The dawn ceremonies commemorating the 176th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo had concluded, the crowds dispersed, the day’s calendar of events still ahead. Temperatures climbed toward 70 degrees with wisps of clouds promising a vintage March day in San Antonio.
A burly Davy Crockett posed for photos with a few tourists while Gen. Santa Ana and his orderlies huddled under an oak tree collecting donations. Something was wrong with this picture as the morning stretched on: The Alamo Plaza was largely deserted on this important anniversary day. Where was everybody?
One is the 19th century carnival of cheap attractions that line the western side of the Alamo Plaza, appealing to the lowest common denominator of American tourist and gawker. All that is lacking is a bearded lady exhibit and, perhaps, a few of the South American shrunken heads that can be found on nearby Houston Street in the collection of curiosities once housed at the Lone Star Brewery.
And nobody drives through Independence Hall in their vehicle.
The other unprofessional dimension to the visitor’s experience is rooted in the nature of the non-professionals who zealously stand guard over the premises and the Alamo narrative. For years, the credibility of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as custodians and conservators of the Alamo has been challenged, particularly in recent years as the DRT has been fraught by financial woes and lapses in conservation, and riven by petty political score-settling among its most powerful matrons.
Give them credit for preservation more than a century ago, but do not give them title. The Texas Legislature took half measures in the 2011 session and passed legislation designating the General Land Office as the new custodian of the Alamo, but the DRT ladies remain in day-to-day control. For the Alamo to achieve financial solvency, establish a constant program of conservation, and to fully tell the site’s rich history, the state must relegate the DRT to a support role.
Independence Hall is supported by a private-public partnership that infuses the park with a diversity of funding, scholarship and vision that no single entity could ever hope to muster. Is the Alamo any less inspiring than the Liberty Bell? Only, perhaps, for those who have sat by for generations, teeth gritted, as the John Wayne myth became the Texas textbook version force-fed to every school kid, while the larger Alamo story went unexplored and untold. By that, of course, I mean this state’s indigenous and Mexican-Americans, whose presence and part in history was largely excluded, or consigned to the ranks of enemy forces.
Most of us would rally around a more complex presentation of the Battle of the Alamo and an acknowledgement that well before the 19th century the Alamo was Mission San Antonio de Valero, built in 1718, the first Spanish Mission to be built on the banks of the San Antonio River. That anniversary, by the way, is May 1 and merits its own respect and re-enactment. Why isn’t it a significant date on the city calendar, especially as San Antonio contemplates its coming 300th birthday celebration?
Some will accuse me of tearing at old wounds. My intention is not to stir rancor, but to insist on history being told in the most professional manner possible. Others have tried in this city, and they have failed. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying again.
Downtown San Antonio will always be defined, for better or worse, by the Alamo Plaza. In the end, we are a city that sends its visitors home with coonskin caps and other cheap trinkets, or a city that embraces a more profound understanding of history and thus ourselves. Which of those two cities do we want to be?
Photos by Robert Rivard