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Remembering the Alamo

[ Regional/Texas ]

Remembering the Alamo

Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol

By Richard R. Flores

How the Alamo's transformation into an American cultural icon helped to shape social, economic, and political relations between Anglo and Mexican Texans from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

2002

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 216 pp. | 0 illustrated

ISBN: 978-0-292-72540-9

"Remember the Alamo!" reverberates through Texas history and culture, but what exactly are we remembering? Over nearly two centuries, the Mexican victory over an outnumbered band of Alamo defenders has been transformed into an American victory for the love of liberty. Why did the historical battle of 1836 undergo this metamorphosis in memory and mythology to become such a potent master symbol in Texan and American culture?

In this probing book, Richard Flores seeks to answer that question by examining how the Alamo's transformation into an American cultural icon helped to shape social, economic, and political relations between Anglo and Mexican Texans from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. In the first part of the book, he looks at how the attempts of heritage society members and political leaders to define the Alamo as a place have reflected struggles within Texas society over the place and status of Anglos and Mexicans. In the second part, he explores how Alamo movies and the transformation of Davy Crockett into an Alamo hero/martyr have advanced deeply racialized, ambiguous, and even invented understandings of the past.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Texas Modern
  • Part One. The Alamo as Place, 1836-1905
    1. History, Memory-Place, and Silence: The Public Construction of the Past
    2. From San Fernando de Béxar to the Alamo City: The Political Unconscious of Plaza Space
    3. From Private Visions to Public Culture: The Making of the Alamo
  • Part Two. The Alamo as Project, 1890-1960
    1. Cinematic Images: Frontiers, Nationalism, and the Mexican Question
    2. Why Does Davy Live? Modernity and Its Heroics
  • Conclusion: The Alamo as Tex(Mex) Master Symbol of Modernity
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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I no longer recall the month or the week, only the place. Wrapped in our winter coats, gloves, scarves, and hats, my third-grade class was on its first field trip of the year. The thrill of leaving behind workbooks filled with three-place addition and subtraction problems was electrifying. The trip, like many of those that would follow in my elementary school years, was to the Alamo: bastion of Texas liberty and memorial to brave men. I had passed by it numerous times before, on my way to see my father, who worked at the pharmacy across the street. I remember wondering if he ever ventured there during his lunch break and felt what I would surely feel walking amid the Alamo's ancient stone walls where, I had learned, heroes died.

My every expectation was met. The stones cried out to me with their sense of history. I looked closely at the wall, searching for pockmarks, imagining muskets displacing rock with each shot. The silence of the main room, the mission church, filled me with awe and heightened my senses. There, beneath the floor that I and my classmates trod, was where legends fell in martyrdom for my freedom. Bowie. Travis. Crockett. Texan heroes all of them.

Once outside, the air fresher and the light brilliant, I lost my equilibrium. I recall it vividly. Robert, my best friend, nudged my elbow and whispered, "You killed them! You and the other 'mes'kins'!"

It is not that I didn't know I was Mexican, I couldn't escape it. I just hadn't realized the liability it was in the eyes of my best friend. My initial response was to argue. "I never killed anyone. And my papá [my maternal grandfather, whose age I must have thought made him more a contemporary to the Alamo battle than anyone else in my family] never did either." Although I recalled overhearing his laments, on several late-night occasions when the men were playing dominoes and I should have been sleeping, about working for "esos caranchos gringos." But he didn't kill them.

I do not know what I lost that day. Innocence? Certitude? Identity? Or some other existentially derived nine-year-old sense of self? Whatever it was, it was gone. And, like many other losses in my life, this one could not be replaced. Somehow, deep inside, I knew that moment would last forever, etched into my youthful memory. Unfortunately, this experience is not mine alone. Over the last few years as I have retold this story at various places throughout the United States—some as distant from Texas as Ithaca, New York—someone would invariably approach me with his or her own Alamo story.

Soon after starting this research project, I began to ask close associates and friends their thoughts on the Alamo. While all had their particular understanding of the subject, many of my Mexican American and Latino/a friends and colleagues were ambivalent, if not hostile, to the place. It became very clear to me that the Alamo, and its various representations, did not reference the battle that took place more than one hundred fifty years ago. The Alamo resonated with something deeper, more powerful, and less obvious.

Why was it that the stories, legends, and myths spawned by the Alamo created both pride and ambivalence, patriotism and disregard, heroes and tyrants. Was it because it told a story of winner and losers? Perhaps but rather unlikely. Was it related to the taken for granted axiom that victors tell history from their own vantage point? This was not it either. Did it concern the relationship among the past, its representation, and identity? Perhaps, but it was much more than this. Such were the questions that shaped my early interest in the Alamo and that have led to the writing of this book.

It is my contention that both the breadth of the Alamo story—its reproduction in film, literature, and folklore, and more generally its presence in the repertoire of American cultural memory—and the divergent understandings of it—the competing, even at times silent interpretations—are the result of its transformation from a site of defeat in 1836 into a powerfully rendered and racially produced icon of American cultural memory. While similar sites—Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and Pearl Harbor—easily come to mind, their transformation into major sites of public history and culture do not match the Alamo for their continued effect on racial identities.

But why the Alamo of all places? While the full weight of my argument can only be assessed at the completion of this book, I want to suggest, and begin my own telling, by taking seriously the two features of meaning making that were influential in the Alamo's rise to its place in American popular culture: memory and modernity.

The Alamo did not emerge full blown as a site of public history but is the cumulative effect of multiple representations that have etched its compelling story into the reservoir of American cultural memory. In many ways, the response of my third-grade accuser was mediated by the narrative he had learned from teachers, picture books, movies, and our visit that day. In a work much like this one, Marita Sturken (1997) persuasively argues for the examination of cultural memory as it has shaped the cognitive contours of sites like the Vietnam War Memorial and events related to the AIDS epidemic. For Sturken (1997:5) , cultural memory refers to those aspects of memory that exist outside of official historical discourse, yet are "entangled" with them. Like Sturken's work, this book is not a "history" in the traditional sense of the word, nor is it principally concerned with the events of 1836. Instead, what follows is an exploration of how the Alamo is remembered through various genres of public and popular culture and how these rememberings are entangled with official historical discourses on the events of 1836. But this book moves in different directions from Sturken's as well. The process of "remembering" requires, as Sturken suggests, a certain level of "forgetting." But forgetting is not a passive experience; like remembering, it is an active process that involves erasure. Memory, in being selective, actively forgets or "silences the past," as Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) writes.

While I do not want to engage the various popular or academic distinctions between historiography and memory, distinctions forged from various forms of discursive practice, I must state that this work moves away from the concerns one might find in a traditional historiography. I am dealing with what some might call "historical" materials, but I do so from a position that asks questions about identity, power, and their relationship to the construction of meaning. David J. Weber (1988:135-136), the preeminent historian of the Spanish borderlands, writes that "a number of the cherished stories about the Alamo have no basis in historical fact, but have moved out of the earthly realm of reality into the stratosphere of myth." I agree with Weber's statement, with one exception. Myths, and cultural memories more generally, are not stratospheric tales but deeply grounded narratives through which communities express their heartfelt convictions. Understanding the place of the Alamo in memory and historiography is not a task of picking through the rubble of fact and fiction, discarding the invented and upholding the real. Any interpretation and critique of the Alamo must examine the contents of the story (the battle of 1836) and come to terms with the raw materials of fact and fiction as genuine elements in a larger tale. This tale, now recovered, reveals how and why "the story of the Alamo" came to hold such a place in the cultural reservoir of the United States (see Linenthal 1988). This recovery recast the materials of cultural memory as inflections of a society coming to terms with itself in real historical time. My general thesis is that this inflection—the symbolic work accomplished through "remembering the Alamo"—consists of signifying a radical difference between "Anglos" and "Mexicans" so as to cognize and codify the social relations circulating at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Alamo, as a major feature of American cultural memory, references not only the events of 1836 but the social and historical moment of its remembering as well. I would even suggest that its primary importance lies not with remembering 1836 but with inscribing, in the moment of its retelling, a more contemporary lesson. Recall that the men of Sam Houston, as they attacked the forces of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, did so, we are told, shouting, "Remember the Alamo." Thus what may be the first public act of remembering the Alamo serves as a call to arms and action. Remembering is a deeply embedded social practice that informs the present. The act of remembering and the acts such rememberings inform are the subject of this work.

The ubiquity of the Alamo narrative stems, in part, from the multiple forms through which the Alamo is remembered: historiography, film, literature, and other genres of memorialization. These rememberings constitute what Trouillot (1995:22) calls the "historical production" of history, those deeply experienced and highly entangled narratives of remembering that form for us the workings of historical discourse. Unlike Trouillot, however, who speaks of the "silences" of history, this book examines the significance of remembering. Silencing and remembering, I offer, serve as Janus-faced articulations of power embedded in the production of the past. Recovering the silenced voices of historical production restores the voices of the subaltern; uncovering why and how the past is remembered reveals the strategies and ideologies that silence social actors in the present.

My focus on memory and remembering is coupled with a second, equally important aspect of this work: modernity. My argument throughout this book is that we cannot understand the importance, preservation, and fundamentally central role of the Alamo in American cultural memory without understanding its profound relationship to the project of modernity. I do not mean that the Alamo is invented, whole cloth, in the modern period: the events of 1836 did occur. What I do suggest is that the cultural memory of the Alamo is both produced and invoked as a means of sustaining the deep social changes associated with the transition to modernity in Texas. As such, the cultural memory of the Alamo provides semantic justification for slotting Mexicans and Anglos into an emerging social order brought forth by the material and ideological forces that gripped Texas between 1880 and 1920.

I discuss my understanding of modernity in chapter 1. Let me briefly state here that—particularly through its local inflection, what I call the Texas Modern—it references a series of economic changes, social processes, discursive articulations, and cultural forms that result in the transformation of Texas from a largely Mexican, cattle-based society into an industrial and agricultural social complex between 1880 and 1920. This transformation is at once creative and destructive, promising and debilitating, a "unity of disunity" (Berman 1982:15) that sets in motion forces of nationalism, post-Civil War politics, wage labor, bureaucratic rationalism, and the restructuring of racial and ethnic difference. It is here, in the cleavages and fissures of this transformation, that the Alamo is born. Modernity, while uneven and disparate as a social force, nonetheless serves as a periodizing frame to organize the material of this book. My focus on modernity and the Texas Modern more specifically is not undertaken in a causal manner. My thesis that the Alamo is part of the project of modernity does not in itself provide the specific ideological and practical articulations of the modern that serve as the unique or general developments from which the cultural memory of the Alamo arises. It is, in fact, the task of the pages ahead to do just that.

The Texas Modern, therefore, is both the social ground on which the Alamo enters into American cultural memory as well as the key analytic frame through which I interpret its various articulations. My decision on which expressive forms to investigate—memory, historiography, film, literature—has not been haphazard but has been influenced, in part, by the relative dearth of discussion on some forms and the vast material on others. In both cases, however, decisions on what to "include" and "exclude" emerged from the material itself. For example, that little has been written on the Alamo as a place in the built environment of San Antonio indicates how such a process seems a "natural" occurrence of everyday life. And yet, as I demonstrate in chapter 3, this process requires both the dissolution of one way of organizing space and its replacement by another. On the contrary, the vast historiographic writings on the Alamo, like the preponderance of films, indicate the continuing role the Alamo plays in the reproduction of a Texas and, more specifically, U.S. social imagination. I do not claim to have captured all facets of the Alamo; this was never my intent. Instead, my plan has been to rethink the Alamo, not as a place in history, but as a historical place made meaningful through the practices and ideologies of the Texas Modern. My objective has been to uncover the social conditions—those material and ideological practices and values—that serve as the fodder from which the very possibility of a place like the Alamo emerges in the social imagination of a people. Such a task requires that I first search the past for the various seedbeds that serve as the social "matter" for the formation of the Alamo; and second, once present, chart the various effects the Alamo, as a symbolic form, has had on the social landscape. Understanding the conditions that gave rise to the Alamo cannot ignore the equally necessary pursuit of analyzing how the emergence of this "master symbol" affected the lives of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. I conclude, therefore, that those who remember the Alamo in the early twentieth century do so not primarily to remember the events of 1836 but to re-member a social body through a specific hierarchical and class rubric endemic to the arrival of modernity in Texas. In effect, re-membering the Alamo as a site of cultural memory, as a sacred site in the pantheon of American public history, serves to hide the material social relations and conditions that require such sites in the first place. This process of re-membering has already stamped the Alamo as a naturally given icon of American cultural memory, leaving us to understand not its historical character but its "meaning." My reflections on the Alamo, as a symbolic form, follows a route directly opposite to that of its actual historical development, although I present events and actors from the past. The task of this book is to move backward from the "Alamo as given" to the historical and social conditions that serve as the necessary elements of its making and the work these elements achieve in the everyday world of social life.

Contemporary anthropological practice favors, rightly so, I believe, the portrayal of "cultural" groups as complex, historically specific entities that can no longer be discussed through reductive binaries such as those used here: "Anglo" or "Texan" and "Mexican." Such dichotomies, James Clifford (1988:23) warns, lead to the depiction of "abstract, ahistorical 'others.'" I agree. My usage of "Anglo" and "Mexican" is a necessary one, however, since what I am undertaking is a historical ethnography of the formation of "Angloness" and "Mexicanness" as categories of difference and power constructed through the making of the Alamo itself. I realize that historically specific social actors may or may not have subscribed to these terms and their particular ideologies even as the effects of their practical activity constituted the formation of historical modes of dominance and representation. Unlike contemporary ethnographic works that move from the binaries of cultural differences to the complexities of subject positions, Remembering the Alamo underscores the production of difference and the reification of identity achieved through the "making of the Alamo." My task, then, is, in the words of Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (1992:16), a study of how the Alamo affected notions of cultural otherness through the "production of difference."

This book begins with a discussion of the Texas Modern, crucial to my overall argument about the Alamo as it is tied directly to this social formation. I see the "birth" of the Alamo as coterminous with the events of the Texas Modern, a begetting that provides representational and ideological fodder to this period.

In part 1 I am principally concerned with the Alamo as a place of cultural memory. Chapter 2, therefore, assesses the public history presented at the Alamo today. This "official" Alamo story, provided by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), the custodians of the Alamo for the state of Texas, is juxtaposed to historical material that has been "left out" of the official version as well as to the subjective impact this story has on those who experience it. My interest is not to merely contrast "my" story with "theirs," although this is done, but to underscore how the power and weight of the Alamo story—a combination of popular culture, memory, and public history—affects and shapes social identities in the contemporary period.

Chapter 3 considers how the original urban geography of San Antonio shifted from the Mexican plazas to the square surrounding the Alamo. In this shift, one that began long before the physical structures were themselves fully recognized as monuments to the past, we see how the Alamo comes to signify, nondiscursively, an emerging and distinctively American social order. Chapter 4 examines the efforts to "preserve" the physical structures of the Alamo through the work and writings of Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll. It not only provides a reading of how the Alamo is codified into a place of public history and culture but also uses this event as a way to understand the larger cultural and social processes of the early twentieth century.

Part 2 takes seriously the social and cultural project of modernity and explores how the cultural memory of the Alamo advances deeply racialized, ambiguous, even invented understandings of the past. Chapter 5 looks at the role of cinema. In particular, I am concerned with how two films, Martyrs of the Alamo, released in 1915, and The Alamo by John Wayne, released in 1960, provide visual representations and ideological substance to the changing social conditions of their time. While telling the story of the Alamo, these films also reveal the complex social and racial underpinnings of their historical moments.

The story of the Alamo cannot be told without reference to its "heroes." While much has already been written about the Alamo defenders, chapter 6 deals specifically with the production of Davy Crockett as an American hero. Since at least 1975 "how" Crockett died has been a topic of debate. It is clear, I believe, that most historical evidence points to Crockett's execution after the battle; I am less concerned here with how he died than with why he continues to "live" as a heroic figure.

Finally, in chapter 7, I bring the full weight of my argument to bear on the role of symbols, here the Alamo, in shaping the identities and social locations of those signified by them. I consider the role of the Alamo as a master symbol, how as a myth of origin it construes social actors in the present through a story that assures clear divisions between winners and losers, Anglos and Mexicans, Self and Other. I suggest that the Alamo is also a particular token of a more general type of symbolic form coterminous with modernity.

The research for and writing of this book introduced me to a world of scholars and everyday citizens for whom the Alamo is more than a subject of history. For many of them, it is a passion. Perhaps for me as well. But my interest has never been in discovering the "real" events of 1836 but in exploring the how and why of the reproduction of 1836 in other social and historical moments. There are some who believe that questioning and interrogating the relics and shrines of our national past handicaps the present. I disagree. It is only in "examining" the past, not in accepting it as the workings of mythology or cultural memory, that we truly learn from it. There are also those who believe that questioning the Alamo in any way disvalues the decisions and valor of those who died in 1836. I disagree here as well. But again this is not my focus. I will let historians debate the merits of the social actors of 1836 as actors of their own time. My concern is how the cultural memory of the events of 1836 shapes, influences, and represents the changing relationship between Anglos and Mexicans during the Texas Modern. Thus this is a book about the Alamo as symbol: how the Alamo speaks to the politics of its remembering and references the social conditions of that moment. Unpacking the various rememberings and meanings surrounding the Alamo is critical if we are to understand how historical meanings shape contemporary social actors and realize the deep implications of power, meaning making, and the past. When such unpacking brushes up against the production of national or regional myths, icons, memories, and ideologies that have contributed to the racialization, stereotyping, and social displacement of others, it behooves us to probe deeply and honestly into regions some would rather leave unexplored. This is a book of cultural and historical criticism that should be read as an effort to understand how and why the Alamo continues to be both celebrated and disparaged. My hope is that those whose lives have been shadowed by the walls of this old mission may find in these pages a glimmer of light that allows them to see the past more critically and the present more clearly.

 

Richard R. Flores is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also directs the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies.

"Drawing on a broad range of theorists in various fields (geography, social history, semiotics, cultural studies, and anthropology), Flores provides a compelling and quite forceful analysis of various historically produced forms of documenting, recalling, and interpreting the Alamo."

—Olga Nájera-Ramírez, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz

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