May 13, 2002

In Texas: remembering the Alamo differently

Ann Blessinger
PERSPECTIVE: Challenging the traditional sense of who the good guys and bad guys were in history is part of Ann Blessinger's job teaching history to seventh-graders in north Houston.

HOUSTON – On one side of the white construction paper, Ann Blessinger has her students write "King of England," on the other, "colonists." The assignment: Describe how each side felt leading up the Revolutionary War.

This is a lesson in perspective – it's easy to forget that there are two sides to every story, she explains to the 7th graders.

The kids begin: Sad faces appear next to the colonists after the Stamp Act; angry faces appear next to the king after the Boston Tea Party.

Perspective is not a new concept to historians. But in this state – where legendary outsized proportion and emotion dominate views of the past – this is a radical step.

The old way of teaching the Texas Revolution – the freedom-loving Americans against the tyrannical Mexicans, or good versus evil – is falling by the way as fast as the myths surrounding the Alamo.

With an increasingly Hispanic population, Texas school teachers are feeling pressure to bring more perspective to state history, which students must study in the 4th and 7th grade.

The battles that led to Texas' independence, for instance, are still hard for Mexico to swallow: They eventually meant the loss of half the country's land. And as the Hispanic population quickly becomes a majority in this state, teachers, historians, and museum directors are realizing that celebrating these accomplishments without regard to their southern neighbors isn't cutting it anymore.

"The standard line we used was that we won and they lost; and no one really questioned who 'we' was," says Angela Miller, manager for social studies curriculum with the Houston Independent School District and a history teacher of 20 years. "You can't do that anymore."

At Burbank Middle School in north Houston, Ms. Blessinger says, "We teach a lot of kids who have just come from Mexico and many who still have loyalties to Mexico. You do have to be very aware of who is in your room."

She says she's careful to stress the Mexican Army's point of view, and spends extra time on the important Mexican figures who fought alongside American settlers – a concept foreign to teachers just a few years ago.

"Students nowadays are more willing to challenge opinion expressed in the classroom," says Ms. Miller. "That means we need to prepare our teachers to respond to that challenge and not feel threatened by it."

This kind of sensitivity to past struggles is happening all over the country, says Adrian Anderson, a history professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

"We're seeing a kinder, more understanding treatment given to matters like Reconstruction, the Civil War, and the Texas Revolution," says Dr. Anderson, who helps revise Texas textbooks. "We are trying to present a more balanced view of who we are." He says it's commonly held in his discipline that every age rewrites history according to the values and concerns of the time. "In effect, that's what we're seeing here. Texas today is concerned with matters of race and ethnicity and gender."

Bigger-is-better sensibility

To understand why this is such a radical step in the teaching of Texas history, one must first understand just how important a role the past plays in the hearts of Texans today.

Unlike other states that commonly offer public school students a year or less of state history, Texas requires two – in the 4th and 7th grades.

The state is littered with monuments, museums, and historical markers of famous moments in Texas history. In typical Texan bigger-is-better attitude, these were built to overshadow all else. For instance, the 570-foot San Jacinto Monument – commemorating the battle that ended the Texas Revolution – is the tallest monument column in the world, higher than the Washington Monument.

Whole websites and archives are dedicated to tracing family heritage to a "Texian" – a citizen of the Republic of Texas. Any other Texan is considered not quite native.

And Hollywood director Ron Howard's interest in making a movie about the Alamo has caused an uproar among Texans who are proprietary about their history. The possible movie is causing more controversy than whether Davy Crockett actually wore a coonskin cap during the battle.

"I think what surprises [Mr. Howard] is that he hasn't shot a frame of this movie yet, or even finished the script – he's just talking about the possibility of making an Alamo movie – and already he's getting all this negative press," says Stephen Hardin, a history professor at Victoria College, in Victoria, Texas.

"Where is it written that someone who wants to make a movie on the Alamo has to get the permission of every single person in Texas?" asks Dr. Hardin, who was one of a handful of historians who spent the day with Howard last week.

"We make such a big deal of our history because we have themost interesting history of any other state," says Ron Tyler, director of the Texas State Historical Association at the University of Texas in Austin.

"We were our own country for 10 years, electing presidents and a Congress and sending ambassadors abroad."

Mexico, however, sees that period in its own rich history differently – more dimly. Mexicans, being the losers, don't like to talk about that as much as Texans do, says José Pablo Fernandez, president of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Houston. He's encouraged by this more sensitive treatment of history, but believes more can be done. He'd like to see the presidents of Mexico and the US meet at the San Jacinto Monument and shake hands. He'd also like to see another, smaller monument placed next to the towering column in honor of the Mexican soldiers who died fighting for what they believed in.

Not John Wayne to the rescue

As Mexican-Americans, that period in history "still burns us," says Ernesto Nieto, founder of the National Hispanic Institute in Maxwell, Texas. "Texas and its fascination with history has caused a real division among people whose blood roots run deep in this land."

Mr. Nieto still remembers wanting to hide under his desk every time the subject of the Texas Revolution came up in school. He was embarrassed by the depiction of Mexico, his homeland, as a tyrannical country peopled with banditos. And even as a child of 10, he knew that version of history was one-sided.

As he grew up, he says, "I used to get so angry that Texas history failed to mention that the issue of liberation, the issue of independence, the issue of freedom was a Mexican issue. It wasn't a bunch of John Waynes coming in to save our souls."

Indeed, the Texas Revolution didn't start out as a revolution.

It began as a civil war when Mexican federalists challenged the new centrist government of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who essentially undid the Mexican Constitution of 1824 that had been patterned after the US Constitution.

Many American settlers in the Mexican state of Texas were loyal to these federalists and took up arms alongside them.

"When I was in 7th grade, the Texas Revolution was taught in terms of a cultural conflict, that the two cultures were simply too different, read: that the Anglo Celtic cultures were superior and the Hispanic Mexican cultures were inferior," Professor Hardin. "Nothing could have been further from the truth. These two cultures had been existing together, thank you very much, for years."

Copyright 2002
The Christian Science Monitor