Read more of our new series on American mythology, Rewriting the West.
The United States is experiencing a reckoning with its racist history. Civic markers, from street and school names to public monuments commemorating such figures as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, have been toppled. In 2017, the city of New Orleans began removing Confederate statues from its central public spaces. Confederate flags flying over statehouses have come down, after the 2015 shooting at a church in Charleston South Carolina.Two years ago, the Houston Independent School District stripped public schools of their Confederate names. The following year, Dowling Street—which was named in memory of a local Confederate war hero and bisected the mostly African American Third Ward—was renamed Emancipation Street. State officials have removed a plaque from the Texas Capitol placed by the Children of the Confederacy, which falsely states, “Teach the truths of history…one of the most important of which is, that the war between the states was not a rebellion nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” (The debate over where to house the plaque continues to provoke passionate arguments regarding its importance.) Most recently, in November of 2018, the Texas State Board of Education revised the state curriculum to include language that acknowledged the “central role” of slavery in the Civil War.
Amid all this scrutiny, one monument has been immune, seemingly too sacred for discussion among the pols and many in the public: the Alamo. In fact, the state is poised to pour millions of dollars into the Alamo, in the name of a project to renovate and reconfigure the monument’s grounds and its surrounding streets.
The story of the Alamo has a rich popular history in dime-store novels and Western films. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s production company even made a film about the story, called Martyrs of the Alamo. Much like Birth of a Nation, the film depicts the Texians in the Alamo as saviors of white womanhood. According to Martyrs of the Alamo, the Texian uprising was prompted by the imprisonment of an Anglo American who shot a Mexican lieutenant who had made an unwelcome advance towards an Anglo woman.
The same racialized depictions of Mexican hordes can be found inside the Senate Chamber of the Texas Capitol, where Henry Arthur McArdle’s painting “Dawn at the Alamo” hangs. William Travis can be seen at the center of the mural-sized painting, as the dark, nameless, and faceless Mexicans swarm the Alamo. This painting hovers over the chamber that passed SB4, Texas’s “show me your papers” law, which empowers law enforcement officers to ask anyone they detain about their immigration status.
The Alamo is recognized popularly as the site of the 1836 battle between Texas separatists, known as Texians, and soldiers from Mexico, which ruled the land. Texian fighters occupied the fort during a 13-day battle with the Mexican Army. Led by William Barrett Travis, the soldiers chose to fight to the death, knowing they would not receive reinforcements from General Sam Houston. Nearly 200 Texian fighters died. The final battle, on March 6, is remembered in myth and legend as Davy Crockett’s last stand, when he swung his rifle, Old Betsy, atop the walls of the Alamo after running out of bullets. It is undoubtedly a compelling image—and one unsupported by factual historical accounts. A month later, the Mexican army fell in an ambush at San Jacinto, near Houston, where they were massacred and ultimately surrendered. Sam Houston’s soldiers captured Mexican President Santa Anna, ending the war and starting the roundabout journey to the American annexation of Texas.
The Alamo has come to represent Texas and its story. It is a symbol synonymous with courageous last stands. The mission statement for the redevelopment plan of the Alamo—a tourist site that attracts two million visitors annually—makes the claim that the battle at the Alamo was decisive, not only for the state or nation, but the entire hemisphere. “The thirteen days in 1836 that culminated with the ultimate sacrifice of 189 heroes changed the course of history, leading to the creation of the Republic of Texas, followed by the State of Texas, ultimately defining the geopolitical structure of the Americas.”
But in fact the story of the Alamo, which occupies the physical and ideological center of the Texas myth and national mythology, has functioned as a tool to impose a racial order.
Lost in the magnanimous description of the Alamo is the fact that many of the so-called Texians were immigrant, naturalized Mexicans: whites who had wandered west at the invitation of Mexico. But in its myth, the Texians are sui generis, always Texans. And, by locating the Alamo story in 1836, with the birth of the Texas Revolution, Anglo Americans cast previous and existing peoples as part of an indeterminate past, rendering all Mexican-origin people, then and into the future, as foreign, and effectively erasing and marginalizing Mexican and Indigenous people from the past and in the present.
It’s not that the Spanish-built presidio should be demolished or stashed away in some remote museum. The story of the Alamo should be widely studied—but it should be the real history, the one that intersects with and embodies the nation’s history of enforcing a racial order through violence, and the campaigns of white supremacy and slavery that accompanied America’s expansion. The Alamo’s history and myth belong to a war that was inspired, in part, by the drive for slavery, and by a belief in the superiority of whites and their divine right to conquer lands. The Alamo is where the campaign of southern slavery and native American genocide migrated west and expressed itself in the demonization of Mexicans. It came to symbolize belonging, or, more accurately, defining who belongs and who doesn’t. Rather than being remembered for its historical context, the Alamo represents a litmus test for entry into participation and membership in civic society: accept the dominant myth, or be marginalized.
This myth, and the definition of belonging, have, since 1836, largely excluded Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Indeed, their exclusion was a necessary part of the western campaign. The Texas narrative, a chapter in American westward expansion, rendered ethnic Mexican people as a permanent foreign class. From the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles in 1943—when American G.I.s attacked Chicano youth—to the wall builder chants of the present, Mexican people are told they don’t belong. Indeed, in order to make American annexation a fait accompli, Mexican people needed to be rendered outsiders.
As with the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, the Alamo has worked its way into American popular culture. Politicians and public figures use sayings like “Remember the Alamo,” or “Line in the Sand,” or “Come and Take It,” in reference to iconic events from the battle. The fierce resistance to parsing myth from fact became evident this year, when the Texas Board of Education rejected a proposal to eliminate the requirement to teach about “all the heroic defenders who gave their lives” at the Alamo.
But the site, located in the center of downtown San Antonio, contains a more complete, nuanced picture—one visually apparent in its façade that still bears the nichos where priests placed statues of Catholic saints. The statues are gone, but the pedestals remain as a silent testament to a history that predated the arrival of Anglos. That history includes Native Americans, Spaniards, Africans, and Mexicans. By including the many people who have called the Alamo and the surrounding lands home, we draw the boundaries of who we are as a nation—as Americans.
When I teach Texas history, I tell students that the power of Texas is not what it is, but rather where it is. It is at the intersection of multiple empires, peoples, landscapes, and climates. Dozens of indigenous groups settled across the region, from hunter-gatherers like the Comanche in the plains, to farmers like the Caddo to the east, and fishing groups like the Karankawa along the coast. Others, like the Cherokee, Kickapoo and Seminole, migrated to Texas, usually to evade American imperial expansion.
If the Alamo were understood within its complete history, we would see the waves of diverse peoples and identities that circulated in the region over time. The original Alamo was built in 1718 as a Spanish mission in the town of Bexár, known today as San Antonio. In 2015, UNESCO designated the mission, along with its four sister missions located across San Antonio, as a World Heritage Site—not for its role in a separatist movement, but for “outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity.”
The mission’s construction served as one pillar of Spain’s frontier policy in northern New Spain. Spain set out to incorporate indigenous groups on the frontier, in an attempt to Hispanicize them much like groups to the south, such as the Tlascaltecs. Spain—and, later, Mexico—struggled to dominate or build alliances with the independent groups of the northern frontier, leading to islands of Spanish control and settlement across the region.
Spanish military, missionaries, and settlers encountered indigenous peoples in this territory, shaping their relations and policies in response to the individual cultures themselves. Spanish culture created a distinction among indigenous people, between Indios bárbaros and Indios domésticos, indicating the possibility of incorporation into what became Mexican society. The missions themselves were meant to be temporary institutions that would change after their objective had been achieved. The transformations that took place went far beyond what Church and Crown officials might have imagined.
The streets surrounding The Alamo are named for the “heroes” who fought Mexicans. Their names mark towns and cities, such as Houston, where I live. When I drive down Houston Avenue to take my son to school, I cross Alamo and Crockett Streets. The Harris County courthouse lies downtown between Fannin and San Jacinto Streets. Simply giving directions is an incantation of that mythic past.
It’s a mythology that Texans learn to recite beginning in fourth grade, because the Texas State Board of Education requires all public schools in the state to teach Texas history in both the fourth and seventh grades. Until recently, state required students to “explain how the establishment of the Republic of Texas brought civil, political, and religious freedom to Texas.” The real question is, did it?
Of all the erased historical contexts of the Texas Revolution, the absence of slavery from the central place it occupied is one of the most destructive. If included in proportional historical context, slavery would effortlessly connect the Texas Revolution to the national debates around the Civil War, and the construction of race in American culture, that were going on at the same time. Slavery was not an aberrant system destined to wither away. Rather, the history of Texas pushes historians to look at slavery as an imperial system, looking to expand westward and southward into Mexico and Latin America. The Texas origin myth has managed to escape Confederate-linked scrutiny by eliminating slavery from the Texas Revolution, much like those pushing states’ rights have from the American Civil War narrative. Slaveholders answered the call by flooding into Texas immediately after 1836. The slaveholder population boomed from approximately 596 in 1837 to 3,651 in 1845, increasing the population of enslaved people from 3,097 to 24,401 over those years. The average number of enslaved people for each slaveholder also increased from 4.61 to 6.23, pointing to the increased scale of the slave-based economy in Texas during the Republic era.
While the slave-related context of the Alamo has been silenced or hidden in plain sight, even frames of reference connected with Anglo American immigrants have fallen away from view. Although American historians have reached a clear consensus regarding the centrality of slavery to the American Civil War, Texas historians have largely avoided marking the Texas Revolution as a slaveholder rebellion, which in large part it was. Instead, Texas history has primarily emphasized grievances with Mexico, which was labeled as despotic, echoing the Spanish imperial Black Legend narrative.
Texans have relied on exceptionalism based on the Republic of Texas period to claim a stronger identity, beyond merely an American regionalism. Every morning, public-school children in the state are required to take an oath to the “Texas flag” after saying the pledge of allegiance. Texans point to the Republic as the basis for that nationalism, yet the Republic of Texas has developed a life of its own, based on myth rather than reality. The Republic itself was more aspirational than functional, and can be considered a failure as a state.
Texas history describes the battles against Mexico with the idea that they were an “independence movement.” They were at most secessionist, and more directly connected to American expansion. Immigrants to Texas from the United States, and those who fought in the war, always meant to annex the Mexican province. After the Texian victory at San Jacinto in 1836, Texans voted by more than 97 percent in favor of annexation to the US, while a small minority voted for independence. The Republic of Texas was Plan B after statehood was spurned by American government, since it could lead to war with Mexico and would destabilize the balance between free and slave states. The Republic scrambled to establish a legislature and government, going into massive debt to do so.
The Republic of Texas became an international pariah state, as foreign governments hesitated to acknowledge its independence. Britain would only engage in trade if it considered Texas under existing treaties with Mexico. Furthermore, British foreign secretary Lord Henry Palmerston believed slaveholder dominance in Texas “would be a serious question to be considered in her Majesty’s Cabinet.” Between the dominance of slavery and slaveholder governance, and the violation of Mexican sovereignty, most nations steered clear of Texas.
As a result, the Republic of Texas passed what should be considered the first Confederate Constitution. Section 9 of the General Provisions Texas Republic Constitution protected the institution of slavery from elimination in perpetuity, and effectively outlawed free Black Texans. Section 9 directly states, “No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic….” It’s impossible to reconcile depictions of the Texas Revolution as a war for liberty with the reality of the Republic of Texas Constitution. And yet Texans do it every year—in the fourth grade and then again in the seventh.
The Texas Revolution is often depicted as an organic uprising, without connection to American imperial expansion into Mexican territory. Yet the Alamo was in Mexico—its seizure was precisely an act of American expansion. Americans felt entitled to Texas and believed the Mexican North belonged to the United States, both politically with the Louisiana Purchase and morally through the ethos of Manifest Destiny.
From the Mexican perspective, the Texas war is a tragedy, part of a Mexican civil war that pitted brother against brother. An analogy to the Civil War is useful for understanding the dynamics. Like the states of the Confederacy, Texas seceded from Mexico via the war. Mexico—a nation that had been operating under a federalist constitution for only nine years at that point—was torn apart by battles between centralists attempting to consolidate power in Mexico City and federalists in the provinces. Santa Anna, the centralist president, was already fighting rebellions in Yucatan and Zacatecas when he marched troops to Texas to quash the Anglo American-led break. Furthermore, Tejanos fought on both, or neither, side of the conflict.
In more recent years, progressive Texas historians have attempted to expand the Texas legend by highlighting Tejanos who fought with the Texian Army. But this has done little change the dominant narrative, other than to put a brown face to it. The more likely story was one of ambivalence and survival. A Tejano soldier on the Texian side, Antonio Menchaca, described how he came to join the army, recalling that he “attempted to cross to the other side of the river with my family, but was prevented by [Texian General Edward] Burleson who told me that my family might cross but not me, that the men were needed in the army.” Reading between the lines, Menchaca had little choice.
After the Alamo, Bexareños returned to a beleaguered city, to rebuild their homes and lives. But now it was a city in the Republic of Texas, and political and social life could no longer be the same. Juan N. Seguín commented on the return of Tejano families to San Antonio, “There was not one [family] who did not lament the loss of a relative and, to crown their misfortunes, they found their houses in ruins, their fields laid waste, and their cattle destroyed or dispersed.”
In 1836, John Quitman, the governer of Mississippi, organized a 45-man militia to join the Texas rebellion. He arrived just after the Mexican defeat at San Jacinto, and jumped on the opportunity to benefit from the chaos of the battle, buying land in Texas and sending imprisoned Mexican soldiers to Mississippi as servants and laborers. Quitman’s brief but remarkable involvement in the Texas Revolution, and the facile way he forced Mexicans into impressed labor, reveals the racial perceptions of Mexicans held by American Southerners. They’re still imprinted in the civic map of Texas—ingrained not just in street names, but in the state’s notion of itself.
Writing almost 20 years after the Alamo, the Tejano elder statesman Jose Antonio Navarro commented on the nativist Know-Nothings, “Why do we appear like foreigners in the very land of our birth?” When a Know-Nothing candidate lost the mayoral election, the analysis in a local newspaper read: “It is a political defeat of Texians by the very men whom their valor defeated on the ensanguined field of battle.” The Texas Revolution, its history and memory of that war, was already being used in service of delegitimizing ethnic Mexican political participation and rendering them outsiders.
The effects of this narrative on Mexicans in Texas, and the meaning it has for the Latinx population in the United States, is unmistakable. Navarro’s words should echo in our minds when President Donald Trump makes claim to a “real America” in his campaign and governance. We hear Navarro’s rebuke in the words of Congressman Joaquin Castro, who said at the Democratic National Convention last summer that “Children of immigrants…have contributed to our country as doctors, police officers, and—guess what—even impartial judges. Their story is our story. It’s America’s story.” But the burden of proof falls on the suspect class, who are rendered foreign and outsiders through long-established historical narratives.
Given that the mythical Alamo narrative not only survives, but thrives in Texas, and that the politics of anti-Mexican racism wins elections, I’m pessimistic that ethnic Mexicans will ever be considered Americans. It would require overturning centuries of American self-identity that has ignored its imperialist project.
This piece, part of our Rewriting the West series, is made possible by a generous grant from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.