Saturday, March 6, 2010
Today is the 174th anniversary of the fall of The Alamo on March 6, 1836 during the Texas Revolution. As the story goes, the vastly outnumbered Texian forces under siege bought crucial time for the rest of the army by holding out for two weeks until succumbing to the Mexican army under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Cries of "Remember the Alamo" supposedly motivated the Texians at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.
It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of The Alamo to the founding narrative and historical memory of Texas. Though it was once a Catholic mission, it is secular "sacred ground" to many Texans. I know people who proposed to their spouses at the Alamo. Yet the Alamo has also been seen as symbol of racial or ethnocentric overtones to the Texas Revolution. The importance of the Alamo-as-land has played out in several land use controversies over the last two centuries.
An excellent book that reviews the history of both The Alamo and its place in cultural memory is Randy Roberts & James S. Olson, A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory (2002). The authors begin with the history of the Alamo itself and the battle, and then spend the remainder of the book talking about what happened to it both as a piece of land and as an icon. Apparently it fell into disrepair (blight?) for decades after Texas independence as the city of San Antonio grew up around it (those who imagine it from the John Wayne movie, way out in the open, are often startled when they finally visit it in busy downtown San Antonio). Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Alamo became increasingly the subject of myth-making. This in turn inspired one of the early historic preservation efforts, through a private organization run by some of the most prominent women in Texas. There was a dispute over whether the preservation should be as a private or a public landmark. The book tells this interesting story plus relates a number of other controversies about the Alamo as a symbol of Anglo-American manifest destiny and as John Wayne's vision of the Alamo as a Cold War story.
The book's title invokes both the "line in the sand" supposedly drawn by Lt. Col. Travis when it became clear the Texians were doomed, and also as a metaphor for the cultural contests over the historical memory of the Alamo as symbol. But the "sand" itself remains a hugely popular tourist site and public space in San Antonio.