Revisionists through the early 1980s were enveloped in scorching denunciations—from the political right but also from the left. A case in point was the Chicano director Jesús Treviño’s 1982 Seguín, a public television biopic of Juan Seguín. “I was interested in telling the Chicano side of American history, which both John Wayne and American textbooks have ignored,” Treviño said. “In Wayne’s version, Mexicans are portrayed as either bandidos, dancing señoritas, sleeping drunks, or fiery temptresses.” Meanwhile, on the left, Acuña, who served as an adviser to the film, actually resigned over Seguín’s portrayal, calling him a traitor to Mexican Americans and comparing his alliance with the Texans to that of France’s Vichy government with the Nazis.
Then came the Big Bang of Alamo Revisionism. Published in 1990, Jeff Long’s well-researched Duel of Eagles was a screaming banzai charge against everything John Wayne held dear. The tone was urgent and almost angry, a brash young author shaking his fists at his ignorant elders. In Duel the defenders of the Alamo are “mercenaries,” “pirates,” and “fanatics,” “Manifest Destiny . . . killers with dirt under their fingernails, lice in their hair,” and “the stink of ignorant, trigger-pulling white trash.” Ordinary Texans at the time, the book suggests, raised weekend spending money by prostituting their wives.
Crockett, in Long’s telling, was “an aging, semiliterate squatter of average talent,” “an arrogant mercenary” who surrendered and then begged for his life. Sam Houston he judged a drunken cocaine addict and—wait for it—a budding transvestite fond of wearing corsets and girdles. To Long, Bowie was utterly without merit, a “frontier shadow creature,” a thug fleeing a “lifetime” of “frauds and hoaxes.” Travis, well, Travis he got about right. But then no one likes Travis.
In the wake of Duel’s cannonade came a rush of works that in short order transformed the 1990s into the golden age of Alamo reassessment. Suddenly, it seemed, all anyone wanted to talk about was Texas history. Panels and symposia sprouted like bluebonnets. Suddenly, the Alamo was under ideological siege, triggering such a contentious contretemps that by the beginning of this century, the revisionist take on Alamo history had established itself as a legitimate alternative to the Heroic Anglo Narrative.
The Alamo is more than a Texas symbol, of course. It is an American touchstone as well, an emblem of national resolve, looming during the 1950s as an embodiment of U.S. determination to halt the spread of Communism. During the ’60s, Texas-bred president Lyndon Johnson repeatedly invoked it to generate backing for the war in Vietnam. In time, it was embraced by “patriots” and right-wingers who viewed Santa Anna’s Mexican army as a stand-in for all manner of threats, including immigrants pouring across the Southern border.
And many Texans are fiercely protective of it. Over the years, the state has gone to extraordinary lengths to safeguard the traditionalist legend against revisionist questioning. The State Board of Education actually has standing orders that schoolchildren must be taught a “heroic” version of Alamo history. In 2018, when a teachers’ committee suggested this was a bit much, Governor Greg Abbott spearheaded a wave of online outrage that further outraged revisionists. Alamo “heroism” thus remains literally the law of the land.
The tension between traditionalism and revisionism has never been on more vivid display than it is today, at a moment when Latinos are poised to become a majority of Texas’s citizenry. At a time when the United States is undergoing an unprecedented reassessment of its racial history, the Alamo and its heroes have essentially been given a pass by the state’s largely Anglo writers, politicians, and educators. Given the fact that its defenders were fighting to form what became the single most militant slave nation in history, that men like Bowie and Travis traded slaves, and that the “father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin, spent years fighting to preserve slavery from the attacks of Mexican abolitionists, one would think the post–George Floyd era might have brought to Texas a long-overdue reevaluation of its history. By and large, that hasn’t happened.
Traditionalists, though, who tend to be older, conservative, and white, aren’t terribly interested in reconsidering the Alamo’s history, or its symbolism, which has fueled an intermittent debate that’s been building in intensity for a good 30 years now. What began as a set of literary and scholarly discussions in the 1990s became a fight over education and textbooks in the 2000s, and has now engulfed the Alamo site itself. Blame Phil Collins, in part: He made the donation of his collection dependent on the building of a “world class museum,” which got the state government thinking of what changes to make, which got traditionalists up in arms. Literally. When state planners started musing about moving that hallowed Cenotaph, groups of angry traditionalists clad in Kevlar vests and armed with assault rifles began staging symbolic occupations of Alamo Plaza.
The presence of weekend soldiers aside, changes at the Alamo itself seem inevitable. The aging shrine has long been a disappointment to visitors—a dim church, a tiny museum, and a walled-in park plopped down in downtown San Antonio, all of it surrounded by the cheesiest possible tourist venues: a wax museum, a Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, that kind of thing. Texans have debated how to spiff it all up for 50 years. Now that it might happen, it can sometimes seem that everyone in the state has an opinion on what to do. It’s not just Anglos and Mexican Americans. Native American groups want land set aside to honor ancestors buried beneath Alamo Plaza during the Spanish era. One set of plans would involve tearing down an old Woolworth’s department store across the street; African Americans are protesting this, explaining that the lunch counter there was one of the first public places in San Antonio where Blacks were allowed to dine with whites. Stuck in the middle is a beleaguered state bureaucrat with a fine political pedigree, George P. Bush, son of Jeb. Just about no one in Texas envies poor George P. these days.