On a recent Sunday afternoon, a preacher in a flak jacket tried to fire up the crowd of milling tourists and locals in Alamo Plaza. A troop of eager Boy Scouts in khaki gear briefly paused to listen, along with bemused Japanese sojourners and visitors from Brazil, Idaho, and Senegal. “The Quran won’t get you to heaven!” he wailed accusingly. “The Tao won’t get you there! Only Jeee-zus! Only this book will get you into heaven!” he declared, thrusting his Bible aloft as if it were suddenly aflame. It was a reminder that San Antonio has long been a crossroads of competing epiphanies.
A few yards away stood our monument to how tragically awry meetings between strangers can go. For many Mexican Americans, the Alamo isn’t a symbol of heroic valor, it’s a reminder of betrayals and usurpations, of how a people came to be exiles in their own land. Even today, the occasional bar fight breaks out in San Antonio when someone tries to settle this score.
A recently opened exhibit, “Standing Their Ground: Tejanos at the Alamo,” seeks to adjust the stalwart’s version of the siege of the Alamo as Anglo versus Mexican by highlighting the presence of Tejanos among the ill-fated band of insurrectionists. Installed in seven vitrines throughout the shrine and sacristy, “Standing Their Ground,” which was mounted by the Texas General Land Office and opened during land commissioner Jerry Patterson’s recent failed bid for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, can seem to be a fevered bit of ethnic pandering. “It’s important to remember the Tejano defenders who sacrificed their lives for Texas freedom too,” Patterson states in a press release.
There are, of course, a few examples on display of the Mexican presence in the legendary battle of the revolution. One glass case contains a beautiful crimson and silver-polka-dotted chocolatera, a ceramic pot used to make Aztec-style hot chocolate. Nearby there’s a Spanish navaja, a folding knife with an ornate Moorish design on its handle, an elegant weapon that makes a bowie knife look like a savage bludgeon. But the modest show overreaches in its attempts to represent Tejanos as equal comrades in the uprising. You can’t spin an epic of unrecognized valor out of a couple of gewgaws.
Yes, Tejanos died at the Alamo—8 of them, to be exact, out of 189 men who are believed to have been killed. That number could have been higher; the legendary Juan Seguín and 6 other Tejanos were ordered to leave and seek reinforcements just before the fighting started. But the truth is that Tejano enlistment in the Texas Revolution was scant. Ampler biographies of the Alamo’s Tejano dead may illuminate the reasons these men cast their lot with interlopers from the North, but this show merely wants to enlist them in a roll call of Texas glory.
Staring into the glass cases, visitors can see myriad reflections. Squinting to read a letter from Seguín, one elderly woman from Guadalajara told her daughter, “It looks like my father’s writing!” Another tourist said to his companion, “You know, Sebastopol was Russia’s Alamo!”
Fanciful, perhaps. But gaze deeply into the texts and you will find a hidden story. Court documents reveal that decades after the battle, the heirs of the Tejano dead still sought to receive the land promised to them as recognition of their ancestors’ sacrifice, “a just and standing claim,” in the words of one affidavit. It’s a poignant testimonio of broken promises.
Even Seguín, who went on to become mayor of San Antonio, lost hope in the aftermath of the Texas Revolution, having witnessed scourges of Anglo violence on his Tejano compatriots. He eventually decamped to Mexico, where he later died, disillusioned, convinced that his dream of an equitable, multicultural, mestizo Texas would never come to be. More than a century later, we’re still waiting.
Remember the Alamo, indeed.