On a rainy Monday afternoon, visiting professor Simón Trujillo gave a lecture to UConn students about the history of land grant struggle in New Mexico. Professor Trujillo is an assistant professor of English at New York University and is currently writing a book about the cultural production of the New Mexican land grant reclamation movement, La Alianza Federal de Mercedes. La Alianza was a group led by Reies Tijerina based in New Mexico in the 1960s, who mounted a controversial campaign from the reclamation of Spanish and Mexican land grants lost in the wake of the Mexican-American War 1846 – 1848.
Professor Trujillo’s lecture and upcoming book focuses on two literary texts as vehicles for the study of the land grant struggle – acclaimed Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1991 novel “Alamanac” and La Alianza’s leader Reies Tijerina’s autobiography “They Called Me King Tiger,” published in 2000. Trujillo explained to us how he used the two books in tandem to illuminate the work of La Alianza. Trujillo’s insight that “words have no owners, only speakers” was particularly pertinent. As an English professor, Trujillo’s work focuses closely on language and attempting to isolate the words and concepts expressed in texts from the person who wrote them.
Silko’s novel features the central of idea of almanac designed to unite all tribal peoples against European domination. For Trujillo, the concept of the almanac is both timeless and of its time. He explained the almanac is a living organism, which articulates timeworn visions of Native American revolution in the present context. Trujillo said that he used this idea planted in Silko’s work to analyse Tijerina’s autobiography. According to Trujillo there is a “dirth of critical attention” paid to the text, perhaps in part owing to Tijerna’s anti-Semitic crusade in his later life. This links back to Trujillo’s prior statement that words cannot be owned, and researchers shouldn’t seek to merely examine Tijerina the person through his work. Trujillo advocated resituating Tijerina from an author to a subject of his own text, to better shed light on the Chicano movement and importance of its dynamic leader.
One of the most interesting aspects of Professor Trujillo’s lecture was how he brought the New Mexican land grants issue into a broader historical narrative. Will Bryant, an exchange student from the University of Glasgow, described the lecture as “invigorating” as it “brought a local issue into an international context.” Trujillo related the land grant struggle to the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. He argued that the movements were closely linked, as there was a shared understanding that African and Mexican activists were united in their struggle against institutionalized racism. For instance, activists agreed to support each other and not to slander each other in the press.
The issue of institutionalized racism is of course, very topical at present, with the recent Black Lives Matter campaigns across the U.S. and the rest of the world. During the questions section, Trujillo mentioned having met Tijerina himself during their interaction Tijerina used an anecdote about the most important card in a deck being the joker. When Trujillo asked why this was the case, Tijerina told him that it was because the joker could be anything you wanted it to be. Trujillo used this anecdote to explain Tijerina’s role as a master strategist, who was willing to do whatever was necessary to pursue his cause. For instance, when the New Mexican police came to investigate Tijerina about his role La Alianza, he claimed the organization had been disbanded and he did not lead it, instead there was a new organization. Perhaps this kind of strategizing will be adopted by modern social justice campaigners, for issues such as feminism and the Black Lives Matter movements.
There is also a workshop taking place on Tuesday September 20th at 9:30 a.m. to discuss the introductory chapter of Professor Trujillo’s new book. All interested parties should contact Professor Jason Chang.
Laura Nash is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.