glad the Mexicans won at the Alamo. Yeah, I said it. I don't know how people
in other states would react to such a statement, but around here [Texas], it
is an unspeakable act of heresy. In fact, scholars who have even had the
audacity to question whether or not Davy Crockett "went down fighting" at
the Alamo have been faced with death threats, so I can only imagine what I'm
going to hear. Every year around this time in Texas, especially in San
Antonio, people celebrate the "heroes" of the Alamo. The patriotic fervor is
whipped up by numerous newspaper articles, events, and celebrations. This
year, the flag-waving will be intensified by the release of yet another
high-profile movie about the Alamo.
The new movie purports to be a "balanced" account of the battle. It will undoubtedly be a more accurate portrayal than the ridiculous myth-mongering work that John Wayne created in 1960. According to reports, the new movie will acknowledge the role played by Mexicans fighting alongside the white settlers in the battle. The movie accurately portrays the fate of Davy Crockett, who surrendered and was executed after the battle. Those minor changes aside, the major narrative seems to be basically the same one they taught us in elementary school: the heroic white men bravely died at the Alamo and inspired their comrades to eventually defeat the evil Mexicans so Texans could finally be free.
While that version of the story may make white Texans feel good about themselves, it isn't exactly accurate. In his book, Occupied America, Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuña paints a very different picture of the Alamo battle and the American conquest of the Southwest. The Texas revolution occurred in the context of an ongoing Mexican civil war and Anglo-American expansionism, often called "Manifest Destiny." While it is true that some Mexicans who wanted local autonomy fought on the side of the Anglo-Americans (Juan Seguin is the most widely known), it should be pointed out that after the revolution they were relegated to colonized status by the white majority regardless of their support during the war. Even Juan Seguin was driven out of Texas after a stint as mayor of San Antonio.
Texas was marked for conquest by Benjamin Franklin in 1767. It had acres of rich soil and an abundance of natural resources. At the time, Texas was part of the Mexican state of Coahuila. In the early 1820s the Mexican government reluctantly allowed Anglo-Americans to settle in Texas. The settlers had to meet certain conditions before they were allowed to move in. For one, they had to be Catholic. They also had to take a loyalty oath to the Mexican government. By 1830 there were 20,000 settlers and 2,000 slaves living in Texas, making Anglos more numerous than Mexicans.
In 1829 Mexico outlawed slavery, which infuriated the settlers. They saw Mexican anti-slavery laws as a violation of the civil liberties of white people. They would subvert the laws by "freeing" their slaves and forcing them to sign lifelong contracts as indentured servants. The slavery issue would cause tension between Texas and Mexico long after the revolution. Texan slaves would often flee to Mexico. By 1855 over 4,000 slaves had escaped to Mexico. The Texas government accused the Mexican government of encouraging slaves to flee. Authorities estimated that runaway slaves cost Texans 3.2 million dollars. When whites led expeditions across the border to retrieve runaways, tensions flared even more.
In other words, one of the "freedoms" the Anglo-Americans were fighting for was the "freedom" to own slaves. When I brought this up in an exchange with Bruce Winders, the curator of the Alamo, he shrugged it off by pointing out that the Mexican government allowed debt peonage. This moral equivalence apparently allows him to continue viewing the Anglo colonizers as heroes fighting for a just cause.
Mexico, feeling overwhelmed by the flood of immigrants and their disregard for the law, blocked any further Anglo-American immigration in 1830. The Anglos in eastern Texas were involved in smuggling activities and refused to pay customs. They were cultivating strong economic ties with the United States rather than Mexico. When Mexico tried to enforce its laws, the settlers became even more agitated. Land companies and speculators anxious to profit from new land in Texas began to lobby Washington to support the settlers' revolutionary ambitions. Sam Houston, the eventual leader of the revolution, was a known protégé of Andrew Jackson and wanted Texas to be part of the United States. He would later say that his victory in the Texas revolution cast "glory on the Anglo-Saxon race."
Most of the myths surround the battle of the Alamo itself. One myth is that Santa Anna's army was large and fearsome. His army had anywhere between 1,400 and 6,000 soldiers, which was certainly more than the rebels. However, most of them were poorly trained conscripts that had just endured a long, agonizing march. Many were sick. Most were Mayans and could not even speak Spanish. The Texans, on the other hand, are portrayed as upstanding individuals fighting to protect their homes and their freedom. In reality, two thirds of the fighters at the Alamo had just arrived from the United States. Only six of them had been in Texas for more than six years. They were an assorted group of land speculators and adventurers seeking riches and glory in the "new frontier." Those things (riches and glory) were the main reasons they stayed to fight at the Alamo, not some fanciful notion of freedom or self-determination.
William Barrett Travis was the commander of the Alamo rebels. He had recently fled to Texas after killing a man and abandoning his wife and kids. Jim Bowie, famous for his large knife, was a notorious brawler who made a fortune through land speculation and the slave trade. Davy Crockett was an aging politician who had no apparent reason to even be there. The rebels had twenty one cannons to Mexico's ten. They were better trained and had better weapons. They also had the large walls of the Alamo mission protecting them. In the end, they lost because they were outnumbered, but they managed to inflict a disproportionate number of casualties before falling. Seven of the defenders, including Crockett, surrendered to the Mexicans and were executed.
The "massacres" that occurred after the battles at the Alamo and Goliad became a rallying cry for the Anglo-American rebels. They eventually defeated Santa Anna's army by attacking them while they were asleep at San Jacinto. If the Mexicans had ever attacked the rebels while they were taking a siesta, it would undoubtedly be portrayed as an act of cowardice and treachery. Yet when Sam Houston stages a sneak attack against a bunch of unsuspecting Mexicans in their sleep, it is portrayed as clever and cunning military strategy. The Mexicans who surrendered were clubbed, stabbed, and shot. Some were shot as they were running away. In the end, 630 Mexicans were dead as opposed to only two Anglos. While we are all taught about the "Goliad massacre" in school, the textbooks make no mention of the massacre at San Jacinto. In fact, it is presented as a glorious victory for the Anglo-American "freedom fighters."
Mexicans were quickly relegated to colonized status in the Republic of Texas. They were forced out of central and east Texas and concentrated in San Antonio and the south near the border. They were terrorized by the Texas Rangers, who at the time were basically hired thugs of the ruling elite. To give one example of their brutal tactics, there was an incident in which a Texas Ranger was shot during a siege near Mexico City. The Rangers retaliated by killing 80 Mexicans. The Texas revolution set the stage for the Mexican American War, which allowed the United States to finally conquer the remaining areas of the Southwest.
In his book, My Confession, Samuel E. Chamberlain talks about some of the atrocities he and his comrades in the American military committed against Mexicans during the war. In one example, Chamberlain describes a scene he came upon near a cave: "The cave was full of our volunteers yelling like fiends, while on the floor lay over twenty Mexicans, dead and dying in pools of blood. Women and children were clinging to the knees of the murderers shrieking for mercy ... Most of the butchered Mexicans had been scalped."
So if you must go see the "The Alamo," these facts are worth keeping in mind while you plow through the popcorn bag. What we like to celebrate as a noble crusade for freedom was in fact a war of conquest by slave-owning colonizers who subsequently terrorized the Mexican population of Texas and relegated them to a second-class form of citizenship that persists to this day. That's why I'm glad the Mexicans were at least able to score a victory at the Alamo.
Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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