Remediate The Alamo!

Remediate The Alamo!Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I had the pleasure this afternoon of playing hooky from the 4Cs, and accompanying two Canadians on a visit to The Alamo.

My wife and I had visited San Antonio (among other Texas cites) during our low-budget honeymoon (10 years ago this July), and I really wished I could have had the whole family with me — the Riverwalk is so pleasant, and my son Peter (age 6) would enjoy the military history.

I had no idea that San Antonio is gearing up for the premiere of the new Alamo movie. Street barricades, tents, and movie set lighting were being set up in front of the Alamo. The movie title was etched into a big obelisk shaped like a silhouette of the building’s distinctive front, and technicians tested the special effect — flames shooting through the letters. TV crews were setting up, and photographers were prowling.

We circled the outside of the building, and caught the ending of a presentation delivered by Alamo employee Pete Huertas, who delivered a stirring oral rendition of the battle, told from the prospective of the American defenders who died in after sustaining a 12-day artillery barrage from Santa Anna. The most notable figures are Jim Bowie, Davey Crockett, and the young Col. Travis — the latter of whom is undisputably the favorite here in Texas.

After attending two days of conference papers delivered by experts in rhetoric and communication — some of whom mumbled into their notes, apologized in every other sentence for how badly their presentation was going, cut themselves off in the middle of their presentation without even starting in on the conclusion, or went way over time (thus excluding the possibility of questions from the audience) — seeing a good rhetorical performance was a welcome relief.

Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t every presentation that was bad. (For the bloggers who are reading this, don’t worry, I wasn’t thinking about your presentation… all the blog-related talks have been good, and most of the others as well.)

Huertas, standing outside, off to one side of the complex, gestured expansively towards the church building, where Davey Crockett’s Tennessee volunteers planned to retreat after Santa Anna’s forces entered the compound. He described Santa Anna’s motions from the perspective of the Americans trapped in the fort, attempting to place us all back in history.

His presentation did not vilify Santa Anna and his Mexican forces, but it did glorify the Americans. He emphasized the desperate messages that Travis sent out to the regional and state authorities, pleading for reinforcements; and he emphasized the government’s failure in coming to help. I explained to my Canadian companions the unique history of the Republic of Texas, formerly an independent nation, and still a fiercely independent culture, suspicious of the value of depending on the government rather than on independence and ingenuity.

Huertas told me he was a junior teacher for 23 years. He gave up on the state educational system because he said it was geared towards teaching students to pass tests, rather than expanding their minds.

When I mentioned the delicate cultural role of interpreting the historical events surrounding the siege of the Alamo, in an increasingly multicultural society that may not wish to hear the same messages in which the losing American forces are glorified and the winning Mexicans are pretty much faceless and nameless. (except for Santa Anna himself), Huertas responded that he wanted to “go ahead with what I know to be true, in spite of Hollywood.”

At this point, Huertas’ boss saw me taking notes, and Huertas told me that Alamo employees have been told not to talk to all the reporters who are here to cover the Hollywood premiere.

Later, in a museum setting in one of the side buildings, volunteer docent Max Knight gave a more objective description of the battle, carefully sourcing and qualifying all his claims about where the bodies of Travis, Bowie, and particularly Crockett were found. Bowie was ill upon his arrival at the Alamo, and quickly turned command over to the young Travis. Legendary accounts of Bowie’s death have him whipping out his eponymous bowie knife (which, according to one exhibit, is credited with killing Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and defending himself to the death; but Knight drew our attention to the lenght of the Mexican bayonets and pikes, and asked whether we really thought a bowie knife would be much use. The Mexican accounts of Bowie’s death had him shaking in fear beneath his blankets. Knight said that Bowie would indeed probably have been shivering from his sickness, and may have been able to fire the pistols Crockett gave him, but that’s all we know for sure. (He dismissed the story supplied by a woman who claimed to have been a nurse tending to Crockett at the end of the battle.)

Knight noted that Disney’s movie presents Crockett surviving the siege, not torching the powder kegs and dying in a heroic explosion, as in John Wayne’s portrayal). Texans can be very possessive of the stories about their icons; and since Crockett is on record as giving a speech promising that he would defend The Alamo to the death, his survival (and subsequent execution) problematizes that legendary material.

The convention floor is closing now… more later.

Update, 27 March: Something I didn’t notice when I was here before was a monument bearing a poem in traditional Chinese characters, donated in 1914 by Shiga Shigetaka, who saw parallels between the siege of the Alamo and the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575.