A panel of academics and historians expressed concern that the envisioned remake of Alamo Plaza would not include enough components of Mexican-Americans’ experience in San Antonio’s evolution.
As City Council weighed the merits and shortcomings of the proposed Alamo Plaza master plan earlier in the day, a group of panelists spent Wednesday evening talking about parts of Alamo history that have been relegated to the background in public discourse. More than 40 people attended the discussion at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and Westside Preservation Alliance.
Richard Flores, author of Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol, said efforts to enhance Alamo history with details of Latinos at the mission before and during the siege should be celebrated.
New facts about Latinos and their roles in San Antonio society before and after the fall of the Alamo are being discovered all the time, Flores explained. But in some academic circles, those efforts are derided as revisionist history, he added.
“History should be alive and open, not something that’s narrow and closed,” said Flores, a dean and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Flores mentioned two storied saviors of the Alamo and nearby structures: Clara Driscoll and Adina De Zavala. But he noted that while historians have recognized Driscoll’s preservation efforts, the impact of DeZavala’s efforts had been minimized until recent years.
Prevailing narratives from before and after the 1836 Battle of the Alamo sparked different mythologies, which produced perspectives that most Texans and Americans hold today, he said.
“The foundational myth of the Alamo spells out very clearly who we are, which is Anglo-Texan, and who we are not, which is Mexican,” he said.
Some of those prevailing narratives, indirectly, influenced the development of Alamo Plaza, Flores said.
The space around the Alamo has come to mean different things to different people, which is why the debate around the currently proposed master plan has polarized the community, he said.
Architect Ann McGlone, the City’s former historic preservation officer, served on the Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee, which gave input into the basic concepts of the redevelopment plan. She agreed that modern beliefs about the Alamo, the plaza, and its history are based on conflicting perspectives born from that famed 1836 battle.
“Most people think of the Alamo as just the chapel and everything else around it as the plaza,” she said. “But many people focus only on the battle, which wasn’t at the chapel.”
McGlone said a proper telling of the Alamo’s history and role in San Antonio’s evolution must be inclusive, but that it is also more complicated than most people think.
“That complex history is harder to tell than the John Wayne part of the story,” she said. “Inside the [planned] museum, they could tell you that story. Outside the museum, they just want to focus on the battle.”
Former University of Texas at San Antonio professor Gary Houston said social and economic forces outside the city have influenced local business and government leaders to develop the plaza and surrounding streets the way they have. Development has, over decades, gradually reduced what had been wide-open access to Alamo Plaza to people, particularly residents who lived or worked in the urban core.
“Business and city leaders have tacitly assumed out-of-towners have more money to spend downtown than those who live here,” said Houston, who was a faculty member in UTSA’s Department of Political Science and Geography.
The master plan’s call for closing Alamo Street and portions of Crockett and Houston streets to traffic, and controlling access to the Alamo, troubles Houston. But he explained this is not the first time San Antonio has closed streets for mainly commercial interests to the detriment of pedestrian and car traffic.
“If we carry through what the City Council wants us to carry through on, we’ll end up with irreparable harm to the culture of San Antonio and downtown as we know it,” Houston said of the plaza redevelopment plan.
Author and historian Paul Ringenbach was the lead author on the document that successfully nominated San Antonio’s Spanish Colonial missions for the UNESCO World Heritage designation.
He said U.S history had for a long time contained skewed perspectives from mainly East Coast academics. Alamo history is no different, he added, noting that older texts often focus on the battle with barely a mention of missionaries’ roles at the site.
Ringenbach, a San Antonio Conservation Society board member, said his organization is disturbed by some parts of the plaza plan, including controlling public access.
“As for terms of the proposed lease of the plaza, the Society questions why it’s necessary to turn Alamo Plaza to the State at all,” he said. “Why should not the lease be a partnership, so the City and State can share management and operations of the plaza?”
A few audience members offered criticisms of the Alamo Plaza master plan. Local scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto said any new historical curation at a revamped Alamo Plaza must involve input from Mexican and Hispanic historians, scholars, and authors.
“The whole history of the Alamo has to be bi-national,” he said.
Flores agreed, but he was doubtful: “Would that happen? Probably not.” He added that it’s taken decades just for modern history texts to include the role of Tejanos and Mexicans at the Alamo and afterward.