Sunday, March 9, 2014

How Should We Remember the Alamo?

It's rodeo season, y'all.  Also, March 2nd was Texas Independence Day, and March 6th marked the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, so Texas has been on my mind a lot lately.  A few weeks ago, I was talking with some friends who grew up in Mexico about important figures in Mexican history, and one of them mentioned General Santa Anna (or for them, President Santa Anna), the leader who fought the Texans as they rebelled for independence.  Our conversation got me thinking about the Alamo and the Texas Revolution.

When I was growing up, this was the story I knew:

Anglo (white Americans of European descent) settlers from the United States moved to Texas (then part of Mexico) for the cheap land.  They were saintly and loved freedom.  Meanwhile, General Santa Anna, who had recently seized control of the Mexican government, was the devil.

Pictured: The most evil dude ever

Santa Anna was super mean and oppressed the Anglo settlers -- known as Texians -- so they rebelled against him.  In February of 1836, the general and his troops surrounded a fort called the Alamo, held by 189 noble Texian fighters and volunteers from the United States (including Davy Crockett), and demanded that they surrender.  If the Texians kept fighting, Santa Anna warned, he would take no prisoners.

William Barret Travis, the commander of the Alamo brigade, refused to capitulate and told his men that if they stayed with him, they would all surely perish in the battle.  With his sword, he drew a line in the sand and declared that any man who crossed the line would join him in fighting to the death.  All but one man (Moses Rose, who was a terrible coward) crossed the line and met their fate.

The line in the sand

Hey look -- they bronzed it.

As a kid, I read this story in books and saw it in movies.  I hero-worshiped the Texian freedom fighters, especially after I saw an IMAX film in San Antonio called Alamo: The Price of Freedom.  

Seriously, I had the movie poster (not this one) on my wall for years.

But guess what: The story isn't accurate.

Like any series of historical events, the Texas Revolution was complicated and messy, and no one who played a role was either purely good or purely evil.  For example, here are some facts that were left out of the story I was told:

  • Mexico abolished slavery in 1820.  Lots of Texian settlers, including many in the Alamo, weren't cool with that plan, since it threatened their "freedom" to own slaves, and it was a factor in the Revolution.
  • The Texians weren't saintly.  For example, William Barret Travis immigrated to Texas to avoid arrest (for debt) and abandoned his wife and child in Alabama.  Jim Bowie, another Alamo fighter, was a violent slave smuggler.
  • A lot of American settlers in Texas were (gasp!) "illegal immigrants."
  • It wasn't just Anglo Texians vs. Mexicans.  There were also Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent) on both sides of the conflict, as well as slaves, free black people, and people of mixed ethnic heritage.  It was a complex society.
  • The "line in the sand" story is a legend.  Didn't happen.  (And there was no Moses Rose).

As I got older, I started realizing how sanitized the tales of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution were, and I felt so disillusioned and betrayed.  I was angry that books and movies depicted such an incomplete, biased version of history.

So since Texas has been on my mind so much lately, I decided to take a look at children's book about the Alamo: What Was the Alamo? by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso (2013).

My goal in reviewing this book was to see if it presents a more accurate picture of the famous battle than the books I grew up with.  Some of the questions I asked myself while reading included:

  • Do the authors depict Texians as perfect heroes or as human beings with both strengths and weaknesses?
  • Are legends presented as facts?
  • Whose perspectives are considered in the text?  Do we see things from the Anglo Texian point of view, or do the authors include the perspectives of other people involved in the conflict?

Many elements of this book were a pleasant surprise.  First, in vignette biographies of Texian leaders, the authors admit these men's flaws, which can help young readers understand that historical figures were real people, not gods.  Furthermore, the line in the sand story is acknowledged as a legend.

However, I was disappointed that the book is entirely from the Texian point of view.  Pollack and Belviso explore the Anglo settlers' reasons for wanting independence from Mexico, but what did other people think?  In addition to the Texians' story, I want to hear about ordinary Mexican soldiers, Tejanos, people of African descent (free and enslaved), women, and children.  What did they think?  What did they do? 

I believe that including multiple perspectives about historical events can make nonfiction texts more truthful and valuable.  Actually, I just purchased a book for ages 10+ called Remember the Alamo: Texians, Tejanos, and Mexicans Tell Their Stories by Paul Robert Walker (2007).  It sounds like this book will incorporate various points of view, and I'm looking forward to investigating it thoroughly.

I'll wrap up this post by assuring you that I don't want to drag Texas or the people who fought for Texan independence through the mud.  Nor am I trying to argue that Santa Anna was a nice guy -- he wasn't.  I just don't want other children to be disillusioned like I was when they find out that their heroes weren't actually perfect.  History is more complicated than that and shouldn't be reduced to propaganda.  Ideally, authors of nonfiction texts can present a more balanced view of the past by acknowledging no historical figures were entirely good or entirely bad.  We need to include multiple perspectives in our understanding of history so that, ideally, we get a fuller picture.  Let's just be as real as possible. 

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