In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously stated that the great enemy of truth is often “not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic”; and that “too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears.”
Few events in American history are more mythologized than the Battle of the Alamo. Taking place during the Texas Revolution, in the winter of 1836, at a fortified Catholic mission in San Antonio, Texas, the siege and fall of the Alamo epitomized the concept of Manifest Destiny. During the battle, about 180 American rebels, fighting for Texan independence from Mexico, defended the Alamo, a stone monument to Anglo westward expansion, from attacks by 4,000 Mexican troops. After a 13-day siege, the Mexican army defeated the vastly outnumbered Texan garrison. But later that year, at the Battle of San Jacinto, Texans ultimately won the war for independence, and the classic American battle cry “Remember the Alamo” was born.
In the years since, a mythological narrative of the Alamo and its “heroic” American defenders has grown wildly, permeating popular culture, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and raising the question of what is it about the Alamo that we, as Americans, truly remember with such reverence.
The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth, a three-part exhibition that opened at San Antonio’s Galería Guadalupe on February 23rd — the day the infamous siege began — addresses this question. Featuring paintings, sculptures, and installation works by over 20 selected Chicano/a artists, the exhibition reflects on the Alamo’s history, from its inception to the present, in hopes of reevaluating what has become known as the “Shrine of Texas Liberty.” Most importantly, the exhibition suggests that the myths and symbolism surrounding the Alamo have become more divisive than inspirational, alienating people of color and reinforcing a narrative of Anglo hegemony over the American southwest.
Among these works, Albert Alvarez’s free-associating collage painting “How the West Was Won” (2018) provides viewers with an iconoclastic crash course on the Alamo’s role in popular culture. It cobbles together nearly two centuries’ worth of history and lore, picturing the likes of folk hero Davy Crockett, so-called “King of the Wild Frontier,” an American soldier who was killed at the Battle of the Alamo; British rock star Phil Collins, who has amassed the world’s largest private collection of Alamo relics; and Ozzy Osbourne, who infamously urinated on the Alamo in 1982. These portraits are brashly connected by scrawled phrases like “White Greed”, “Gringos Versus Wet Backs”, and “Ethnic Conflict.”
Other works bring the Alamo’s story into a broader, more contemporary context, illustrating the battles still being fought by immigrants struggling to survive in a foreign landscape. Adan Hernandez’s darkly comic painting, “La Migra Gets Zapped by Illegal Aliens” (2001), juxtaposes the personal experience of the immigrant (Hernandez’s grandfather was forced to sleep in graveyards to avoid being murdered by Texas Rangers) against a science fiction backdrop. Jose Esquivel’s surrealistic “Dreamers in Space,” directly influenced by René Magritte’s Golconda (1953), trades bowler hats for graduation caps, capitalizing upon the idealism of youth threatened by a current state of political limbo.
I myself was a product of the popular culture that brought about a resurgence in the Alamo’s story. As a little boy, I watched Fess Parker and John Wayne fight on the parapets of Hollywood’s Alamo (1960). These classic movie stars were, and in many ways remain, my heroes. And yet The Other Side of the Alamo is a vital and timely exhibition, and to view it is to confront a landscape still traumatized by the past. It is a confrontation presented by artists who demand a certain recognition — not for themselves, but for the people who have been and remain forgotten, both by history and by the existing world around them.
The pieces on display represent the unheard voices of the barrio, the migrant in search of a better life in spite of prejudices and threats, the Dreamers of DACA who now must warily face an uncertain future. Each piece points out that, for a great number of people living in America, the Alamo still acts as a painful reminder of historical traumas, in spite of its instantly recognizable façade and lionized cast of heroes. In the era of “build the wall,” this exhibition takes its own stand with the hope that everyone, regardless of skin tone, background, or immigration status, must recognize and combat a bellicose rhetoric that affronts the most basic of human decency. To do so, one might argue, would surely be a battle worth remembering.
The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth continues at Galería Guadalupe (723 S. Brazos St. San Antonio, TX 78207) through October 12.