Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 11

November 2012

A Conversation with Josue David Cisneros

In this issue, Public Address Division member Josue David Cisneros discusses his study of a speech given by Reies López Tijerina, the founder and leader of La Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants). The Alianza was founded in 1963 to advocate for poor, dispossessed, and rural New Mexicans, many of whom had claim to Spanish and Mexican land grants that dated before the Mexican American War. From the Alianza’s founding to its dissolution in the early 1970s, the group agitated for the return of land and cultural rights to Chican@s through a multimedia rhetorical campaign involving public speeches, newspapers, local radio programs, public letters to government officials, marches, protests, confrontational activities, and even violence. The speech under consideration here, known as “The Land Grant Question,” was delivered on 26 November 1967 at the University of Colorado at Denver during a national speaking tour by Tijerina. A large portion of the speech has been anthologized in Josh Gottheimer’s Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003), 306–14. The full transcription discussed herein is available in Robert Tice’s unpublished manuscript “The Rhetoric of La Raza,” 1971, Hayden Library, Arizona State University, Tempe.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

Tijerina’s speech is historically compelling, and it can also illuminate theoretical questions, such as how situated agency and identity are rhetorically enacted through public address.

I was originally drawn to Tijerina’s rhetoric, and to the Alianza movement as a whole, out of historical interest. Although Tijerina and the Alianza are considered to have been profoundly influential in the Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s, I was struck by the fact that, with a few exceptions, their rhetoric had been largely overlooked by public address scholars. My interest was magnified when I encountered very different portrayals of Tijerina in scholarly and biographical sources. Some scholars characterized Tijerina and the Alianza movement as radical, confrontational, and even separatist, while other sources portrayed them as conservative and integrationist.

One reason why “The Land Grant Question” is compelling is that it places these tensions into stark relief in a single text. In the speech, Tijerina moved between legal and moral appeals for the civil rights of Mexican American citizens on the one hand, and radical and confrontational discourse of racial/ethnic nationalism and separatism on the other. At times, Tijerina referred to Chican@s as “American citizens” and framed the Alianza as a movement for constitutional rights and full inclusion. At other times (and sometimes even at once), Tijerina argued that Chican@s (and Latin@s more broadly) were a “new breed,” a race and nation subjugated by Anglo-American imperialism and struggling for separate, collective identity. In parts of the speech, Tijerina maligned “evil” Anglo-Americans, who were perpetrating “crimes” and “violence” against Mexican Americans, and called for a struggle for collective liberation. At other times, Tijerina chalked up the oppression experienced by Mexican Americans to misunderstanding or ignorance and invited Anglo-Americans to join in the Alianza’s struggle for full rights and integration. In fact, several of Tijerina’s rhetorical strategies and appeals integrated and held in tension these competing arguments. Although at times the speech seemed contradictory, much of the rhetorical force of “The Land Grant Question” stemmed from the contextual enactment and negotiation of these conflicting themes. What Tijerina’s speech demonstrates (and what a broader analysis of the Alianza movement substantiates) is that interpretations of the movement as radical and as integrationist are both justified, yet neither is sufficient. “The Land Grant Question” straddled, stretched, and traversed these tensions to appeal to multiple audiences and to negotiate the exigencies and constraints of the situation. Both Tijerina’s radical pronouncements and his appeals to civil rights were integral to his rhetoric and to the larger movement.

Furthermore, “The Land Grant Question” shows how Tijerina and the Alianza worked in, from, and through these tensions and contradictions to enact multiple identities and forms of agency for the movement. This connects to recent theoretical scholarship on agency in rhetorical studies, which focuses on how rhetors enact concrete, contextual, and contingent forms of rhetorical agency. “The Land Grant Question” evinces what I refer to as border identity and agency because it embraced, challenged, and integrated the tensions and multiple worlds of the border(lands).

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

I think that two contexts are particularly important for understanding “The Land Grant Question.” The first is the immediate historical context of the speech, which was delivered just five months after the Alianza’s most (in)famous action, the courthouse raid at Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, on 5 June 1967. Tijerina and Alianza members stormed the federal courthouse in Tierra Amarilla to free a group of jailed activists and to perform a citizen’s arrest on the New Mexico District Attorney, for what the Alianza argued was his illegal arrests of Mexican Americans and violation of their rights. During the courthouse raid, armed Alianza members clashed with police, a shootout ensued, and two government officials were wounded and two others were taken hostage in the Alianza’s escape. Media coverage of the events catapulted Tijerina and the Alianza into the national spotlight, portraying them as revolutionaries. “The Land Grant Question” was one of many speeches Tijerina delivered during 1967 to capitalize on the publicity of the courthouse raid and to explain the movement.

With this background in mind, Tijerina’s oscillation between radical and integrationist rhetorics is more significant, because at times his speech drew on the tenor of the courthouse raid to paint the Alianza as part of a revolutionary vanguard overtaking Anglo-America, and at other times Tijerina attenuated the courthouse raid by arguing that the Alianza was really a peaceful movement for rights and integration and that any contrary notion was a distortion. The broader trajectory of the Alianza movement, including the courthouse raid itself, also demonstrated this negotiation of multiple forms of identity and agency.

A second important context to consider is that of Mexican American rhetoric. Mexican Americans and Chican@s have historically encountered a number of racial, cultural, national, and colonial borders, from the forcible takeover and incorporation of what is now the U.S. Southwest during the Mexican American War to the assimilation and/or othering faced by Mexican American citizens throughout the twentieth century, to the racially and culturally charged debates about Mexican immigration. For this reason, communication scholars have used the border or borderlands as a metaphor to describe the ambivalence and displacement characterizing Mexican American communication. In this sense, Tijerina’s speech demonstrates how these historical and cultural contexts provided inventional resources for the crafting of a border rhetoric that embraced ambivalence and displacement as forms of identity and agency.

How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

My critical approach to this particular speech consisted of close reading of the text in relation to its historical and cultural contexts. This approach allowed me to place the meaning and significance of Tijerina’s speech in a new light by considering how his supposedly contradictory rhetorical strategies contributed to the overall effectivity of the speech. I also consider this project a study of what Michelle Holling and Bernadette Calafell call Latin@ vernacular discourses, or discourses that emanate from Latin@ vernacular communities and that negotiate with mainstream U.S. society. This approach involves (re)discovering and (re)examining Latin@ vernacular discourses and the insights that they provide about rhetoric, culture, and identity.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

I think that Tijerina’s speech could be useful in a number of classes. In my public speaking class, for instance, I sometimes assign Tijerina’s speech as one of several examples of social protest rhetoric to aid my students in preparing their own protest speeches. By analyzing Tijerina’s speech and comparing it to other protest speeches of the 1960s and 1970s such as those from Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Mario Savio, or Harvey Milk, my students learn about the rhetorical strategies of protest rhetoric and the importance of the rhetorical situation in adapting these strategies. Tijerina’s speech could also be useful in a rhetorical criticism class as an example of constitutive rhetoric or as a case study in identity, culture, and rhetoric. In addition, the speech could be useful in a social movement or public address course as a way to introduce the Alianza and the broader Chicano movements of the time period.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

A more detailed discussion can be found in Josue David Cisneros, “Reclaiming the Rhetoric of Reies López Tijerina: Border Identity and Agency in ‘The Land Grant Question,’” Communication Quarterly, forthcoming in 2012. A broad overview of the Alianza movement and Tijerina’s rhetoric can be found in chapter 1 of John C. Hammerback, Richard J. Jensen, and Jose A. Guttierez, A War of Words: Chicano Protest in the 1960s and 1970s (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). Finally, for an explanation of Latin@ vernacular discourse as well as studies of Latin@ and Mexican American cultural rhetorics, see the essays in Michelle A. Holling and Bernadette M. Calafell, eds., Latina/o Discourse in Vernacular Spaces: Somos de Una Voz? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011).

Contributor: Josue David Cisneros is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. His research and teaching explore the relationships between rhetoric and social identity in U.S. public culture, especially with regard to race, immigration, and citizenship. His research has appeared in journals such as Argumentation and Advocacy, the Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Rhetoric and Public Affairs. His book “The Border Crossed Us”: Vernacular Rhetorics of Borders, Citizenship, and Latin@ Identity is under contract with the University of Alabama Press. He is a recipient of the Robert G. Gunderson Award (2007) and the Wrage-Baskerville Award (2012) from NCA’s Public Address Division.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.


Vibrant Voices, Vol. 1, No. 11

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