical filmmaking. Whatever you think of Tijerina, an outside agitator from Texas, this is a brilliantly made documentary.
Estrada Soto knocks it out of the park, searching out longtime residents of Northern New Mexico both inspired and destroyed by Tijerina's foolhardy efforts to take back land expropriated from Southwestern Hispanics by the US empire. His raid of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse, where his guerrilla group shot a prison guard and a sheriff's deputy, was his final desperate act, but Estrada Soto uses interviews to illustrate lesser-discussed events that preceded it. The film even features people still prominent in Rio Arriba County politics.
The confusion of Tijerina's mission stems from confusing racial politics. What white America always feared about Chicanx people was our mongrelization: semi-Europeans diluted with the impure blood of Indigenous Americans, Africans and others. Tijerina and his contemporaries responded to this racism by using the edicts of Spanish kings to stake roots to the land. Chicanx politics are more nuanced now, and this may be the only area where Estrada Soto could have spent more time.
But he excels in showing the long term consequences of Tijerina's narcissism. While some of the former police Tijerina battled have come around to his ideas 50 years later, his remaining family members—many of whom he enlisted into la causa as children—are now traumatized, bitter and broke. In spite of everything Tijerina fought for in his life, the final thing he remembers is the suffering he created, and the only thing left for the rebel to do is beg forgiveness
+Rare filmmaking excellence
–Needed closer look at Tijerina's politics
They Called Me King Tiger
Directed by Ángel Estrada Soto
Unitarian Universalist Congregation, NR, 90 min