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Alamo

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The Alamo, located in the heart of the city of San Antonio, Texas, is one of the most recognized symbols and most visited historic sites in the world. Between four and five million people per year pass through the partially restored ruins of the mission of San Antonio de Valero, which was founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1718. Labeled by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas— legal caretakers of the Alamo since 1905—as the “Shrine and Cradle of Texas Liberty” (Brear, p. 1), the Alamo has also been branded as “America’s premier white identity shrine” (Gable 1995, p. 1061). Each of these descriptions derives from the complex history of the site and its relation to the evolving society in which it is embedded.

Abandoned by the Franciscans in the 1790s, the old mission acquired its current name early in the nineteenth century, after it became the headquarters of a company of Spanish soldiers from the Mexican city of Álamo de Parras. Some historians claim, however, that the name came from nearby stands of cottonwood— álamo in Spanish.

Though not designed as a fortress, the Alamo achieved lasting fame due to a thirteen-day siege, which culminated in the total annihilation of its defenders on March 6, 1836, during a Texan revolt against the government of Mexico, which had itself won independence from Spain in 1821. Among the dead was the celebrated American frontiersman David Crockett.

Although often portrayed as a stark racial and cultural clash between Mexicans and Anglo-Americans, the Texas Revolution of 1835-1836 and the Battle of the Alamo occurred amid considerably more complex circumstances. The conflict began as part of a larger Mexican civil war between the increasingly authoritarian Centralist regime of President Antonio López de Santa Anna and his Federalist opponents, who favored local autonomy and states’ rights in such matters as taxes, trade, and immigration. Prior to sending troops to Texas in 1835, Santa Anna had already dismissed state legislatures throughout Mexico and violently crushed Federalist opposition in the north Mexican state of Zacatecas.

Texas presented a special case, however. Santa Anna suspected that unrest there could lead to a secessionist movement, and even to the seizure of the province by the United States. Under Mexican rule, thousands of immigrants from the United States had come to Texas, attracted by the winning combination of generous land grants and the lax enforcement of Mexican laws against slavery and smuggling. It appeared to some concerned Mexican observers that the Anglo-Texans were already transforming Texas into an extension of the United States.

Slavery had been banned in most of Mexico, and it was theoretically under tight legal restrictions in Texas, but slaves were imported, bought, worked, and sold in the Anglo-Texan settlements with little regard for the law. By 1835 there were more than 30,000 American immigrants, including their slaves, and together they outnumbered the Spanish-speaking Texans (Tejanos) by a factor of almost ten to one. The American settlements were concentrated in eastern Texas, however, and when the revolt began Tejanos still dominated the southwestern borderlands of Texas.

Despite their residential separation and cultural differences, the Tejanos and Anglo-Texans were in general agreement with respect to both their Federalist politics (including the encouragement of further American immigration and the toleration of slavery) and their determination to resist the imposition of Santa Anna’s dictatorship. Juan N. Seguín of San Antonio, the first Texan official to call for armed resistance to the Centralists, is emblematic of Tejano participation in the revolt. Seguín led a large cavalry force and cooperated with an “Army of the People” raised by the Anglo-Texan leader Stephen F. Austin. The rebels defeated the Centralists at San Antonio, and in December 1835 they expelled all of the Mexican troops that Santa Anna had ordered to Texas.

Santa Anna, leading a large Mexican army, responded with a surprise counterstrike in February 1836. He reoccupied San Antonio and trapped approximately two hundred rebels in the Alamo. Seguín escaped almost certain death when he was dispatched by the Alamo’s commander, William Barret Travis, to seek reinforcements. But the disorganized Texan revolutionary government could not relieve the doomed defenders. Centralist armies overwhelmed the Texan forces at the Alamo; they also captured and executed more than four hundred Texan troops who had manned a stronger fortress at Goliad, ninety miles downriver from San Antonio.

In the meantime, rebel leaders declared the independence of the Republic of Texas on March 2. The Texans also decided to place all of their remaining military forces under the command of General Sam Houston, a former governor of Tennessee. Seguín gathered a company of Tejano horsemen and joined Houston’s army, which retreated eastward across Texas for six weeks before surprising and overwhelming an incautious Santa Anna on April 21. Hundreds of Mexican soldiers were slaughtered at the Battle of San Jacinto by rebels shouting “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” Santa Anna was captured, and the remaining Centralist forces withdrew from Texas.

However, not all Mexican Texans followed Seguín and the Tejano political leadership as far as endorsing separation from Mexico; some supported the Centralists, and many tried to avoid the fighting altogether. But the Anglo-Tejano alliance that prevailed was cemented when Houston, who was elected president of the new Texas Republic, appointed Seguín as commandant of the Texan army post at San Antonio. In 1841 the first monument to the fall of the Alamo was constructed—a traveling exhibit made of stones from the walls of the mission. It bore an inscription that compared the battle at San Antonio to the Spartans’ heroic stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (480 BCE). It would be several more decades, however, before the Alamo would become a stark symbol of Anglo-Saxon civilization standing against so-called Mexican depravity.

Relations between Tejanos and Anglo-Texans worsened as a result of a renewed border war with Mexico in 1842. Seguín, who had become the mayor of San Antonio, was forced into exile in Mexico by unruly Anglo-American volunteer soldiers who falsely accused him of treason. Upon reaching the Río Grande, Seguín was given the choice of life in prison or service with the Mexican army; his appearance with his former enemies in a raid on San Antonio in September 1842 confirmed the opinion of those who thought him a traitor to Texas.

But neither Seguín’s apparent apostasy nor the bitter war between Mexico and the United States (1846–1848) that followed the American annexation of Texas was sufficient to turn the Alamo into an anti-Mexican “white identity shrine.” Significantly, Seguín returned to Texas after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the conflict. Welcomed back into citizenship by many of his old comrades (including Sam Houston), Seguín wrote his memoirs of the Texas Revolution, became a Democratic Party leader in San Antonio, and was elected a county judge before retiring to Mexico in the 1870s.

The Alamo itself was essentially neglected for more than a generation following the famous battle. Most of the walls and buildings were gobbled up by the growing city of San Antonio, until all that remained was the mission’s chapel and a portion of the barracks known as the convento . The Catholic Church had leased the property to the American forces during the Mexican War, and it was the U.S. Army that put a roof on the chapel, and thus gave it its famous “hump.” The State of Texas purchased the chapel in 1883, but even in 1886, the year of the battle’s fiftieth anniversary, there was no memorial service at the site, and in that same year the convento passed into the ownership of a grocer who used it to store onions and potatoes.

Only in the 1890s, with the organization of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), did a serious effort to create an Alamo shrine begin. This campaign was led by two women—the ranching heiress Clara Driscoll and Adina De Zavala, the granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, a Mexican Federalist who had signed the Texan Declaration of Independence and become the Texas Republic’s first vice president. Their efforts resulted in a state law purchasing the convento and transferring control of the entire Alamo property to the DRT in 1905.

A prolonged dispute, much ballyhooed as the “second battle of the Alamo,” ensued within the DRT between Driscoll, De Zavala, and their respective followers over the technical and aesthetic details of historic preservation of the site, but all factions of the DRT were in essential agreement that the preserved Alamo should serve as a sacred monument to the heroism of its Texan defenders.

The labors of the DRT coincided with national trends of historic preservation and ancestor worship that exalted the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the United States, but deeper and more troubling developments were afoot in Texas. This was a time when the arrival of railroads and commercial agriculture created a great demand for cheap, transient, and docile Mexican labor in South Texas. The Jim Crow laws of segregation and disfranchisement were being applied to Mexicans as well as African-Americans in Texas between 1890 and 1920, and the historian David Montejano has argued that a simplified and mythicized version of the Texan past was employed to rationalize and to justify the degraded social position of Mexicans.

In the early twentieth century, Tejanos such as Seguín were purged from the collective Texan memory of the Revolution. In the blatantly racist 1915 film Birth of Texas, or Martyrs of the Alamo (made in the same D. W. Griffith studio that produced Birth of a Nation that same year), the revolt is portrayed as one of outraged whites rising up against a drunken and lecherous Mexican soldiery. The literary critic Don Graham has shown that an emphasis on Mexican racial depravity suffused the early twentieth-century novels about the Texas Revolution, in contrast to earlier works by Texan authors who blamed Mexico’s backwardness on the benighted heritage of Spanish Catholicism. At the same time, Texan painters Robert Jenkins Onderdonk ( The Fall of the Alamo , 1903) and Henry Arthur McArdle ( Dawn at the Alamo , 1905), whose iconic works have been enormously influential in Texas, depicted a Manichean struggle at the Alamo between the forces of light and dark—of civilization and savagery—in a clear departure from earlier Texan artists who portrayed Santa Anna’s Mexican troops as a classic, European-style Napoleonic army. Thus, in print and picture, the Alamo story was rewritten as a war between two hostile races.

In their late twentieth-century San Antonio fieldwork, the anthropologists Richard R. Flores and Holly Beachley Brear found the same binary logic still at work at the Alamo shrine itself, where the tacit erasure of the Tejanos and the juxtaposition of noble Anglo defenders against debased servants of Mexican tyranny continued. During the 1990s, however, the caretakers of the Alamo took several conscientious steps to remove the implicit denigration of Mexicans that had once permeated the shrine’s narrative, symbols, and rituals. The Mexican flag was introduced into the “Hall of Honor” to represent the Tejano defenders of the Alamo; an illustrated “Wall of History” was created by a professional historical staff to contextualize both the Spanish mission and the Alamo battle in the broader history of the city and the state; and the Alamo Defenders’ Descendants Association—with many Tejanos among the membership—began holding yearly memorial services for their ancestors in the Alamo chapel. Even as the racist aspects of the Alamo’s symbolism were being diminished, however, many Mexicans, and some Mexican-Americans, still saw the Alamo as a symbol not of courage and sacrifice, but of greedy North American land pirates determined to rob Mexico of its patrimony.

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