Battle Without End: Raúl Ramos on the politics of Texas history

Today brings us a guest post from Raúl Ramos, author of Beyond the Alamo: Forging Mexican Ethnicity in San Antonio, 1821-1861. In his book, Ramos introduces a new model for the transnational history of the United States as he focuses on Mexican-Texan, or Tejano, society in a period of political transition beginning with the year of Mexican independence. Ramos explores the factors that helped shape the ethnic identity of the Tejano population, including cross-cultural contacts between Bexareños, indigenous groups, and Anglo-Americans, as they negotiated the contingencies and pressures on the frontier of competing empires.

In this post Ramos marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo,  addresses the decisions now being made about how this history will be taught to the state’s children, and explores both how these decisions arise from Texan culture and how they help shape it. –beth

This Saturday marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, the battle that ended the 13-day siege on the fort by the Mexican Army.  The date carries added meaning this year as the Texas State Board of Education decides on the social studies standards affecting the education of the state’s public school children.  Debates over the standards have garnered national attention especially since they impact how textbooks will be written for the nation’s largest market.  It was the subject of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story.  When it comes to Texas history, few if any events carry the emotional weight of the Alamo.  The governor even invokes the memory of Texas Independence to score political points with the anti-Washington crowd.

It seems like, 174 years later, battles over the Alamo’s meaning and significance rage on, reflecting contemporary debates as much as commenting on the past.  This has been the backdrop for writing my book, Beyond the Alamo: Forging Mexican Ethnicity in San Antonio, 1821-1861.  The book reframes events during the period from the perspective of Mexican people in San Antonio.  In a sense, the book serves as a narrative intervention into the immensely strong dominant narrative that places the Battle of the Alamo at the center of the region’s history.

The Alamo story itself shines so dominates the historical landscape that any broader context for understanding these events is practically wiped out.  I often use what I call the “postcard” image of the Alamo as a metaphor to illustrate this point.  The image of the Alamo is often presented without people or surrounding buildings.  The icon has become timeless in more than one sense.  Reinserting this context meant shifting the focus away from the battle and recasting events and people.

At times this meant using new terminology to escape the baggage traditional labels have acquired over time.  Stephen F. Austin and his settlers were immigrants rather than merely colonists and the Texas Revolution is now the Texas War of Secession.  This latter example allowed me to situate the war in Texas as a civil war within Mexico.  In this light, the meaning of the war to Mexicans can be better understood.

Commemorating the Battle of the Alamo itself brings up personal memories for me and many other ethnic Mexican people in Texas.  At school we learned the “official” version of events, while at home we heard our parent’s perspective.  In school, the Texas Revolution was a war for liberty and freedom.  At home, it was about stolen Mexican territory as part of the land grab of Manifest Destiny.  Writing the history of Texas then means understanding where each of these perspectives came from, how they have been reproduced and where they have been deployed to shape power and relations in the state.

As the State Board of Education now deliberates over how this history will be written, taught and tested for children from first grade through high school, understanding these multiple perspectives becomes even more important.  Early in the process, Patricia Hardy, the board member representing Fort Worth, made clear her concerns with emphasizing Mexicans in Texas and American history.  She noted, Hispanic children “want to see some brown faces and in Texas there are a lot of people with Hispanic surnames who are a part of Texas history. So that’s easy to come by.”  She continued, “But you cannot distort Texas history. You cannot give people an elevated place in history when their place was not elevated.”  Such is the tenacity of the dominant narrative in the popular culture of Texas.  When a more expansive narrative is presented, it is dismissed as representing the present rather than reflecting the past in order to diminish it.

While the answer is not necessarily to “Forget the Alamo” as in the poignant (and ironic) closing of John Sayles’s film Lone Star.  Rather, it takes expanding its historical context to make it more meaningful to all Texans and to those outside of the state as well.