Forget the Alamo

A new breed of scholars is rewriting Texas history to debunk the myths, explore the overlooked, and find heroism in the everyday lives of women and minorities—all while fending off charges of “flabby multiculturalism.”

With everything that T. R. Fehrenbach and David Montejano have in common, you might think they would be drinking buddies, or at least meet sometime for coffee. Both are Texas historians from San Antonio. Both have written highly praised books about the state’s past. The Texas Historical Commission’s annual prize for the best work of Texas history is named for Fehrenbach and has been won by Montejano. Yet the two authors have never even had a conversation. Mention to one of them the kind of history that the other likes to write and you will likely elicit nothing more than sardonic laughter.

Once the exclusive province of a few well-known academics (most of them at the University of Texas, such as Eugene Barker and Walter Prescott Webb) and amateur historians (ranging from Fehrenbach to folklorist J. Frank Dobie), Texas history today is flourishing—and factionalizing—as never before. History, it has been said, is what one age finds of interest in another, and the historians of our age are finding much to be interested in that their predecessors overlooked. The traditional historians tended to write sweeping, mythic sagas—none more sweeping or mythic than Fehren bach’s best-selling Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans,  first published in 1968.

The new Texas historians can be found in universities throughout Texas and beyond, writing academic treatises that are changing the way contemporary Texans look at their state. The mythic historians wrote in generalities, preferred anecdote to factual detail, and focused on heroes, heroic events, and the uniqueness of Texas. The new social historians, or revisionists, as they call themselves, pore over census data and courthouse records and recreate the realities of everyday life. They concentrate on issues of race, class, and gender that are often glossed over by the big-picture historians. They share an antipathy for the mythic idea that history has a plot line, such as Manifest Destiny or Progress; instead, they see history as directionless, a continuing story of conflict and contact between groups. 

Remember the Alamo? Today’s historians would just as soon forget it—or redefine it. Fehrenbach, an honorary member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, has participated in the group’s rituals at the Alamo, but David Montejano (he pronounces his first name Mexican-style, with the stress on the second syllable), despite his San Antonio upbringing, never set foot in the Alamo as a tourist (although he has as a scholar). The new historians don’t romanticize the frontier, they don’t pay homage to cattle drives and frontier violence, they don’t condemn Yankee carpetbaggers, and they don’t care how Davy Crockett died. Influenced by the cultural turmoil of the sixties, they study not just heroes but common people, and not just white men but women, blacks, Mexican Americans, and nonconformists—from abolitionists to labor organizers. As far as they’re concerned, the fascination with the Alamo symbolizes all that is wrong with Texas history.

Lone Star is in no danger of being consigned to the historical scrap heap. The new historians’ books are published by university presses and purchased from catalogs; most would be deemed wildly successful if they sold three thousand copies. Lone Star, meanwhile, has done about a hundred times as well and continues to be sold by major bookstores. A new edition is due out this year, the book’s thirtieth anniversary. But the cutting edge of Texas history clearly belongs to the new historians, partly because much has indeed been left out of Texas history and partly because the way for historians to get ahead in this nonheroic era is to write nonheroic history. The new historians influence not only each other and their students but also the authors of textbooks who write the official version of history that is taught in Texas schools. This is Texas history as the next generation of Texas leaders is learning it, and the effect on the way Texans view their state will be profound.

The Tejano School

The traditional view of Texas history regarding Mexican Americans is that Anglo-American society met the Spanish-Indian society head on, and the Anglo-Americans prevailed because of their cultural superiority. Webb, in The Texas Rangers, expressed the prevailing view of Mexican inferiority when he wrote in 1935: “There is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood.”

A new breed of scholars emerged with the Chicano political and cultural movement of the late sixties and early seventies. After a century of scholarship that cast Anglos as heroes and Mexican Americans as unworthy, the early Tejano historians tended to reverse the equation in equally simplistic ways. They gave their works titles like Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation and Foreigners in Their Native Land. In a 1978 dissertation later published as They Called Them Greasers, Arnoldo de Leon wrote that nineteenth-century Anglo Texans who saw brown-skinned murder victims often ignored them because of the common belief that the spicy diet of “greasers” rendered their corpses impervious to decay. The early Tejano scholars seemed to regard all Mexican Americans, even bandits and thugs, as victims or heroes.

Since the late seventies, however, the Tejano School has concentrated more on disputing some of the old myths, such as the political passivity of Mexican Americans. University of Houston historian Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., has shown how Mexican Americans challenged the segregation of their children in public schools, and Texas A&M professor Julia Kirk Blackwelder has written about women labor organizers on the West Side of San Antonio during the Depression-era pecan shellers’ strikes. The Tejano School is no longer the exclusive province of Mexican American historians, or of Texans, for that matter.

The most influential work remains David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 183 6—1986. Published in 1987, it is the book that won the Fehrenbach prize for its author,

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