(Triumphant Wild West music plays, a flurry of horn fanfare and trilling woodwinds. Then a mix of what seem like tourism commercials and history videos plays.)
Ad voice-over 1: Wow, I can’t believe it! We’re gonna trip to the Alamo!
Ad voice-over 2: You can’t come to San Antonio, Texas, and not visit the world-famous Alamo!
Ad voice-over 3: (Over light applause and cheering.) The Alamo is a symbol for courage even in the face of certain death, as it was the cry “Remember the Alamo!” that inspired the Texans to win their struggle …
(The mix ends, and the music slows—like a record player losing power—going off-pitch.)
Protester: (Yelling.) I can assure you that if William Barret Travis was here, or the others that died in this sacred shrine were here, they would give us a rebel yell! (Other protesters yell and cheer.)
(Another distortion of the music.)
Counterprotester: (Speaking through a megaphone.) They got guns; they got …
(Chants of “Keep the peace!” resound. Then the cacophony dissolves, leaving only a ringing sound—the same sound that rattles around one’s ears after they’ve been bombarded by too much noise for too long.)
Bryan Burrough: Something happens at the Alamo monument every day.
Julia Longoria: Journalist Bryan Burrough is a Texan who writes books about Texas history. And he says people pay tribute to that history all the time at the Alamo monument in San Antonio, Texas.
Burrough: It’s like Mecca. Everybody in Texas goes to the Alamo, generally multiple times. This is the Jerusalem of Texas, you know? This is a secular, uh, holy place to Texans.
(The echoey sound of the protesters from earlier plays, distant and indistinct, for a moment. Briefly, their words become clear enough to make out: “A sacred ground here, just like Lexington, just like Concord …”)
Longoria: It’s holy because, in 1836, the story goes that it was the site of an epic battle to make Texas independent from Mexico.
(Light, flute-driven Western-style music plays, setting the scene for the exposition of the story.)
Burrough: The story, for going on 200 years, has always been that, you know, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett all went down to Texas to fight this dastardly Mexican dictator, Santa Ana. Of course, everybody was surrounded and killed.
Longoria: Texans lost at the Alamo. But that battle was said to be a turning point. Those men who died there were martyrs, because—after that—Texas was finally able to defeat Mexico.
Burrough: Texan colonists were fighting for liberty. They were fighting against oppression. And they chose to give up their lives at the Alamo so that we could have what has become the modern American state of Texas.
Longoria: That’s why some Texans still repeat the famous battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” to honor the martyrs who died there. And Texans are fiercely protective of this history.
Burrough: I’m 80 miles north of it. If I rallied down to the Alamo Plaza every time there was a protest that threatened to turn angry, it’s all I would do.
(Music fades down and out, followed by the sound of cheering and clapping.)
Longoria: And so, this past June, when Bryan heard about a protest at the Alamo, he didn’t think much of it at first.
Westin Martinez: Howdy, Texas. Comin’ to you live from the Alamo, along with some of my friends that have come down here today to again defend the Alamo. You know …
Longoria: But this time, there was a bit of a clash between two different groups.
Burrough: Protesters from the Latino civil-rights group LULAC showed up and argued with these camo-clad militia types.
Brandon Burkhart: We’re here because LULAC wants to honor the Mexico soldiers who died in the fight in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.
(Very subtly, low notes pulse and whistle as background music.)
Longoria: A Latino civil-rights group had suggested that Mexican soldiers who died at the Alamo might also be honored there along with the Texans who died.
Burkhart: Now, if you’re a Texan, you’re probably going, “That’s a bunch of bullshit. You don’t honor tyrants in Texas.”
Longoria: On one side, protesters from the This is Texas Freedom Force carried large automatic rifles. And on the other side, Latino protesters were armed with … a book.
Burrough: It’s called Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth.
Longoria: Specifically, it was Bryan’s book.
Burrough: When we saw protesters with the book on Alamo Plaza, that was the first time we realized that more was happening—or more was going to happen—than we expected.
Longoria: The new book, Forget the Alamo, has set off a fierce battle over Texas’s founding legend—which Bryan did not expect.
Burrough: It’s intended to be a fun, accessible, open, friendly urging to just reconsider and—and be open to new ideas.
Longoria: You did call it Forget the Alamo. So … (Laughs.)
Burrough: Look, Forget the Alamo is the necessary provocation to get you to turn your head. If we had written a book called Reconsidering the Alamo, would we seriously be here today? [Longoria bursts out with a laugh.] No.
(The music takes a turn: Industrial and plunking, it trundles along.)
Longoria: This week, we reconsider the Alamo.
A conversation with journalist Bryan Burrough about a fierce fight over a regional myth. Who gets to write history? Who gets to define the meaning of monuments? And what happens when a myth shatters?
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(A ring, a resonance, and then silence.)
Longoria: Growing up in Texas, were there ways that the Alamo popped up in your everyday life?
Burrough: Well, the classic thing is just any time you’re in any type of fight, uh—you were throwing rocks with the kids down the street, or anything—somebody would always yell, “Remember the Alamo!” I mean, that’s just the thing, especially beginning in the 20th century. Any type of popular discourse involving a Texan—especially a Texas politician, especially anything to do with the military—somebody is going to invoke the Alamo.
It’s just, uh, it’s—it’s shorthand. It’s shorthand for “Fight to the death,” you know, “Fight as hard as you can.” And it’s always been that way.
Longoria: Bryan was taught this legend in his seventh-grade social-studies class. In Texas, seventh-grade social studies means mandatory Texas history, written by the state Board of Education.
Burrough: Oh yeah. Because there was no alternative. There was no alternative narrative for any of us to even begin to understand. This has always been the story that’s been told, of heroic Anglos doing battle against nefarious Mexicans. Um, you know, Santa Ana has been held up for going on 200 years as kind of the Voldemort of the Texas Revolution.
If we had a national villain in Texas, it would be Santa Ana by a hundred yards.
Longoria: Of course, this story wasn’t only told in Texas.
Burrough: There’s as many different types of Alamo movies as there are movies. Going all the way back to the 19-teens, the first “great” one—and, by that, I mean greatly horrendous—was produced by D. W. Griffith, who made Birth of a Nation.
(Orchestral music of the type that might grace a mid-20th-century silent film plays.)
Burrough: And it was this stunningly racist thing that essentially argued that the Texas colonists, uh, revolted because Mexicans dared to chase Anglo women. You know, something along that. Through the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, you know, mostly what you saw was traditional heroic narratives, with Jim Bowie as kind of the dashing Steve McQueen figure and a happy-go-lucky Crockett.
Disneyland TV-show narrator: Walt Disney’s Disneyland!
Burrough: I watched the Disney version when I was a kid.
Longoria: And was there a song as part of the, uh, Disney … ?
Burrough: Oh yeah! [Singing.] Davy, Davy Crockett!
Barbershop quartet: (Singing over strings and flute.) Davy! Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.
(The music from the barbershop quartet continues with no lyrics. As Longoria narrates, it moves from peaceful idyll to tension during the battle. Then, as Longoria says “Surrender,” the music takes a somber, weighty tone.)
Longoria: In these movies, the legend goes like this: White Texans took a stand for freedom against the Mexican dictator Santa Ana at the Battle of the Alamo. They fought bravely, but they were outmatched, and after 13 days of fighting, they were surrounded. And they realized they would lose.Santa Ana demanded surrender. Women and children retreated to the chapel to hide while the men had a decision to make.
Don Megowan: (As William Travis.) Russell brings bad news, men. The defense of the Alamo rests on us alone. Now, I can’t force you beyond patriotism and your own conscience.
Longoria: Commander William Travis famously took out his sword and drew a line in the sand.
Megowan: (As William Travis.) Those who stay … cross over the line. (At “line,” a dramatic horn flourish plays.)
(The music echoes out to silence.)
Longoria: He told the men, “Surrender, or cross this line and stay—and fight to the death.” According to the legend, all but one man chose to stay and die fighting.
Burrough: It was really these made-for-TV movies that Disney made of Crockett in the ’50s, followed shortly thereafter by John Wayne’s movie The Alamo, that really catapulted the Alamo into becoming the international icon that it’s become since. It remains, I think, most dearly held for people who grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s, who were weaned on this stuff.
Longoria: The people who hold this legend most dearly have a name …
Burrough: Those who buy in—sometimes called Alamo-heads—
Burrough: People who go again and again, who read all the books, who can quote the movies. They’re just aficionados, the most famous one being the singer Phil Collins, who is just an Alamo enthusiast—much as you would be an enthusiast as, say, a reenactor at Gettysburg.
Longoria: Wait. Phil Collins is an Alamo-head? (Chuckles softly.)
Burrough: Phil Collins is the greatest-known Alamo-head.
Phil Collins: I’ve had a love affair with this place since I was about 5 years old. (Fades under.)
Longoria: But isn’t Phil Collins British?
Burrough: Yeah, but the Alamo is international. The Alamo is not just an American thing.
Collins: Why I didn’t get as fascinated by something in English history, I’ll never know. But … (Fades under and down.)
Burrough: He believes, among other things, that he—in another life—was a messenger at the Alamo. He talks about watching the Disney stuff, about watching the John Wayne stuff, and having this clear sense that he had been there.
Collins: It was in 1973 when I first came here. I was just spellbound when I first saw it in person. (Fades under.)
Burrough: Collins amassed—by far—the largest collection of Alamo memorabilia in the world.
Collins: Some people would buy Ferraris. Some people would buy houses. I bought old bits of paper. (Fades under as people applaud in the background.)
Burrough: Which is now at the centerpiece of a new—what?—$250 million museum that they hope to build at the Alamo.
Emcee: Thank you, Phil Collins!
Longoria: And, putting aside Phil Collins, which is wild, Alamo-heads in the U.S. have actually occupied the highest ranks of government.
Burrough: Lyndon Baines Johnson, who would—I guess he was the first Texas president, was in some ways the ultimate Alamo-head—he would, at state dinners, recount Alamo poetry from memory that his mother had taught him. He used the Alamo as a metaphor often in talking about Vietnam—how it was necessary to go in to reinforce the south Vietnamese. “They’re fighting like the Alamo. We have to go help them.” And LBJ was probably the most high-profile sufferer ever of what’s called “Alamo fever,” which is the thing that happens when you come to believe you had an ancestor at the Alamo. You hear this a lot, believe it or not—that people feel kind of a psychic or a mystic connection.
Longoria: Apparently Alamo fever has happened to a lot of people. It goes to the power of the story—whether or not their ancestors were actually there, everyone wants to feel like they’re a part of it.
Burrough: It’s a classic story, and it’s a—it’s a great legend. The problem is it just doesn’t hold up.
(Soft keyboard chords play alongside deep chimes, a rolling thunder, a quietness.)
Longoria: For Bryan, the great awakening happened at breakfast.
Burrough: There was a moment two years ago at a place called Joann’s at the Austin Hotel on South Congress, eatin’ huevos rancheros.
Longoria: He was with his friends Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford, both Texans, both writers.
Burrough: Chris was talking—as he was prone to do—about his latest column, and Jason and I were busy eating and kind of half-listening when, at some point, he starts talking about the Alamo. And at some point, he says, “Everything you think you know about the Alamo is wrong.”
I took that to be an exaggeration to get our attention. Fine. But it was—what really got my attention was when he said that “what you don’t understand is the degree to which the conventional Anglo-centric narrative has been used to oppress generations of Mexican Americans—uh, generations of Tejanos.”
And Chris told us all this stuff, and I—and it just jerked my head. I just said, “What do you mean, ‘Everything I know about the Alamo is’—I mean, what’s at issue?”
Longoria: Bryan was late to this. Not everyone in Texas has Alamo fever. Generations of Texans—some descended from Mexicans, some of them descended from Tejanos who fought in the Texas Revolution—have always known the legend was a lie.
Burrough: It’s only been within the last 50 years that what’s called “Alamo revisionism” has kind of risen. And we trace that to the oral traditions within Mexican American families who long had alternative beliefs, but knew that it really wasn’t safe—sometimes literally—to air them in public.
The few times that leading Tejanos have come out and said something, they have been shouted down—angrily. I’m thinking, for instance, of the San Antonio activist, the Latina Rosie Castro, best known as being the mom of the two politician Castro kids, who, in an interview back in—I think it was 2012—you know, basically said that—when asked about the Alamo—said, you know, “I was raised that these were a bunch of drunken mercenaries who came here and stole Mexican lands.” And, you know, she was excoriated, uh, roundly, especially in conservative media.
(The music cuts out almost imperceptibly.)
Longoria: But for Bryan and his co-authors, it was a whole reframing of everything they learned in school.
Over the course of a year, Chris, Bryan, and Jason pored over original documents and correspondence from the time, read all the work of past historians who had poked holes in this myth, and interviewed Tejanos. Slowly, they chipped away at the Disney legend and found that the story that generations of Tejanos knew was true.
Burrough: Well, it starts with the first Americans coming to Texas in the 1820s.
Longoria: In 1821, Mexico became independent from Spain, which opened the door for American colonists to move into Mexico. Many of those colonists were coming from the American South. And as they migrated, they brought other people with them—enslaved people.
Burrough: Most, if not many, Mexicans were of mixed race. And so the idea that those from one race—especially the Anglo race—would actually own and enslave people of color was anathema to Mexican liberals from the beginning. And from the beginning, Mexico was stridently abolitionist, and did everything they could to outlaw slavery in Texas, but continually allowed the Texans, you know, another year here, and “Two more years, and then that’s it, guys.” The early star would be the father of Texas, Stephen F. Austin, who spent an incredible amount of time fighting with the Mexican government about the importance of slavery.
And every Mexican government would come in and say, “No, this time we’re really going to outlaw slavery.” And Austin would complain that everybody was going to leave if they did. And they would give him another year or two, so that the Texans essentially would not go home, since, by then, they were the key to the Texas economy.
When you look at the causes of the Texas Revolution, slavery was paramount. It was the one thing that the Mexican government was constantly trying to take away from the Texans. For the Texans, this was not about morals. It was about economics. Slavery was at the heart of the Texas cotton economy. And without slavery, they—rightly—feared that they would go bankrupt, and they’d all be heading back to Tennessee.
Longoria: Are there any episodes or scenes that you read about from primary-source material that kind of illustrate that squabble over slavery?
Burrough: Well, the ones that really cry out to you are the letters from colonists: “If you let them take away our slaves, we—we’re dead.”
Longoria: So the story taught in school—that Texans were fighting to liberate Texas—leaves out the reality that they were also fighting to enslave human beings.
On top of that, the legend says the loss at the Battle of the Alamo ended up having crucial strategic significance that allowed Texans to ultimately be victorious.
Burrough: They fought and gave their lives so that Sam Houston—the head of the army—could raise an army that ultimately defeated Santa Ana. That’s the spine of the legend.
Longoria: But the actual battle?
Burrough: It really was of little strategic significance. It didn’t need to be fought. In fact, there was no line drawn in the sand. The defenders did not make any choice to stay there and fight Santa Ana for their freedom. They were stuck there because they ignored repeated warnings from their own Tejano scouts that Santa Ana was approaching, and then they were surrounded. And so, did they fight bravely? Well, yes, in the way that everybody who’s surrounded and being attacked fights bravely. But, it turns out, even the primary, most basic fact of—that they all stood and fought to the death turns out not to be true.
Longoria: Those Tejano scouts are often written out of the myth, but Tejanos were a large part of the Texas Revolution too.
Burrough: There are historians who will argue that Tejanos—those Mexican Americans living in Texas—actually led the revolt, in part because they led a little expedition down to try and fight with Santa Ana earlier on, which didn’t really pan out. There were Tejanos in San Antonio calling for revolution every bit as hard as the Texans. And the saddest thing, of course, is that the writing out of Tejanos from Texas history, of course, is entirely reflected in the kind of ethnic cleansing that went on in the months and years immediately after the Alamo, when Anglo settlers came in and evicted Tejanos from their lands, took their livestocks, ran them out to Mexico.
Longoria: And so all of these facts together changed the story for Bryan.
(Disjointed bass music plays over the drip-drop of sporadic electric-guitar notes and a persistent beat—an unsettling effect overall.)
Burrough: I would say that, rather than valiant Americans rising up to fight dastardly Mexicans, what you would see is American colonists who were allowed to come into the Mexican province and who revolted for very little reason—at least in terms of freedom and oppression. And I think, you know, it would look more like a land grab.
Longoria: Bryan and his co-authors gathered all of this information into a book and published it this summer, with that admittedly provocative title, Forget the Alamo. It detailed the real story and the myth.
Burrough: The cliché is that the victors write the history, and that’s exactly what happened here. We didn’t expect that the book would become a rallying cry for a lot of people who felt that their voices had been excluded from Texas culture, from Texas politics, for a long, long time.
Longoria: But it did become a rallying cry. And the clash at the Alamo—where protesters held Bryan’s book? That was only the beginning.
KXAN’s Robert Hadlock: A new book on the Alamo just ignited a brand new battle.
Historian Don Frazier: I mean, this book is really not about the Alamo. This book is about the future of Texas.
Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Kevin Roberts: And if they can convince enough people in Texas that Texas simply isn’t exceptional—in fact, it’s filled with white supremacists who believe that the Alamo defenders were heroic—then they’ve accomplished their objective.
Frazier: (Laughing.) And so it’s just kind of a frat boy’s take on the Alamo, uh, with a particular agenda.
(The music plays up.)
Longoria: That’s after the break.
(A moment more of music, with flowing water dripping in and out, then the break.)
(A flute solo plays backwards, like a rewinding cassette tape, then ends with a blaring horn.)
Longoria: I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment. And we’re back to the battle over a history book.
The standoff at the Alamo between gun-toting militia members and book-toting protesters ended peacefully. But the debate over the book continued to heat up. Online, some people praised the book for giving voice to people who’d been erased from history, and others accused the authors of rewriting history to fit a “woke,” liberal agenda, similar to the conversation we’ve had over Confederate statues and critical race theory.
And then, just a few weeks later, the authors—Bryan, Chris, and Jason—were invited to speak about the book at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Burrough: A wonderful museum. This was going to be a major event.
We had, I don’t know, several hundred people had signed on for our virtual event. And four hours before the event—just about to put on a blue blazer and a clean shirt—we get word from the Bullock that they are going to have to back out.
KXAN reporter: The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum was all prepared to hold a discussion about the book yesterday, but with just hours to go, that event was canceled.
MSNBC’s Joy Reid: Take a look at what’s happening in Texas. State Republicans forced the abrupt cancellation of a book event at a state-history museum because they didn’t like what the book says.
Burrough: The lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, came out and acknowledged, in fact, that he had been the one to cause the museum, um, to back out. And he was very proud of it. In fact, he put out a big fundraising brochure the next day, crowing about it.
Longoria: Wait, so what did he do? What exactly did he do?
Burrough: He’s on their board. He, uh, basically caused the museum to back out of the event.
So I think everybody was a little shocked. I mean, Chris and I—my co-author—he, you know, is a longtime Associated Press war correspondent. He’s reported from 30-odd countries. I’ve reported from another 25. And neither one of us had ever encountered anything like, you know, official state censorship, which is essentially what this is. It’s a dangerous and worrisome precedent when you get state officials saying that only certain ideas are welcome in public forum.
Longoria: It’s interesting because, you know, it’s—[Laughs.] it’s a history book that we’re arguing about. And I guess we’re at a moment in our history, um, when these stories we tell are so fraught and so explosive, like The 1619 Project, the debate over Civil War monuments. Why do you think this story has become so controversial? Why do you think this is so enraging to people?
Burrough: Well, I—I think it’s enraging to some older Anglos—to Mr. Patrick, for instance—because they believe woke lefty radicals are trying to take over their precious history. I’m about the farthest thing from a woke, lefty radical that you’re going to find.
Longoria: What—what [Chuckles.] do you mean by that? (Laughs.)
Burrough: Okay. Cards on the table. I was a lifelong, moderate Republican. I was a pro-choice, elder–George Bush type of Republican before, let’s just say, the last five years, in which I found, uh, that party became something else.
But, look, I think if you asked a political pundit what this is about, you would say this is an Anglo minority that feels deeply threatened. Um, it feels deeply threatened by the rise of liberal and progressive ideas and ideals.
It feels deeply threatened by the rise of scholars, politicians, and others—of color—who have different priorities for governance and in culture. I get that. Um, I was part of that for a long time. I’m somewhat chagrined by that.
It’s difficult for everybody to take a step away from the things that you were taught as a kid. You know, it’s like asking an evangelical to leave the church, in some ways. I don’t think it’s a uniquely Texas experience in that it mirrors some of the type of thinking that’s obviously been going on across the American South as they’ve dealt with Confederate monuments.
And I think for a certain type of white Southerner, it’s always been difficult to look at a statue of Robert E. Lee and say, “He was fighting for slavery.” But the fact is he was fighting to defend a country—the Confederacy—whose beating heart was slavery.
And that’s a similar intellectual leap that Texans probably are now beginning to take. And it’s hard because, you know, Davy Crockett—I’m sure—didn’t walk around saying, “I’m here to fight for slavery.” And yet, the unavoidable fact is, he was.
Longoria: This is a battle over stories told in history classes, on one level. But I wonder, like, are there real stakes to how we tell the story outside of history classes? Like, what would you say is at the core of this fight?
Burrough: Well, I—The core of it is identity, um, is Texas identity.
What’s hard to understand is that the Alamo lies at the beating heart of the Texas creation myth and, thus, is central to the entire concept of what’s called, down here, Texas exceptionalism, which is the idea, dearly held by generations of Texans, that Texas is somehow just a cut above the Delawares and North Dakotas of the world.
Without this fearless legend of freedom and fighting for oppression, you know, Texas becomes just another state.
All identity, all culture is a product—to some extent—of a successful narrative. This has been an incredibly successful narrative—the fact that we have had a state government in Texas that, today and as far back as 1898, has aggressively intervened in education and in every way possible to preserve this legend and make sure that it’s the official history and that everybody’s going to get spoon-fed it in seventh grade.
It’s also about political power and who has the legitimacy to, you know, “rule” Texas, to run Texas. Texas has always been essentially run—or ruled, if you will—by Anglo elites since 1836.
And the key to kind of, you know, Anglo rule here has always been the credibility of the Texas creation myth: that Anglos were the ones who came down here, created something outta nothing, fought the dastardly Mexicans to gain their independence and bring liberty to the state.
So that’s always been the story that’s been woven into why Anglos still run a state that—let’s be clear—is about to be 50 percent Latino, and is now only 41 percent Anglo. It’s one of the reasons, frankly, that I—we think that the pushback and the efforts at censorship against our book have been so visceral, because there’s a degree of the Anglo power structure here, which still dominates politics and the media, that can clearly see that if the myth melts away, other things could begin to melt away as well.
(A hum and a wind chime punctuate the brief silence as Burrough ends. For a long moment, the music plays with no narration. The sound of horns enters.)
Gabrielle Berbey: This episode was produced by Julia Longoria and me, Gabrielle Berbey, with editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by William Brennan. Sound design by David Herman.
Music by Tasty Morsels, with additional music by Joe Plourde.
Our team also includes Emily Botein, Tracie Hunte, and Natalia Ramirez.
If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.