The Alamo, Public History and Controversy

As the title implies, this paper examines the controversy surrounding the manner and presentation of the historical site The Alamo.

The Alamo, Public History and Controversy

By Tom White

The Alamo of San Antonio is one of the most popular historical sites in all of Texas, yet for all its symbolic interpretation, the Alamo remains controversial. Three works by the anthropologist Richard Flores and the historian Edward Tabor Linenthal are used in this examination to gain a understanding of the Alamo controversy, and to examine how various ethnic groups have been presented in Alamo history and why. Equally important though, Flores and Linenthal’s research shall be studied in order to understand why in the last eleven years the Alamo has remained still a site which is publically contested.

In Richard Flores The Alamo: Myth, Public History and the Politics of Inclusion, Flores traces the history of the Alamo including the significance of how it has been interpreted as a historical site under “the tutelage of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT).”[1] The controversy which surrounds the Alamo according to Flores first began when the DRT assumed custodianship of the Alamo beginning in 1905. According to Flores the DRT “has sole authority over the interpretation of this site…with little or no accountability to the state or local community.”[2] The DRT’s interpretation of the Alamo according to Flores has essentially glossed over the Alamo and its historical beginnings as a mission, and has instead focused on portraying to the public a historically inaccurate version of the battle of 1836, one in which Flores argues has resulted in“racializing this event as one between Texans and Mexicans”[3] To prove his point, Flores argues that one need look no further than the makeup of the 187 men who fought within the Alamo during the battle of 1836. Flores points out that of the 187 men who fought during the battle, “only thirteen were native-born Texans…”[4] (in actuality a Texan minority), with many more being Americans from throughout the United States (US) and some forty one being born in Europe. What makes the Alamo so controversial according to Flores is that the depiction of the battle of the Alamo as interpreted by the DRT “builds on a model of inclusion”[5], while neglecting to present a balanced presentation of events. In Edward Linenthal’s Patriotic Faith at the Alamo, a quote from Mayor Henry Cisneros during the Texas Sesquicentennial best sums up the controversy when he stated “There were many Hispanics inside the Alamo. It wasn’t a racial war. It was one against central government.”[6]

In examining how various ethnic groups have attempted to be presented in the history of the Alamo, Flores once again examines the relationship of the DRT to the Alamo. Specifically Flores looks at two very prominent women of the DRT, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll who were instrumental in the restoration of the Alamo beginning in the twentieth century. Specifically Flores focuses on how “social processes and conditions”[7] which were emerging in south western Texas during the first part of the twentieth century influenced these two women, and as a consequence these social conditions affected how ethnic groups would be presented at the Alamo. To begin with De Zavalla and Driscoll had very different visions for the Alamo, and also had “radically different perceptions about history and society itself.”[8] De Zavalla and Driscoll had very different social backgrounds, which they were influenced by according to Flores. De Zavalla was of Mexican heritage and Driscoll’s background was firmly planted in the affluent Anglo social environment. De Zavalla’s vision for the Alamo was based on the Alamo’s mission history and the historical actors associated with that genre, which included the native people, Spanish and Mexican society. Driscoll’s family on the other hand Flores argues, was deeply involved in Southern Texas social and economic restructuring, and had no interest in preserving the mission aspect of history, instead Driscoll pursued an agenda geared toward presenting the 1836 battle from a decidedly Texan versus Mexican perspective. Flores argues that Driscoll’s perspective of history was grounded in legitimizing “the place of Anglo-Americans in the emerging class structure of South Texas”[9]; while at the same time it projected Mexicans and others as inferior. Flores argues that Driscoll through her great financial influence regarding the Alamo restoration was able to advance her decidedly Anglo depiction of history. Flores claims that the social processes and conditions occurring in South Texas at the beginning of the twentieth century which saw the disenfranchisement of Mexican-American society influenced Driscoll. Driscoll saw “Mexicans as deeply flawed”[10], and it was this viewpoint of Driscoll’s which began a precedent in Alamo public history, one in which ethnic groups outside of Anglo society became an undermined class. Joe B. Frantz former chair of the history department at the University of Texas in Austin would agree, stating that the Alamo is an “Anglo celebration…it ignores the first 250 years.”[11]

The Alamo even today continues to generate controversy, and is publically contested. Those who contest the Alamo, claim that as a historical site it fails to accurately portray all the historical actors who are part of its rich history. One critic, the Reverend Balthasar Janacek, archdiocesan director of the Old Spanish Missions in San Antonio, sums up many of the negative sentiments of the Alamo by stating the “Alamo has been a vehicle of separation and bitterness between ethnic communities…”[12] Others argue that the Alamo presentation is a commercial defilement, while others such as Gary Foreman argue that the DRT has made little effort at presenting an original recreation of the Alamo. To counter many of the arguments of its critics, the DRT skirts around many of the controversies surrounding the Alamo by claiming the Alamo is a shrine, and as such will never accurately satisfy the Alamo critics.

The Alamo has remained a source of controversy that as the anthropologist Flores points out “is presented through multiple layers of historical texts that apotheosize, rather than debate, the past.”[13] The Alamo has through its initial restoration by the DRT at the beginning of the twentieth century been influenced more by the social modern influences of the time in South Texas , than by the historical facts that should have influenced and evolved it depiction. The Alamo has and continues to this day to be a site in which the cultural meanings of a bygone era have continued to shape this public place, and has done so not by accident.

 

 

Bibliography

Flores, Richard R. “Memory-Place, Meaning, and the Alamo.” American Literary History 10, no. 3 (1998): pp. 428-445. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/490104.

Flores, Richard R. “Private Visions, Public Culture: The Making of the Alamo.” Cultural Anthropology 10, no. 1 (1995): pp. 99-115. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/656233.

Flores, Richard R. “The Alamo: Myth, Public History, and the Politics of Inclusion .” Radical History Review (2000): pp. 91-103. Accessed October 18, 2011. doi:10.1215/01636545-2000-77-91 . http://rhr.dukejournals.org/content/2000/77/91.citation.

Linenthal, Edward Tabor. “”A Reservoir of Spiritual Power”: Patriotic Faith at the Alamo in the Twentieth Century.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91, no. 4 (1988): pp. 509-531. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30240053.

 

 


[1] Richard R. Flores, “The Alamo: Myth, Public History, and the Politics of Inclusion .” Radical History Review (2000): pp. 91-103. Accessed October 18, 2011. doi:10.1215/01636545-2000-77-91 . http://rhr.dukejournals.org/content/2000/77/91.citationFlores, 92

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, 95

[4] Flores, “The Alamo: Myth, Public History, and the Politics of Inclusion, 97

[5] Ibid

[6] Edward Tabor Linenthal,. “A Reservoir of Spiritual Power”: Patriotic Faith at the Alamo in the Twentieth Century.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91, no. 4 (1988): pp. 509-531. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30240053, 529

[7] Richard R Flores,. “Private Visions, Public Culture: The Making of the Alamo.” Cultural Anthropology 10, no. 1 (1995): pp. 99-115. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/656233., 99

[8] Ibid, 103

[9] Flores,. “Private Visions, Public Culture: The Making of the Alamo,  111

[10] Ibid, 106

[11] Gilbert R. Cruz to E.T.L., July 16, 1986, telephone interview; New York Times, March 16, 1986 (4th quotation), in Edward Tabor Linenthal,.”A Reservoir of Spiritual Power”: Patriotic Faith at the Alamo in the Twentieth Century.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 91, no. 4 (1988): pp. 509-531. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30240053, 529 

[12] Linenthal,. “A Reservoir of Spiritual Power”, 512

[13] Richard R. Flores, “Memory-Place, Meaning, and the Alamo.” American Literary History 10, no. 3 (1998): pp. 428-445. Accessed October 18, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/490104., 442

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