No Retreat! No Surrender!

Besieged by critics on all sides, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas have once again vowed to fight to the death. But is it finally time for the defenders of the Alamo to raise the white flag?
No Retreat! No Surrender!
FAMILY FEUD: The DRT moved to expel Sarah Reveley after she said the group should lose its right to maintain the Alamo.
Photograph by Jay Sauceda

At about noon on June 13, the feast day of Saint Anthony, four actors carried an eight-foot statue of San Antonio’s namesake and brought it to rest in front of the Alamo. They were under the direction of Rolando Briseño, a 58-year-old artist and impresario with closely cropped dark hair and inquisitive, darting eyes. Briseño’s forehead was beaded with sweat, and he wore a crisp, short-sleeved guayabera and a triumphant smile as he led a procession of more than two hundred revelers in the staging of a fiesta designed to, in his words, “reconceptualize the Alamo as a space for celebrating the confluences of cultures—Native American, African, Mexican, and Anglo—rather than a shrine to Anglo dominance.”

On Briseño’s mark, the bearers flipped the statue upside down. “In Catholic tradition, people pray to saints for help,” he said earnestly. “The statue of Saint Anthony is turned upside down when praying for favors. Many of us have asked for years that Mexican Americans, heirs of the builders and descendants of the original people of this city, share in the Alamo legacy.”

Soon the fiesta began. A Native American shaman blessed Briseño and the crowd of mostly Mexican American scholars, artists, and writers and waved a seashell filled with incense as halos of sweet-smelling sage floated through the air. Finally Briseño declared the event a success. For a day at least, Hispanics had participated in the story of the Alamo. With another swift flip, Saint Anthony stood right side up against the backdrop of the mute and immobile facade of the mission. Everyone cheered, including the usual herd of tourists who had gathered in the plaza.

Less than a week later, when the news broke that the state’s attorney general had launched an investigation into the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for failing to fix the cracked and leaky roof in the nearly three-hundred-year-old chapel, some in San Antonio speculated that the public spell cast by Briseño may have supernaturally contributed to the DRT’s troubles. In addition to finding themselves under official scrutiny by Greg Abbott, the powerful matriarchs, who have been the custodians of the Alamo since 1905, are also at loggerheads with Governor Rick Perry for attempting to acquire a federal trademark on the words “The Alamo.”

But that is only one front in the battle for control of what most people revere as the shrine of Texas liberty. As the stewardship of the starchy old guard of the DRT is being threatened, many aspects of the myth of the Alamo are crumbling under the weight of rapid cultural change. And just as in the original battle, no one is backing down. The DRT won’t give an inch. Modern-day secessionists routinely hold rallies in front of the Alamo. Petitions are circulated in support of Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. And activists such as Briseño and Rosie Castro, the mother of San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, have fired back. Complaining of the mythologizing of Anglo heroes at the battle of 1836 and the disparaging of Mexicans, Rosie was quoted last May in the New York Times Magazine as saying this of the Alamo: “I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.”

The tension has been building for generations. Fifty years ago this month, on October 24, 1960, John Wayne’s The Alamo premiered at San Antonio’s Woodlawn Theatre. As Davy Crockett, Wayne personified the rugged ideal of Texans as an independent breed. Wayne swaggers and says in the film, “ ‘Republic.’ I like the sound of the word. Means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell. Some words give you a feeling. ‘Republic’ is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.” For many, Wayne’s speech describes not only the dream of the Alamo but the dream of Texas itself.

“I was in elementary school when the movie premiered,” said Virginia Van Cleave, the chairwoman of the Alamo Committee of the DRT. “It was a huge event for the city. John Wayne came, and the celebration lasted for days.” This year, to commemorate the anniversary, the cash-strapped Daughters have planned a fund-raising gala on the stone plaza in front of the Alamo. Wayne’s daughter and granddaughter will be on hand to accept the Daughters’ first Spirit of the Alamo award, which will be posthumously given to the actor . Once again, the legend of Crockett, dying as Wayne did in the movie, surrounded by an army of Mexicans led by a tyrant, will be celebrated.

On a recent morning Van Cleave was working in the DRT’s inner sanctum, which is located behind the gardens of the Alamo. Her desk was stacked high with papers, architectural drawings, and photos of cracks in the roof of what the DRT calls “the shrine.” Van Cleave is a large, softly shaped woman with a sweet, distinctly Southern disposition. She wore a gold necklace strung with charms of San Antonio’s five Spanish missions. As she leaned forward, the Alamo charm dangled directly over her heart. Since the Alamo has lost two directors and a marketing director—all professionals with deep résumés—in less than two years, Van Cleave, a volunteer, now runs the day-to-day operations. “The DRT is doing its work,” said Van Cleave wearily. “We are under scrutiny, but we believe our good work at maintaining the Alamo for one hundred and five years at no cost to the state speaks for itself. We will protect the Alamo.”

The current battle with the state began with infighting at the organization, whose 6,700 members all meet this requirement: They are lineal descendants of a man or a woman who served the Republic of Texas prior to annexation, in 1846. Feuds among the Daughters are legendary. In 1908, three years after the DRT took control of the Alamo, Adina de Zavala, a zealous San Antonio Daughter, barricaded herself in the convento for three days and three nights to keep another faction of the DRT from tearing it down.

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