He Said, She Said: Uncovering Family Trauma through Oral History in New Mexico’s Land-Grant Movement

Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM
Centennial Ballroom A (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Lorena Oropeza, University of California, Davis
This presentation examines the relationship between trauma and political leadership as revealed through oral history interviews. Specifically, it explores the ethical implications and methodological challenges of uncovering a pattern of family trauma while conducting oral history interviews with Reies López Tijerina as well as his first wife and two daughters. Best known for leading an armed raid on a county courthouse in 1967, Tijerina was the founder of La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, a group dedicated to recovering land once owned by Spanish-speakers in the region. The vast majority of nuevomexicano land holdings quickly became the property of American citizens or the U.S. government after 1848 though legal and extra-legal means. After spending nearly a decade trying to seek redress about land-grant matters, Tijerina gained instant activist credentials beyond New Mexico as a result of the raid. To many participants in the Chicano movement especially, he was a hero.

Since then, however, scholars have struggled to explain Tijerina’s significance and his style of leadership. Was he inspired or dangerous naïve? Was he a brilliant tactician or a deluded extremist? Even at the height of his popularity, Tijerina tended to inspire people and repulse them in equal measure.

While oral history interviews conducted with Tijerina family members provide new information about the man but also raise ethical dilemmas in that they contain allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Under what circumstances is this trauma a part of the story?  How does the historian move beyond conflicting accounts? How does the historian reconcile a desire to know what happened with the fragile and malleable nature of memory itself? The presentation concludes by arguing that the utility of oral history remains – and indeed may be compounded – under the messiest of circumstances.

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