There is a word that hangs over Estella Zermeño’s shoulder like a sack of bricks, and to explain to you why, she must sit down on a green leather couch in her home and take them out one by one. “‘Massacre,’” she says with conviction, “is offensive.” In a letter to the editor of their hometown paper, her husband, William, referred to it as “the M word.” Their concern regards one of the most infamous events in Texas history. In March 1836, 342 men fighting for Texas independence under Colonel James Fannin surrendered to a Mexican army led by General José de Urrea, only to be shot a week later under the orders of President Antonio López de Santa Anna while being held as prisoners. Texans came to remember the event as “the Goliad Massacre” and inscribed the term for generations on plaques, in history books, and across museum walls. Yet, the Zermeños believe that the proper label should have been “execution”—and to understand why this small distinction looms so large in their minds, one first has to know their family history, hear them talk about civic responsibility, debate the merits of inclusion. And suddenly, the bricks are piled up really high on the coffee table.
The history of the war that secured independence from Mexico is sacred to many Texans, and for the Zermeños to suggest that it needs a little editing would make some wonder what side Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent—are on. But the question is hardly that simple. Estella’s family has been in Goliad for nine generations. Her ancestors fought on both sides of the war, and she dedicates her life to tracing those roots. Every time she discovers a forgotten Tejano soldier or elected official, she demands a marker, a special tombstone, a little ceremony to show some respect. She and a committee of fellow genealogists even plan to petition the Legislature to place a monument of a Tejano ranching family on the Capitol grounds. The issue for the Zermeños is not who is more Texan—but who wrote Texas history and how deeply the myths they created run even today. “It should be a shrine to the people who lived here from the beginning, not just to that event,” Estella Zermeño says of the old fort in Goliad where Fannin and his men met their doom.
Yet one also must sit down on a rustic chair inside the cold stone walls of that fort and hear out Newton M. Warzecha. A tall, businesslike man, he single-handedly holds up Presidio La Bahía, doing everything from pleading for funds to mowing the lawn on a cloudy Friday morning. And he is the one who keeps printing those letters and ads touting the annual commemoration of “the Goliad Massacre.” “How am I to change or stop the use of the word ‘massacre’ if there is no new evidence to indicate that there was something other than a massacre here?” he asks, exasperated. A native of nearby Cuero, Warzecha landed in Goliad in the midst of a career as a financial consultant. He was working in Victoria and had offered to volunteer at the presidio but was asked instead to take the helm until a new director was found. Each month ran into the next. Ten years later nobody else has been hired, since Warzecha has managed the fort so well that it has become financially self-sufficient and now draws some 33,000 students and tourists a year. “I take these things personally because of what I have put into this place,” he says, looking misty-eyed. “It grieves me very much.”
By all accounts, Estella Zermeño and Newton Warzecha had been friends, the kind of friends who went out of their way for each other. Every year, when the Zermeños and a civic group they belong to set up camp near the presidio to commemorate a Mexican holiday, Warzecha would offer a piñata for the festivities and bring out any equipment the group needed—a folding table, a public address system. When he celebrated his birthday last year, Estella Zermeño lugged her own stereo and a few people to his home just across from the county courthouse downtown, playing Lydia Mendoza tunes below his balcony and translating “Las Mañanitas.” But the debate over whether the word “massacre” aptly describes what occurred one Palm Sunday at Presidio La Bahía has punctured that friendship like a rusty nail, and now both sides are hurting. That is because their debate is not about friendship but about weightier things, like historical interpretation, the plight of the vanquished, and—though everybody wishes it wasn’t—the fact that their skin is of different hues. Straddling the San Antonio river 26 miles west of Victoria, Goliad occupies an unassuming little spot at the intersection of two lonely highways. At first glance, it appears like nothing more than a few small buildings slapped against a mix of live oak, mesquite, huisache, and brush. Yet for the visitor with a plan and an ounce of historical appreciation, it is a treasure. In the town’s square the county’s three-story courthouse is framed by a block of charming buildings dating back to the turn of the twentieth century, all proudly displaying in bold numbers their year of origin. Just south of downtown, U.S. 183 leads to a cluster of ancient gray stone structures that impose themselves onto the expansive South Texas sky. The most commanding is Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission, established here by Spain in 1749. Farther along, across the river, lie the remains of an eighteenth-century Spanish settlement. PresidioLa Bahía squats in the middle of what once was a modest agricultural community. It is an impressive sight, with its reconstructed bastion and three-foot-thick walls. One can spend the night in the fort’s single guest quarters and climb atop a lookout platform after dark, soaking up the grandness as the chapel’s bells sing their eerie baritone song and the wind rustles the presidio’s original iron locks.
Goliad, a town of around two thousand people today, was founded asLa Bahía in the same year as the mission and quickly became one of the three most critical areas of Spanish settlement in what is now Texas (along with San Antonio and Nacogdoches). In 1829 its residents petitioned the governor of Coahuila y Texas to change the town’s name to Goliad, an anagram of the name of Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the martyred priest who had incited the Mexican independence movement. A baby boy was born just outside the fort that same year and baptized in the presidio as Ignacio Zaragoza; he would repulse Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico at the famous Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Goliad also is the place where, after Texian forces seized the presidio late in 1835, a group of 91 men gathered to sign the Goliad Declaration ofGoliad Independence, the first step toward the Texas Revolution. It is not surprising, then, that a calendar put out today by the Goliad Chamber of Commerce lists everything from reenactments of the military events to a city-wide Cinco de Mayo bash.
The name of Goliad was etched in Texas’ collective memory, however, through a single event—the now-disputed Goliad Massacre. In February 1836 Fannin and his garrison occupied PresidioLa Bahía in the midst of the Texas Revolution. After the Texians’ devastating defeat at the Alamo, Sam Houston ordered Fannin and his troops to abandon the fort. Timing was not in their favor. As they retreated, some nine miles from Goliad, they encountered Urrea’s cavalry at Coleto Creek. The Texians were surrounded and significantly outnumbered. Fannin thought those who were still standing after fighting for several hours might be able to escape. But when he asked his men for a vote, they were determined not to abandon their injured and instead agreed to accept Urrea’s request to cease fire. Late into the second day of a bloody exchange, on March 20, they surrendered, believing that they would be treated as prisoners of war. “For years Texans insisted Fannin got honorable terms,” wrote T. R. Fehrenbach, one of Texas’ most prominent historians, in his classic work,Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. “The evidence is otherwise; Mexican army archives hold a document with Fannin’s signature, in which he surrendered at discretion, meaning, unconditionally, and put himself and his men at the Supreme Government’s mercy.”
But there would be no mercy. The captives were marched to the same stone building where Warzecha works today, and for a week they were held in the presidio’s chapel with hardly enough room to lie down. They had been told that they soon would be freed as long as they returned to the United States. That is what Urrea and his officers believed too. But from San Antonio, Santa Anna reminded his officers of the Tornel Decree, which had been issued in December 1835 by the Mexican minister of war. It stated that “foreigners landing on the coast of the Republic, or invading its territory by land, armed with the intention of attacking our country, will be deemed pirates and dealt with as such.”
On March 23 Santa Anna issued a command to execute the prisoners. Urrea, who was in Victoria, was devastated by the edict and sent a letter to the officer he had left in charge of the presidio urging leniency, but the subaltern carried out Santa Anna’s order. Fannin’s men were filed out of the presidio in three groups and led in different directions, and for a brief moment, March 27 was a happy day. Some of them even whistled as they went, thinking they were going home. But less than a mile from the fort, the Mexican guard marching on one side of the Texian columns countermarched toward the guard on the other, forming a single line. They lifted their muskets. And they fired. Back at the presidio, Fannin, who was injured in one leg, was seated and shot in the head; the forty or so Texians who had been wounded at Coleto Creek were taken out to the fort’s open square and killed. Out in the field, those who weren’t killed by the first volley ran for their lives as Mexican soldiers chased after them. Most were finished off with lances, bayonets, and butcher knives, but 28 escaped, and a few later would write accounts about the terrifying incident.
The event enraged the remaining Texian troops and became, with the Alamo, the most obvious justification for revenge when they brutally killed hundreds of Mexican soldiers at the Battle of San Jacinto a month later, even after Sam Houston had ordered them to stop. In their eyes one of the biggest insults was that the bodies of Fannin and his men had not been buried but rather piled in high layers of corpses and wood and burned a short distance from the fort. Says Stephen Hardin, a Victoria College professor and Texas historian who wroteTexian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836: “Unfortunately, the wood was green, the fires went out, and what you have then is a pile of half-roasted Texian corpses.” Those were left to the buzzards, the wolves, the coyotes.
Every March for several years now, Hardin has slipped into a thick wool overcoat, vest, and knee boots, as the Texian civilian soldiers were dressed, and joined members of the Crossroads of Texas Living History Association at the presidio to reenact the killing of Fannin and his men. It is an event that last year drew some four thousand spectators from throughout the state and beyond and filled the town’s two motels and a nearby campground. On the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the deaths, the air around the fort fills with the smoke of black powder as Texian and Mexican soldiers square off at the Battle of Coleto, as it is officially known. That evening, spectators file solemnly through the presidio with a flickering candle in hand to watch as the Mexican officer in charge receives Santa Anna’s orders to kill his captives. They also encounter wounded soldiers strewn about the chapel, their clothes red with blood, pleading for water. Then on Sunday, they follow the men on the “death march” to private property behind the fort, where, leaning on a fence, they watch the Mexican soldiers finish off the Texians. The two-day event ends with a memorial service in the presidio’s chapel and a solemn procession to the Fannin monument a short distance from the fort.
“We can talk about this,” Hardin says regarding the lexical debate, “but the fact of the matter is, if you say, ‘Come to a living history event commemorating the Goliad Execution,’ or ‘the Goliad Misunderstanding,’ or ‘the Goliad Unpleasantness’—whatever term you decide on—people are not going to know what you’re talking about. That event, in history, in the public mind, is known as the Goliad Massacre. I can understand people being upset about that, but that’s a reality. That’s what people have been taught in school to call it.” Besides, Hardin believes firmly that “execution” does not correctly describe a situation in which the soldiers were denied all of the formalities that typically accompany a legal death. “One of the requirements of an execution is that a fellow has to know he’s about to be executed,” he says. “I think that’s a biggie. And without being glib, they just took these guys out and started shooting.”
Yet, critics on the other side can make a good legal case. Considering Mexico’s Tornel Decree, were the Texian soldiers “pirates” instead of prisoners of war? Since most of the men fighting for Texas were volunteers from the United States and the world, were they not foreigners invading Mexico? As is typical of many debates over Texas history, this one is impossible to resolve. The New Handbook of Texas, a scholarly encyclopedia, states that Santa Anna was operating within Mexican law, a position echoed by Fehrenbach, who wrote that “this execution of pirates was not a crime under international law.”
“To me a massacre, by definition, is an indiscriminate killing,” says Emilio “Sonny” Vargas III, who is the president of the local Zaragoza Society and teaches Texas and world history to Goliad middle-schoolers. “To kill indiscriminately is to go out and kill without any reason. A massacre is what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma. What took place here in Goliad was an execution. It was a time of war. The men raised arms against their nation, and the penalty for that was death.” In January, after the Zermeños called upon the Zaragoza Society for support, the civic organization mailed a letter to the bishop of the Victoria Diocese asking him to bring an end to the use of the term “massacre.” Because the diocese had purchased the fort and its chapel in 1855, the authority over how the presidio conducts its business rests in religious hands. In addition to objecting to a term that is so divisive, the society asked the bishop to do something about the graphic reenactment that occurs each year, arguing that it is “extremely violent” and “counterproductive.”
Those statements offered a glimpse into the real stakes behind the Goliad debate, hinting that their true preoccupation is not with a single word but with that word’s heavy legacy—and with the disproportionate weight of that legacy for some people. Much as memories of the Goliad and Alamo deaths impelled Anglo Texans to persecute Tejanos for years after the war had ended, Estella Zermeño argues that the characterization of the battle in public history and its reenactment continue to foster animosity against Mexico and anyone of Mexican descent. “I feel like they come here and they go back with renewed hatred against us,” she says. Her husband, grabbing his body in simulation, interrupts: “It’s like a thorn we haven’t been able to take out of our side.”
Although the Goliad controversy is deeply personal to those involved, its greatest significance lies in its contribution to the ongoing debate over the meaning of Texas history and the impact of that history today. Disputes such as this one become messy because they go beyond the question of who writes history to what history is in the first place. Does it represent simply our best rendering of what occurred at a particular moment in the past, based on as much evidence as the historian can muster, or is it an attempt to influence how we should think and act concerning politics and culture in the present? This latter role of history guided the traditional presentation of Texas history as taught in the schools and in popular culture. Now, arguments such as the one over the proper description of what happened at Goliad are challenging the old myth. “Historical questions like this have become very current—over a flag, a monument, a point of view—because we are at the point of debating our history,” says Ron Tyler, a University of Texas historian and the director of the Texas State Historical Association. Tyler notes that the Handbook of Texas, which is produced by the association and written by historians and laymen, uses the word “massacre” to describe the events at Goliad. He suggests that if the killings had been legal—that is, an execution—the Mexican command would not have become enmeshed in disagreement about complying. As a cultural anthropologist and the director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, Richard Flores has studied how, by presenting the past as a morality tale of sorts, history performs symbolic work on the public mind. He believes that public history has become a black-and-white story about good and evil, ignoring those facts that made the past more complicated. In the case of the Texas Revolution, Flores suggests that people are so invested in the rivalry between Mexican and Texian soldiers that they forget that the original impetus for the Texan insurrection was not to gain independence but to restore Mexico’s 1824 constitution, which Santa Anna had abused. “The narrative of the past is very complex,” he says, “and to reduce it to a story of good and evil, or Texans and Mexicans—which was not the case—really turns it into a myth.”
Historian Andres Tijerina, a fellow of the Texas State Historical Association, says that Texas history is a history of erasing facts. “What they”—everyone from schoolteachers to the reenactors—“have done, and what they continue to do, is to create a comic book history of Texas,” he says. “And everyone knows it’s a comic book. It’s nothing but Hollywood.” Tijerina, whose book Tejanos and Texas Under the Mexican Flag, 1821-1836 took PresidioLa Bahía’s top award in 1994, believes that no matter what tweaking is made to the Goliad reenactment, it will continue to offer an incomplete and distorted version of history as long as it is looked at in isolation. “That message has nothing to do with history,” Tijerina says. “It is done to reinforce a racially divided modern Texas society, to reinforce this black-and-white image of Anglos and Mexicans where the Anglo is a hero and the Mexican is a debased tyrant. Why don’t you depict the Mexican Americans who were cheated out of their land and killed in Goliad and Victoria for the next twenty, thirty years by law enforcement officials?”
Tyler, the head of the state historical association, does not dispute that the public hews to a simple view of Texas history, despite the widespread acknowledgement in academic circles of its complexity. But he insists that historians should not have to compensate for that. “We’re trying our best to combat that notion,” he says. “I just don’t accept the idea that simply because the masses are not well informed, we should misconstrue history in order to change our viewpoint on a particular historical event like the Goliad Massacre.”
Whether lexical or not, change of some sort seems inevitable. In 1997 and 1998 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Texas Historical Commission brought together nearly a hundred scholars, project advisors, planners, and locals, a group that included the Zermeños, Warzecha, Hardin, and Tijerina, to come up with a long-term plan for promoting Goliad’s history. A report issued by TPW in March 1999 concluded: “Outside scholars, project consultants, and the planning team all agreed that the history of the area had been overshadowed by the Fannin ‘massacre’ in 1836, leading to widespread public ignorance about the other important historical contributions of the region.” Throughout the report the word “massacre” appears in quotation marks. Bill Dolman, a director of professional services for TPW who led the planning effort, offers, “We’ve used the term ‘massacre,’ which was pretty much the accepted term at the time, but that’s not to say that we would use that same term when we redo the exhibits.” Although the agency does not manage the presidio, it does oversee the mission down the road, the battlefield, Ignacio Zaragoza’s reconstructed birthplace, and the Zaragoza monument. Dolman suggests that one option is to explain that “Goliad Massacre” was the name given by Texian soldiers to the execution of Fannin’s men. “In other words,” he reasons, “you put a historical interpretation to the term—and you explain how ‘massacre’ is an outgrowth of an execution order.”
For their part, the members of the Zaragoza Society are adamant that they will wage this battle peacefully but willfully, by taking the issue not only to the diocese but also to groups such as the Texas Historical Commission. Vargas says that Goliad is poised “to be progressive” and “help bring about a better understanding” of Texas history. “We firmly believe that sometimes you have to make a little noise to get things changed,” he says. Bishop David Fellhauer of Victoria, a Missouri native, is noncommittal at this point. But he says that he plans to convene a group of locals and historians soon to engage in “a little historical dialogue” before making a decision. And Warzecha says that as much as he takes the fort’s business personally, he will await an order and follow it.
Before the massacre debate brought tension into town, Goliad was a strikingly placid community of locals and retirees. It was, and to a great extent still is, a town where people were decent with each other, where elected officials resolved conflicts with heart-to-hearts, and where its most ardent public relations agents were the town’s residents themselves. That is why many of them are now watchful of the limited but painful social rift that has opened—and of its racial undertones. Goliad is a place where “We don’t see color” is a popular mantra, where a Mexican American mother places an order for invitations to her daughter’s quinceañera and most of the girls on the list of invited guests are white. “I came from Seguin,” says Martha Mullenix, a third-generation Texan who publishes the town’s weekly newspaper, “where it’s mainly a German and Hispanic population, and there definitely was a line there.” In Goliad—where slightly more than half of the population is Anglo and the rest is mostly Mexican American, with a small number of African Americans—different races, Mullenix says, “just blend in.” Today roughly half of all elected officials in the town are Mexican American. Yet there are silent remains of a racially marked past. An economic divide still exists: The ranches sprinkled throughout Goliad County are owned by Anglos and worked mostly by people of Mexican descent, and although the public schools today are good enough to attract even outsiders to town, Goliad’s older Mexican American and African American residents can remember attending segregated campuses.But Estella Zermeño is the last to complain. Having left Goliad for most of her adult life to work as a postal service clerk in Houston, she believes that whatever happens, it is one’s responsibility to make things better. On a cool Friday in February, she is beaming when she pulls out a letter from the Texas Historical Commission approving her and her cousin’s request for a historical marker honoring an ancestor who once was the alcalde of Goliad. “Just think—we’ve been here since 1749 and there has never been a Tejano marker here,” she says. “Why? Because we didn’t work for it. So Abel and I got on it.”
Yet, there is something about Estella Zermeño’s research that stings Newton Warzecha. In the fall of 1999, as part of a day-long conference organized by Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Texas Historical Commission to recognize the history of Tejanos in Goliad, Estella presented a family history in which she detailed her family’s loss of 9,500 acres in Refugio County after her grandmother’s uncle was murdered in 1877—a talk that Warzecha perceived to be “very, very, very anti-Anglo.” Warzecha feels that an entire history of bad race relations is being dumped on him and the presidio for commemorating one historical event. Asked what he thinks about some Mexican Americans’ feelings regarding that history, he replies bluntly, “You wouldn’t want to hear what I’ve got to say.” There is a long, empty silence, during which he furiously scribbles aimless shapes on a yellow legal pad. Then he bursts: “By golly, get over it! It’s history! I’m one hundred percent Polish. Wouldn’t it be pretty ridiculous of me to carry on grudges and dislikes against Germany because of what they did to Polish people? How is it any different than this?”
“He can’t feel what we feel,” Estella Zermeño retorts. “I have an Anglo friend who told me, ‘I don’t see color.’ I told her, ‘I don’t see color. I feel color.’” Given the choice, she and her husband say, they would not want to feel race—nor want to be reduced to the color of their skin. And they believe that the mutual allegations of racism have obscured the more fundamental issue of the impact of public history. “It’s not a race issue,” Estella adds, “it’s a moral issue. Can we call it that?”