History runs deep in San Antonio, perhaps never deeper than at the current moment. The Tricentennial year not only celebrates the city’s founding, but presents opportunities to delve beyond traditional narratives and legends.
A deeply researched, historically compelling exhibition at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, proves that there are different ways to “Remember the Alamo.”
On one side of the Alamo legend, many Texans commemorate gallant heroes defending independence. Other Texans recall slavers who oppressed local populations and betrayed Mexicans and Tejanos.
The exhibition’s curator, Ruben C. Cordova, said that calling the Alamo the shrine of Texas liberty “only seems to address white people,” and that “it’s really the cradle of Texas slavery.”
“For Chicanos and many people of color, it has served as a symbol of oppression and domination,” he added.
Douglass McDonald, CEO of the Alamo, responded: “While slavery is intertwined in the history of all the Americas, linking the Alamo to slavery more often represents a contemporary political agenda rather than a real desire to advance historical knowledge.”
Before taking the helm of the Alamo last year, McDonald was CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati from 2012-2015. In its current educational materials, the Alamo includes information on the slaving activities of key historical figures involved in the famous battle.
The Alamo Effect
The Texas Declaration of Independence was written in part to declare war over the issue of self-determination, McDonald said, in response to Santa Anna’s repeal of the Mexican Constitution of 1824.
Nevertheless, “the Alamo effect,” as Cordova characterizes circumstances before and after the famous battle, was “devastating for people of color,” and expanded slavery, lynching, segregation, and Native American genocide.
The exhibition immediately upends the traditional Battle of the Alamo narrative, with a controversial 1971 painting by Felipe Reyes.
Sacred Conflict depicts an Alamo rampart bearing a United Farmworkers (UFW) flag. The UFW movement gave Cesar Chavez his enduring fame, and the movement’s Aztec-themed eagle symbol became an emblem for Chicano power.
The painting’s title signals issues underlying the usual narrative, that while the losers of the pivotal battle are hailed as heroes, its Chicano winners won “vengeance … and the flag is the Chicano symbol for justice,” the Reyes quote accompanying the painting reads.
Among 26 artworks created between 1971 and 2018, another painting in the show serves as a history lesson in itself.
Albert Alvarez’s 2018 collage painting How the West Was Won charts the conflict from young William Travis’ purported “line in the sand,” to British rocker Ozzy Osbourne urinating in an Alamo planter, to Davy Crockett taking a cannonball to the gut, and another British rock star’s obsession with collecting Alamo artifacts.
A cartoonish Phil Collins appears above a quote on his music from the 2000 movie American Psycho. The bland quote overwrites the story of Collins receiving a local psychic’s vision of himself as the reincarnation of John W. Smith, a courier who escaped the conflict and went on to become mayor of San Antonio.
The painting also traces more personal connections, from legendary “Yellow Rose of Texas” Emily D. West’s sacrificial distraction of Santa Anna, to the artist himself meeting his wife.
“If the Alamo Battle would have never happened,” the artist’s caption of their portraits reads, “I would have never met my wife Rhonda Chula!”
Studious readers of the exhibition’s deeply researched informational placards will note that the Yellow Rose legend is highly questionable, and may even hide revealing facts about her master’s mixed-race wife.
Independence and Oppression
Another “myth” contended by the exhibition is the notion that the Battle of the Alamo was fought for independence. “The real reason for the Alamo battle was slavery,” reads the placard accompanying Raul Servin’s 2001 painting Olividate del Alamo #1, a reworking of the stars-and-stripes into an emblem of enforced servitude.
Another passage in Alvarez’s painting, a 1995 quote by historian Jim Crisp reflecting on the 150th anniversary of the state of Texas, reads:
“This may be the ultimate irony of the sesquicentennial, our belated recognition that the greatest measure of oppression in Texas came not before 1836, but after.”
Cordova is proud to display photographs of a notorious example of Chicano activism in San Antonio. Two black-and-white images taken at night, both from 1972 and titled Cenotaph Aguila, capture a UFW emblem spray-painted in black over the engraved words emblazoned on the Alamo cenotaph memorial The Spirit of Sacrifice.
Traces of the protest graffiti are no longer visible, but Cordova is proud to bring the moment to light.
“The photographs have never been exhibited anywhere,” he said, “but they’re kind of legendary” among members of the Con Safo movement, a group of Chicano artists in San Antonio that Cordova has studied and exhibited before.
“What I wanted to do was give a voice to views that have been completely ignored, as far as I know, by museums and by the dominant institutions,” Cordova said.
“There’s a lot more to this story than being the cradle of Texas liberty,” he said, then pointedly asked, “Liberty for whom?”
Whatever its role, the Alamo can at least appropriately be deemed a “key” to Texas history. The Alamo’s current exhibition Fortress Alamo: The Key to Texas offers a counterpoint to The Other Side of the Alamo, presenting a traditional perspective of the military’s role in maintaining the frontier outpost.
In the spirit of education, Texas General Land Office Press Secretary Brittany Eck offered a link to the genealogy of those behind the Texas Revolution.
Readers interested in other viewpoints can follow up by reading more here about assertions of the Alamo’s history as a site for protests and historical redress.
The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth runs through July 20 at the Galería Guadalupe, alongside the Common Currents 1868-1917 Tricentennial exhibition at the Guadalupe Center’s Progresso Building through Apr. 29.
Cordova’s exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue to be released during a Juneteenth-themed book signing event at the Guadalupe Center on Sat., June 16, joins the growing list of events, exhibitions, and publications that illuminate the sometimes lesser known facets of San Antonio’s long history as a settlement.
The March 3 Founder’s Day Feast and the March 10 El Nacimiento pageant in Main Plaza presented the intrinsic contributions of Native Americans and Canary Islanders to the earliest traces of the city’s settlement.
San Antonio 1718: Art from Viceregal Mexico, at the San Antonio Museum of Art through May 13, charts the transition from New Spain to Mexican independence, while the Witte Museum’s Confluence and Culture, running through Jan. 6, 2019, tackles all 300 years of local history.
The documentary film Walk on the River: A Black History of Alamo City, tentatively to be screened Aug. 17 at the Carver Community Cultural Center, will add an African-American dimension to considerations of the city’s development.