Due to their proportion of the population, Nuevos Mexicanos were able to maintain their power and influence in the territory of New Mexico after the Civil War, unlike Mexican Americans in California and Texas who were outnumbered by Anglo Americans and faced with violence and dispossession.
However, once the railroad came through New Mexico in 1878 an increased number of Anglo ranchers came to the territory. They used barbed wire to fence off land that was held in common for the community under the Las Vegas land grant recognized by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This impacted small farmers and ranchers that used the common land to graze their stock. Hence the saying “with barbed wire, came hunger.”
Three brothers, Juan José, Pablo, and Nicanor Herrera, organized resistance in February 1889 to protect half a million acres of land from encroachment by cattle ranchers. They called themselves Las Gorras Blancas or the “white caps,” after the hoods they wore to hide their identity. The group may have had a membership of up to 1,000 men. The group tore up railroad tracks, burned buildings, and cut barbed wire to reclaim common lands.
In November of 1889, the Herrera brothers were arrested. Due to widespread community support of their actions, the charges were dropped. In the fall of 1890, a number of suspected White Caps, including Juan Jose Herrera, joined el Partido del Pueblo Unido (or the People’s Party). During the fall elections, the entire slate of el Partido candidates was elected, including Juan Jose as Probate Judge and his brother Pablo Herrera to the Territorial legislature.
Pablo Herrera left the legislature after one term, convinced radical reform could not be achieved there. He returned to San Miguel County to reorganize Las Gorras Blancas, but was shot and killed by the local sheriff’s brother. By the summer of 1891 Las Gorras Blancas had dissolved. Despite its short tenure, Las Gorras Blancas is heralded as a populist movement that resisted the confiscation of common lands and the exploitation of natural resources for the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.
The Proclamation or Platform of Las Gorras Blancas, published on March 12, 1890, stated:
Not wishing to be misunderstood, we hereby make this our declaration.
Our purpose is to protect the rights and interests of the people in general; especially those of the helpless classes.
We want the Las Vegas Grant settled to the benefit of all concerned, and this we hold is the entire community within the grant.
We want no “land grabbers” or obstructionists of any sort to interfere. We will watch them.
We are not down on lawyers as a class, but the usual knavery and unfair treatment of the people must be stopped.
Our judiciary hereafter must understand that we will sustain it only when “Justice” is its watchword.
The practice of “double-dealing” must cease.
There is a wide difference between New Mexico’s “law” and “justice.” And justice is God’s law, and that we must have at all hazards.
We are down on race issues, and will watch race agitators. We are all human brethren, under the same glorious flag.
We favor irrigation enterprises, but will fight any scheme that tends to monopolize the supply of water courses to the detriment of residents living on lands watered by the same streams.
We favor all enterprises, but object to corrupt methods to further the same.
We do not care how much you get so long as you do it fairly and honestly.
The People are suffering from the effects of partisan “bossism” and these bosses had better quietly hold their peace. The people have been persecuted and hacked about in every which way to satisfy their caprice. If they persist in their usual methods retribution will be their reward.
We are watching “political informers.”
We have no grudge against any person in particular, but we are the enemies of bulldozers and tyrants.
We must have a free ballot and a fair count. and the will of the majority shall be respected.
Intimidation and the “indictment” plan have no further fears for us. If the old system should continue, death would be a relief to our sufferings. And for our rights our lives are the least we can pledge.
If the fact that we are law abiding citizens is questioned, come out to our homes and see the hunger and desolation we are suffering; and “this” is the result of the deceitful and corrupt methods of “bossism.”
Be fair and just and we are with you, do otherwise and take the consequences.
The White Caps, 1,500 Strong and Growing Daily
From: Proclamation of Las Gorras Blancas, Las Vegas Daily Optic, March 12, 1890.
Video: The People’s History of El Norte (Mural Panel 5, painted by over 300 youth and community volunteers at Robertson and West Las Vegas high schools in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Casa de Cultura)
San Miguel County and the Gorras Blancas by David Correia, New Mexico History State Records Center and Archives
Speech by Felix Martínez regarding land and Las Gorras Blancas, in the Las Vegas Daily Optic, August 18, 1890
This entry prepared by Tiferet Ani, high school social studies teacher and instructional specialist in Montgomery County, Maryland. Ani is also the co-facilitator of the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice middle and high school people’s history curriculum working group.