April 16, 2004

Let’s Forget “The Alamo”

(Editor’s Note: The movie “The Alamo” is a flop at the box office, but this hasn’t dissuaded our wrtiers from talking about the movie. Here we present two different relfections on the “The Alamo”)

By Ruben Fierro

For many Mexicans here in the U.S and Mexico,there is no event in Mexico’s history worse to be reminded of than the siege of that dilapidated mission-turned-fortress-turned-tourist attraction in San Antonio,Texas. Any discussion about the big budget production “The Alamo” that was released on April 9, has been about how it’s a new and improved version of past depictions of that battle. This time we see that there were Tejanos, i.e., Mexicans born in Texas, fighting alongside the “Texians” at the Alamo. We see that Travis, a Texian version of a born-again boyscout, and tough guy Bowie had slaves with them during the siege. It also appears that Davy Crockett did not go down swinging, and that no line was drawn on the sand by Travis for the fearless to step over.

We are told as well that Crockett did not like to be called “Davy”, but “David”, and that he did not like to wear the ‘coonskin’ hat because a comedian who impersonated him on theatre stages wore a truly ridiculous one.

We are also shown that not all the troops in Santa Anna’s army were craven cowards, and that “Su Alteza Serena” foresaw what was going to happen to the Tejanos, their children and their grandchildren if he and his troops did not quell the Texians rebellion once and for all, hence his decree of “deguello”.

As important as those tweaks are to the story, and as correct as it is to discuss them, the concern at this point shouldn’t be so much how the actual events at the Alamo are (or have been) presented on the screen.

Here’s what the sharp critic Oscar Villalon, Book Editor of The San Francisco Chronicle says about this movie.

“No, the problem is that the Alamo, like the Confederate flag, is a symbol of something much greater, much more sinister than itself. It has come to stand for what’s happened long after the events of March 6, 1836. It’s why the words “Remember the Alamo!” can make certain barrooms go quiet and a mouth go dry before it has the chance to spit.”

“Despite the facts, past movie adaptations of the Alamo — and so many other historic events involving white America and the Other — have been little more than propaganda for the myth of “white man good, brown man bad,” problematic at best because it’s what a majority of our country wanted to believe for a variety of cultural and political reasons. So, that you would have John Wayne turning himself into an Aryan Roman candle in “The Alamo” (1960) isn’t surprising. In the end, that battle has — and perhaps can only — come to be a glorification of (white) Texan sacrifice, no matter how many allowances any film, including this new one, makes for the truth. The Alamo remains a fiery cascade of bullets, blades and cannonballs that casts into shadow the struggle Mexican Americans would go through to exist with dignity in the United States — a struggle that continues today.”

“So, in one the scenes you see these Tejanos getting ready to give up their lives for the cause of Texas independence.(Was it this the noble goal or more like a fight to the death to preserve slavery?) But you should probably know a couple of things. As soon as Texas gets its independence in 1836 and joins the United States nine years later, all the relatives and the descendants of those poor guys back there will become second-class citizens. Many Tejanos will literally be terrorized by their fellow Texans in the years to come — over land, over opposing slavery.”

“And Mexican Americans in general throughout the Southwest, in Texas and in California in particular, will also experience oppression. Segregation, for example, and of every stripe: segregated movie houses, segregated schools, segregated swimming pools. You name it. If you’ve ever seen ‘Giant,’ you know what I’m talking about. In fact, a lot of people don’t know this, but the first successful case for desegregation in schools wasn’t Brown vs. Board of Education, but Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. This happened down in San Diego in 1931. True story.”

OK. Let’s get back to the picture you good people enjoy. I see some arms starting to shake here, what with the muskets being heavy and authentic and all.

“Authentic up to a point; it’s doubtful that the Mexican side of the story will be addressed in the commentary on the DVD. What’s most likely, frankly, is that outside the Mexican American community, nobody is likely to notice the head-shaking frustration some Mexicans have with movies about the Alamo. They’re not likely to spot the long trickle of blood that leads from there to the Texas Rangers cruising through the streets of border towns with the bodies of Mexicans and Mexican Americans strapped to the hood and trunk of cars as though they were trophy deer. (Between 1914 and 1919, the Rangers killed about 5,000 “Hispanics”; a figure so gruesome that in 1919 legislation was passed in Texas, at the urging of Rep. Jose T. Canales, to reform the organization.)”

“When they see ‘The Alamo,’ audiences are unlikely to understand that through the gates of a ruined mission comes a legacy of “white” America asserting cultural superiority over the “losers” from “Texas’ war of independence”. Or that the Alamo is in many ways like Kosovo: the site of a battle where the eventual victor took a serious defeat, a losing engagement that’s been fetishized to justify treating another people as a historic threat, not to be fully trusted”.

Return to the Frontpage