Internet friend Ed Rothstein writes for the NY Times. As always I am impressed by the depth and breadth of his writing. Here is his most recent column:
Remembering the Alamo Is Easier When You Know Its Many-Sided History
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: April 30, 2007
SAN ANTONIO — With apologies to all Texians — as they were once called — before visiting San Antonio, I really didn’t remember the Alamo. I retained a vague impression from youth in which heroism, independence and Davy Crockett were major elements, and Mexicans were the bad guys, but that was about it. It was like a childhood fairy tale, barely recalled.
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Michael Stravato for The New York Times
Tourists talk with an Alamo Ranger outside the mission.
That’s fine for myths: they are not really meant to survive with photographic realism. That is one way they have such a broad effect on the mind and culture, creating impressions, molding perceptions, shaping expectations. That’s also why every demythologizing movement has an element of aggressive triumph over myth’s power, as if a mesmeric trance were being overturned.
But when it comes to the Alamo — particularly here in this Texas city where this old Spanish mission turned fort attracts nearly three million visitors a year — the history and its mythical meanings have been wrestled over almost as much as the blood-soaked terrain was in preceding centuries. “Remember the Alamo!” was the old battle cry; in recent decades the fight was over just what was being remembered.
Even now, the Alamo is often looked at by local Latinos as a relic of Anglo imperialism, with Mexico losing Texas in a land grab. For its advocates, though, the Alamo reflects a stubborn Texan drive for independence won from Mexico in 1836, just as that nation was losing its way in the mire of coups and tyranny. In this view, the Alamo is a tragic counterpart to Lexington and Concord, leading to the Republic of Texas — and ultimately bringing the entire Southwest into the orbit of the United States.
This also puts the Alamo at the center of a larger drama in which American history itself is the contested arena, a drama now shaping how American museums present the past. Dare we celebrate our past if it turns out, when seen in the harsh light of American middle age, that it was not as golden as we once imagined? (Jamestown, Va., in commemorating its forthcoming 400th anniversary, apparently thinks not.) But dare we mourn our past if it turns out that things were not as bad as they were elsewhere and held the promise of something far better? The Alamo’s current incarnation — its central exhibition was mounted by its curator, Richard Bruce Winders, in 2005 — may provide some perspective on the opposing traps of sanitized idealism and cynical self-disgust.
The mythic power of the place is plain in the bare outlines of Texas history. Before the 1820s, Texas had been a lightly populated province of Spanish-owned Mexico. Incentives and cheap land lured many settlers from the United States. Then, once Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, creating a republic based on the federal system of the United States, the Texan region was joined with its stronger neighbor, Coahuila, to form a single Mexican state.
But the Mexican government proved less than stable, with 13 presidents in 15 years. Mexico increased tariffs and Texans began to feel poorly represented. Finally, in 1835, Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna suspended the constitution, declared himself president and made it clear that Texan yearnings deserved no more consideration than those of the Zacatecas rebels, who were first subdued and then massacred.
Some Texans sought accommodation, some hoped for Mexican statehood, but after General Santa Anna’s maneuvers, many sought independence. As the general’s army marched to Texas to crush resistance, fewer than 200 rebels armed themselves in the crumbling fort of the Alamo, where Mexicans had, not long before, suffered a temporary defeat. This time the Texans also happened to have at least two legends of the American West with them: Jim Bowie and Crockett.
The rebels hoped in vain for reinforcements as several thousand Mexican soldiers surrounded the Alamo. The Texans’ certain defeat took 13 days — with only a few scattered survivors — but their fight was so fierce that the Mexican army was significantly weakened. Within weeks, that army was beaten by Sam Houston leading the Texans. General Santa Anna was captured, and in ransoming his freedom, he granted Texas its independence.
That is the background to the heroic tale told in John Wayne’s 1960 film “The Alamo.” Similar valor is displayed in the 1988 Imax film “Alamo: The Price of Freedom,” shown continuously about a block from the fort. The focus on heroism has always been prevalent at the fort as well, which displays a lock of Crockett’s hair, along with Houston’s sword.
But after the 1970s, as James E. Crisp recounts in his fascinating 2004 book, “Sleuthing the Alamo,” “a new and radicalized generation of historians saw the origins of the conflict in the prejudices of Anglo-American bigots.” Race, for some historians, became the central issue in the revolution. Texan immigrants from the Southern United States relied on slavery, which was forbidden in Mexico, creating a major incentive for Texas independence and the application of a selective idea of liberty. Even Bowie was not just a war hero, expert with a hunting knife: he had made his fortune as a slave trader and shady land speculator. And D. W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film “Martyrs of the Alamo” may have gotten at more of the historical truth in Griffith’s racial condescension to the Mexicans than in his depiction of the battles fought.
As Mr. Crisp writes, “We should never allow even the most revered of our society’s ‘sacred narratives’ to be accepted as simple truths, nor to be mistaken for legitimate history.”
But these characterizations are simple truths: a set of opposing mythologies with their own assertions of moral superiority and injured outrage. As Mr. Crisp points out, more complicated truths require rejecting race as the primary issue in the Texan revolution. He also suggests that as far as Mexicans were concerned, real discrimination fully came into its own only at the beginning of the 20th century, when among other indignities, Texas public schools practiced segregation of its “white” pupils from citizens of Mexican descent. At the time of the revolution, relations between the groups were far different.
They were also never simple. Some wariness of outsiders came from the Mexicans themselves. As H. W. Brands’s history of Texas, “Lone Star Nation,” shows, one reason for Mexican nervousness about Texas’s future as a Mexican province was the crucial cultural differences between the North American colonists and the Mexican colonists. In an 1828 survey of the region for the Mexican government, Manuel de Mier y Terán outlined important distinctions in attitudes toward individualism that he believed would make it increasingly difficult for Mexico to control North American Texans.
Within the Alamo, Mr. Winders’s intelligent exhibition now treats those 13 days of battle as part of an extended civil war in Mexico over the ideas of liberty and federalism. But establishing a context for understanding history beyond the myth doesn’t diminish the myth’s power or its importance. “What is a shrine?” his exhibition asks. “A shrine is a place hallowed by its associations.”
And the Alamo is such a shrine, that for all the flaws and eccentricities of its inhabitants and its era left a heroic mark on the sluggish human trudge toward liberty. It still commands remembrance.
Connections, a critic’s perspective on arts and ideas, appears every other Monday.