I’ve been visiting a dear friend down in Houston for the last few days, and while there, I accompanied her to a wedding. The reception was in Cypress, just outside of Houston. As Katie and I made our way down the long, tree-lined drive, I was startled to see that this was no hotel-style conference center. It was instead an amalgam of historical replicas, and the reception we were attending was being held at “the Alamo.”
“The Alamo” is tucked away in a park-like setting, surrounded by meticulously landscaped lawns and trees. Several other replicas were nearby, including the “Settlement House” (a mock hotel/saloon complete with a replica of Frederic Remington’s The Wicked Pony), the “Log Inn” (double bonus points for the pun), and most inexplicably, a “New England”-style chapel. There was also an “Old West” style collection of storefronts, complete with a saloon, jail, and apothecary shop.
According to the conference center’s website, the Alamo is “an authentic replica” made from stone from the same quarry that the stone at the actual Alamo came from.
Our trip to the conference center reminded me of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, an amusement park I visited often as a child. If you haven’t been, I strongly recommend it–it’s a beautiful park with great rides and good food. It is also mostly “Europe” themed (one section is “New France” which is clearly meant to be French Canada). Busch Gardens’ version of Europe is deliberately and delightfully ahistorical; historical locations/time periods are chosen for their picturesque qualities, and the connection is more aesthetic than anything else. I don’t think anyone visits Busch Gardens and assumes they are getting a real sense of Europe, although a good friend of mine once visited Europe and facetiously complained that she wished it was more like Busch Gardens.
Anyway, as delightful as I find the ahistorical version of the past in a theme park, I found the conference center, particularly “the Alamo,” to be much more troubling. The Alamo itself has a controversial history that merits a much more detailed and nuanced examination than I will attempt here, but I want to briefly discuss some of the issues that occurred to me. I also want to add a big fat caveat that I realize that I am not a scholar of the Alamo, and that even scholars of the period have strong disagreements over the interpretation of the Battle of the Alamo.
The Alamo is a symbol of Texas pride and independence. John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960) captured the popular understanding of the Battle of the Alamo: a couple hundred brave white soldier/cowboys are tasked with holding a lone fort in the name of Texas Independence against a vast army of thousands led by the dastardly Mexican General Santa Anna. There’s a lot wrong with Wayne’s version of events, starting with the reason the soldiers are there. They weren’t meant to be defending the Alamo; they were supposed to gather the arms and ammunition stored there and destroy the mission. This version also neglects the reasons behind the Texas Revolution, which included the fact that Mexico abolished slavery, a practice many Southerners who moved to Texas were keen to continue. Moreover, it ignores the contributions of the Tejanos, ethnic Mexicans living in Texas who also opposed Santa Anna.* It’s also worth mentioning that the historical consultants walked off the set, which is rumored to have occurred on the set of Mel Gibson’s notorious (at least for historians) 2000 film, The Patriot.
In short, John Wayne’s Alamo illustrates the whitewashed, heroic narrative of bravery and sacrifice that still casts its shadow over attempts to create a more accurate and considered interpretation.
As I stood before “the Alamo,” I thought about the architect who designed this space and the company that commissioned it (and that fact that it hosts a John Wayne collection). I thought about the people who celebrate their weddings at this site, or who choose it to host a conference. On the surface, it seems harmless enough; it’s a symbol of Texas, and the world if full of replicas (like Nashville’s Parthenon). The people responsible for this particular replica did not build it out of a desire to expand knowledge or understanding of the events that made the mission significant in American or Mexican or World History. They chose it for its symbolic power, the quintessentially Texan qualities attached to that façade. They worked hard to make it an “authentic replica”–the contradiction in those terms doesn’t seem to signify.
I think what I find troubling about the rather thoughtless repetition of this imagery is that it undermines the efforts of scholars trying to get at the past and understand the Battle of the Alamo. It indicates that those things don’t matter, what matters is the symbol and all it means is Texas pride. It’s the same attitude that characterizes a lot of defense of flying the Confederate flag, for example, where (white) people embrace the flag in the name of “Southern pride” while overlooking the fact that it is a symbol of oppression and violence against black Southerners. I wonder if the Alamo’s use as imagery, the fact that it has become synonymous with heroic white men, discourages people of color from using this site. Heroes need villains, after all, and the villains in this story are Mexican.
Part of our job as public historians is to ask these sorts of questions, and find ways to encourage people to be more thoughtful consumers of history. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with being proud of your roots, but I also believe that you can be both proud and critical. By turning historic figures into heroes, we place them in the realm of fairy tale and fantasy, which, for me at least, undermines their real accomplishments as men and women who achieved remarkable things. When we turn the Alamo into a Disney-castle backdrop, we do a disservice to the complicated and fascinating history of that place.
What other historic replicas have you visited? Am I hypocritical for being so hard on “the Alamo” and giving Busch Gardens a pass? (I am partial to roller coasters.) Is Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000) a latter day version of John Wayne’s The Alamo?
*This article is a nice summary of some of the challenges historians in understanding and interpreting the Battle of the Alamo.