Even though I grew up in North Dakota, I was taught to “Remember the Alamo.” According to my 1971 high school encyclopedia, “The Alamo became for Texans a symbol of heroic resistance in the cause for freedom.” Nearly forty years later, after living most of my adult life in Texas, I am saddened to learn that some San Antonians don’t feel the same respect and reverence toward this shrine known as the Cradle of Texas Liberty.
A column in today’s San Antonio Express-News described a mini-controversy over a request by the Alamo to place a “humongous” banner on the wall of a neighboring hotel to announce the 175th anniversary of the shrine next March. The column by Veronica Flores-Paniagua was titled, “Changes to Alamo Banner may have avoided Cultural War.” The banner request was eventually approved after the size of the banner was scaled back, and Flores-Paniagua claims that the scaled-back version won’t include “the offending part – the image of Mexican soldiers storming the wall of a modern-day Alamo.” She never explains why such an image would be offensive, but she does say:
- “With the country’s political climate in the raging debate over immigration reform, the banner surely would have set the tinderbox afire. More provincially, the 13-story tribute would have served as a red-hot poker for many who resent the romanticized version of the drive for Texas independence and conquest of the Southwest.”
What’s wrong with romanticized versions? Does Flores-Paniagua begrudge Americans for having romanticized versions of George Washington defeating the British in the Revolutionary War, of Joshua Chamberlain turning back the Confederates at Gettysburg in the Civil War, and of Dwight Eisenhower managing the longest day, D-Day in WWII? We always romanticize our heroes. And Flores-Paniagua seems to be confused about the “conquest of the Southwest.” The Battle of the Alamo did not involve America and it doctrine of manifest destiny. Rather, it involved Texians fighting for independence against Santa Ana, an oppressive Mexican dictator who had overthrown Mexico’s constitution and federalism.
Flores-Paniagua also quotes a kindred spirit, Kathleen Milam Carter, as saying:
- “In this day and age, depicting a modern day Alamo being stormed by Mexican soldiers is not only historically incorrect but politically insensitive and naïve.”
What is inaccurate about the Alamo being stormed by Mexican soldiers? Santa Ana’s soldiers were Mexican. Politically insensitive? My heritage is German, but I am not upset by any storyline that shows American soldiers heroically defeating German soldiers in World War II. Do Japanese-Americans resent stories about heroic survivors of the Bataan Death March?
The Alamo-banner dispute is not the first incident in recent weeks that reveals this disturbing undercurrent of Hispanic resentment toward the Alamo. In May, the New York Times did a flattering profile on San Antonio’s young Hispanic mayor, Julian Castro, titled “The Post-Hispanic Hispanic Politician” by Zev Chafets. The article never mentioned Castro’s father, but it included an interesting portrait of his mother, Rosie Castro. Although Chafets said that Rosie had softened over the years, her description of the Alamo suggests otherwise:
- To Rosie, the Alamo is a symbol of bad times. “They used to take us there when we were schoolchildren,” she told me. “They told us how glorious that battle was. When I grew up I learned that the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them. But as a little girl I got the message — we were losers. I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.” The mayor asked about my session with his mother. “She hates the Alamo,” I said. “Yes, I know,” he said with what might have been a slight smile. “What about you? How do you feel about it?” “The Alamo?” he said. “It’s the largest tourist attraction in Texas. And tourism is one of San Antonio’s major economic engines.” “The curator called it a shrine.” Castro considered that briefly, then nodded. “There are people for whom the Alamo is a sacred place,” he said without any discernible emotion. Rosie Castro proudly calls herself a “Chicana,” a term that connotes political activism and ethnic pride, but she says her son is different. “I don’t think Julián would call himself a Chicano,” she told me. “A Latino maybe.” When I relayed this to the mayor, he didn’t disagree. “I consider myself Mexican-American, both parts of that phrase,” he said. “I don’t want to turn my back on my mother’s generation. But we are less burdened.”
It is disconcerting to think that our mayor grew up in the household of a single parent who held such venomous views. More shocking, our mayor thinks of himself as a Mexican and an American, which brings us to a major point in the NYTimes article.
As the title of the NYTimes profile suggests, reporter Zev Chafets thinks that Castro, like Obama, can get beyond his ethnicity and connect with non-Hispanics. To directly confront this issue, Chafets describes the anti-immigrant concern as articulated by an academic:
- In 2000, while Castro was still in Cambridge, the political theorist Samuel P. Huntington argued that mass immigration from Mexico poses an existential threat to the United States. “Mexican immigration,” he wrote, “is a unique, disturbing and looming challenge to our cultural integrity, our national identity and potentially to our future as a country.” At the heart of Huntington’s critique, which many Americans share, is the sense that Mexican-Americans will form a permanent, unassimilated superbarrio across the Southwest and elsewhere. Julián Castro’s San Antonio is one place that counters that concern.
Saying it doesn’t make it so. The NYTimes profile includes some bald assertions about Mexican assimilation in San Antonio, but seems blind to its own reported facts. One so-called expert, Arturo Madrid, a professor of humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio, opined, “The power of America is undeniable,” he says. “People may check ‘Hispanic’ on the census, but in San Antonio they are Tejanos, Texans of Mexican ancestry.” Did Chafets already forget that Castro considered himself to be a Mexican and an American?
Regarding Mexican assimilation and its existential threat to America, I recently read a book that shares Huntington’s concern. The book is titled, “The Next 100 Years, a forecast for the 21st Century,” by George Friedman, 2009. Friedman doesn’t think the threat from Mexico is imminent. Instead, he sees the threat as late in the century. Before that happens, he thinks America will essentially open its border to immigrants in the 2030s because of labor shortages in America. The problem will begin in the 2060s when the labor shortage goes away, and America tries to get the immigrants to return to their homeland. By that time, southwest America will be so full of Mexicans that they will consider that to be their homeland. And the country of Mexico, which by then will be one of the largest economies in the world, will agree with them.
Friedman argues that Mexican immigrants are different than any other immigrants and will resist assimilation, not because of their culture or character, but because of geography:
- Typically immigrants gather in an enclave and then become assimilated and disburse themselves to pursue economic opportunity. Life in the enclave is not as attractive as the opportunities available in wider society. Mexicans will have it different because, unlike others, Mexicans are not separated from their homeland by oceans and thousands of miles. Rather than separating themselves from their homeland, Mexicans will simply move into a borderland between two countries, like Alsace-Lorraine between Germany and France. In many ways they represent an extension of their homeland into the United States. Like an occupied territory. As populations shift, the border is increasingly seen as arbitrary or illegitimate. The cultural border of Mexico shifts northward even though the political border remains static…. At a certain critical mass, a geographically contiguous group becomes conscious of itself as a distinct entity within a country. More exactly, it begins to see the region it dominates as distinct, and begins to ask for a range of special concessions based on its status. When it has a natural affinity to a neighboring country, a portion of the group will see itself as native to that country, but living under foreign domination. And across the border, in the neighboring country, an annexation movement can arise.
The Friedman book on geopolitics is fascinating. It argues that things are predictable because countries, like people, will pursue their self-interest and that individual leaders are not important because mostly they act by choosing among limited options. That explains why actions by Obama are similar to those by Bush (e.g., bailout, stimulus, Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan). That is a bit depressing, however, for those of us who believe that elections make a difference and that people can make a difference. We want America to remain “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people.” And we can’t understand why a citizen of this country would feel allegiance to a country like Mexico, whose record on justice and liberty pales in comparison.
When my dad was alive, he would come to San Antonio every February and spend a week with us. During his stay in San Antonio, he would always reserve one afternoon for the Alamo. I would drop him off after lunch and pick him up hours later. He loved the place and what it stood for – fighting for liberty and freedom against a bully dictator, just like WWII. It saddens me of some Hispanics cannot share that heritage.