One of the favorite descriptions used by advertising and news media to define San Antonio is “The Álamo City”.
Also, the popular Spanish Mexican colonial church silhouette is a universal logo used by a variety of businesses in town to market their products and services.
It may be that this all refers to San Antonio’s predominant Spanish Mexican heritage, right? Well, not exactly. Actually, the catchphrase is a tourism tactic whose aim is to remind everyone of the Álamo’s status as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty”.
The Álamo is so designated because, as taught even today in Texas classrooms, it is there that a group of mostly Anglo expatriates from the U.S. died at the hands of what is described as a ruthless army led by General Santa Anna. Thus, the “Álamo” symbolizes the still simmering animosity that U.S. public opinion has toward him and the Mexican Army. That’s in spite of the fact they were only protecting their sovereignty from armed Anglo trespassers.
Albeit, to reach its location, tourist brochures and road signs around town direct visitors to an area where the Álamo “used” to be. That’s because Presidio San Antonio de Béxar (El Álamo) doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, the instructions lead to a nearby surrogate structure, Mission San Antonio De Valero.
At first, visitors don’t seem to mind, mainly because they aren’t aware of the switch. That usually changes rapidly for many first-time, out-of-town tourists. Upon entering the small stone church, most wonder, “Did the famous battle really take place inside this little building?”
Basically, it’s hard to understand that the actual 1836 battle action happened outside on the presidio grounds, now occupied by gaudy, commercial businesses and heavy traffic. In short, the conflict took place away from the religious sanctuary, not within it.
Still, sightseers walk through quickly and end up at the gift shop. Soon afterwards, they leave with a sense of confusion and a not very encouraging “Is that all there is?” ho hum impression. Thus, the Álamo may be the most popular travel destination in Texas, but at the same time, it’s one of the most disappointing.
As described in a previous article I wrote entitled “Of Missions and Presidios”, the fact is that presidios and missions are two separate Spanish Mexican institutions, serving distinct purposes. San Antonio de Béxar Presidio was a military compound affectionately called “El Álamo” by local Bexareños, in honor of the soldados (soldiers) and their families stationed there from Álamo de Parras, Coahuila. On the other hand, Mission San Antonio de Valero is non-military and served Native Americans as their religious instruction sanctuary.
Though, why has the deceiving of the public continued for so long? While it’s a subject rarely discussed, a more important question is why did early 1900s city officials choose to intentionally destroy Presidio San Antonio de Béxar (El Álamo) supposedly to “modernize” downtown? To try to answer that question, I offer a mini time capsule below that touches on a very thorny human relations era in San Antonio’s history.
Motivation for this mother of all Texas blunders may have been Anglo Saxon-descent city leaders’ intent to wipe out the Spanish Mexican legacy in downtown San Antonio. Thus, they proceeded to deliberately demolish Presidio “El Álamo”, bulldozing away its grounds including the sanctified graves of the mission camposanto (cemetery), leveling them to make room for “progress”. As a result, the actual combat sites are now under building concrete slabs. Likewise, the hallowed camposanto is now beneath the asphalt of the busy street by the mission.
Given the post-1836 Anglophile intensity recently revived by “Texas Rising”, it’s very odd that early 1900s elder Anglo civic leaders leading the wrecking-ball urban-renewal project forgot to “Remember the Álamo” when it meant the most.
Interestingly, even though it was part of the razing project, Mission San Antonio de Valero was saved from destruction. Unfortunately, it was then that the Mission began to be wrongly branded as the “Álamo”. It was also then that the dominant society translated the demolition into discrimination against Spanish Mexican and Native American citizens until the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended officially sanctioned, colonial-style prejudice.
Yes, we must “Remember the Álamo” by remembering that city leaders themselves tore it down. Short sighted? Yes. Ill advised? Absolutely. Hispanophobia? Most definitely!
That’s my own judgement. However, weighing the systematic bigotry existing then on this side of the border, there is no other realistic reason to explain it.
Getting back to the awkward “Is that all there is?” question, fortunately, the City of San Antonio’s Álamo Plaza Advisory Committee is working to propose ways to enhance Álamo Plaza. The objective is to make the area more “historically” versus “commercially” stimulating and more inclusive.
In all candor, Álamo Plaza is in need of an extreme makeover. The challenge for the Álamo Plaza Advisory Committee is to use visionary, out-of-the-box thinking and planning. It’s with that thought in mind that I offer the following additional proposals for consideration:
(l) As the other missions, Mission San Antonio de Valero was built for area Native Americans. It’s only fitting to return the sanctuary to the descendants of the original residents. The Mission is not the Álamo. It is not a military facility. Once and for all, the Texas General Land Office must develop a new presentation not of battle, but of peace. All war displays, flags, and related paraphernalia should be removed.
San Antonio de Valero must be rededicated as a Native American history museum. Allow local Indian Nations to select appropriate displays promoting awareness of their past. Equally important, use Native American tribe members as volunteers and museum docents so that they can finally get to tell their story in their own words.
(2) If a believable presentation based on historical authenticity is desired, facts must win over fiction. Thus, information markers within the historic zone must explain that in 1836, Texas was still part of the sovereign Republic of Mexico. While post-1836 Anglo Saxon Texas history promoters will find that chronological reality hard to accept, it’s the truth!
(3) Preserve with dignity and respect all remaining relics of San Antonio’s founding. Display and fund the Spanish Governors Palace, Plaza de Armas, missions, and other similar Spanish Mexican historic buildings and sites on an equal level as that extended to Álamo Plaza structures.
In summary, it’s time for the City of San Antonio to turn the page and look past the 1836 Battle of the Álamo. To put it bluntly, (a) Texas is no longer independent, and (b) the Álamo outlived its tag as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty” long ago. The designation only applied for nine years, since in 1845 the Anglos traded their independence and liberty to join the U.S. as a slave state.
After over one hundred years of hiding its long-ago demolition, accept the fact that Presidio “El Álamo” no longer exists. Simply stated, there is no Álamo in the Álamo City. In truth, San Antonio is and always has been “The Missions City”.
In Memoriam: This article is dedicated to Mr. Carlos Guerra (1947-2010), long-time San Antonio Express-News columnist, human rights trailblazer, and champion of the pre-1836 history of San Antonio and Native American roots of Mission San Antonio de Valero.