I am very pleased that Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council have made a commitment to keeping the Alamo Plaza open. No glass walls, no barriers, no railings. Our citizens should not be separated from or kept out of the most important plaza in our city.
Within the context of that decision, let me note the importance of the state of Texas in telling the story of the battle of the Alamo, and the larger history of our city and state. We need to know that history.
American immigrants fought for freedom and liberty and for democracy at the Alamo. They fought against the Mexican dictator Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna and the government he represented. As a child, I was taught of the heroism of the Alamo defenders. The faces of the fighters were white, according to our school books, and we saw with our own eyes John Wayne and his coonskin-wearing compatriots. We knew Col. Travis drew that line in the sand.
We didn’t know that there were Tejanos fighting alongside them. We didn’t know that the men fighting wanted a government that allowed slavery. We should have known, but after the Alamo, the battle became a story about Anglo victory over Mexicans despots. After the battle of the Alamo, white leaders discriminated against Mexicans who were here before the Anglos immigrated. We took their land, even though those land rights were guaranteed. We brutalized. We need to know more than the history I was taught as a child. The proposed new Alamo museum needs to tell that story.
Why? Let me begin in my downtown neighborhood. Two of my neighbors fly “Come and Take It” flags. One actually has a cannon. Of course, that slogan has a history going back to the Spartan King Leonidas, but many Texans know that the Texian militia flew a “Come and Take It” flag at Gonzales. Their defiance in the face of Santa Anna’s army is understood most commonly as our Texas fighting spirit.
I wonder why my neighbors fly that flag now. I wonder what they stand in defiance of, what they are willing to fight for. I believe they are fighting for their Second Amendment rights, but I’m not sure. I certainly disagree about the interpretation of that right and would limit access to assault weapons, even as in writing this I can look up and see my antique 16-gauge shotgun hanging on the wall of my office.
I suspect there is something else going on. I don’t want to attribute to them an embrace of white supremacy, because I am a Texan willing to fight and sacrifice for liberty, and flying that flag at Gonzales is an important part of my cultural heritage. But with white supremacy so violently evident in our society, anyone flying a flag in defiance has got to let us know where they stand.
Stay with me as I want to walk down the street a bit … to the Alamo (I promise I’ll make sense). Of course, given the events of the day, you probably were not paying attention to the plan to close Alamo Plaza as part of the effort to establish an area for reenactments. And you probably didn’t know that the rich folks who supported that plan walked away in a snit. Why? Because the Texas Historical Commission decided to keep the Cenotaph right smack in the middle of the battlefield.
Not all of those who fought the relocation of the Cenotaph were white supremacists, and not all of those who objected showed up carrying military-style rifles, but some were and some did. For them, the Cenotaph was shorthand for telling the “true” story of the Alamo, that white folk were the heroes. And again, I think they were heroes because they fought for liberty. Why not acknowledge that the heroes of the Alamo were flawed men? Wrong that they fought for freedom, then established a government that allowed slavery. And why not recognize those who fought on the other side? They were peasant conscripts forced at gunpoint to leave their villages and fight for Santa Anna. They were not the heroes of the Alamo because they fought for a dictator, but there were individuals who fought bravely.
After the Texas Revolution, Mexicans were perceived as the enemy within since Mexico did not accept the loss of Texas. That real threat of attack from Mexico justified a cultural war against Mexicans in Texas. So let’s also remember the hatred visited on Mexican citizens who became Texans after the battle.
This complex history of our state of Texas is our heritage: Anglo and Mexican and Black, and indigenous – all of us today are Texans. But there are those intent on dividing us. Remembering the Alamo should not be a path to political power for those who would turn us against one another. A museum provides the best opportunity to educate ourselves and the millions of visitors drawn to our city by Spanish colonial history and the fight for Texas independence.
It’s a story too complex, too important to be left to ideologues. We need scholars to present the story of the battle of the Alamo, and to place those 13 days within the context of Spanish colonization, and the Republic and state of Texas. If there is debate about our history, let the museum be a place where that debate can occur.
I am pleased that we are not fencing off what is left of the battlefield just to dress up like Texians/Tejanos and Mexican soldiers. The remnants of the old battlefield are where citizens have gathered for more than a century to celebrate our rich and complex history and community. What better response to those who would divide us than to simply allow us to come together every day in Alamo Plaza? Our annual Fiesta celebration at Alamo Plaza, the parades and strolling about, all of it brings us together as a community.
Remember the Alamo, but remember the cause, to establish a republic where we are free. We are one people in our fight for freedom and democracy. That battle did not end with the Alamo, but continues today as we fight for liberty, justice, and equality. Alamo Plaza has been and will remain the heart of our free culture, a celebration of our common heritage.