As Trump visits Alamo, Texas, famed battle is used to 'commemorate whiteness,' historians say
The famed Alamo battle was fought more than 200 miles away from where President Donald Trump is expected to give a defiant speech on Tuesday, but historians say that by speaking in Alamo, Texas, Trump is bringing to mind a piece of history that is fraught with racist myths.
Alamo is a small town on the Texas-Mexico border named after the 19th-century mission and fortress in San Antonio where a Texas army was defeated by Mexican troops in 1836. Texans used the defeat at the Alamo as a rallying cry – "Remember the Alamo!" – in their fight for independence from Mexico.
The Battle of the Alamo was a nearly two-week long siege during the Texas Revolution, a rebellion against the Mexican government, during which 189 Texans under the command of Lt. Col. William B. Travis chose to die rather than surrender.
Trump, who faces a call for his immediate removal and a second impeachment, had invoked the "beautiful, beautiful Alamo" in his 2020 State of the Union address, calling it "where Texas patriots made their last stand."
The White House has billed Trump's visit as a chance to "mark the completion of more than 400 miles of border wall – a promise made, promise kept – and his Administration’s efforts to reform our broken immigration system."
Although the battle has become a symbol of patriotism and freedom for many Texans and Americans, like the Confederate monuments erected after the Civil War, the myth of the Alamo has been used to "commemorate whiteness," according to Walter L Buenger, Texas State Historical Association chair.
The battle itself was relatively insignificant tactically speaking, but it gained recognition decades later in the 1890s as backlash to African Americans gaining more political power and Mexican immigration increasing, Buenger said. In 1915, "Birth of a Nation" director D.W. Griffith produced "Martyrs of the Alamo," which solidified the myth further by pitting white virtuous Texans against racist caricatures of Mexicans on screen.
"It became in some ways a sort of symbol of Anglo-Saxon preeminence," he said. "The Alamo became this symbol of what it meant to be white."
In reality, Mexican Americans fought alongside white Texans, some of whom enslaved people, in part because the government of Mexico had decided to centralize power, eliminate racial requirements for citizenship and abolish slavery, according to Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, professor of history at University of Texas-Austin.
Tejanos lobbied for slavery because settlers such as Stephen Austin, known as the "father of Texas," offered them cheap land for cotton plantations and security from the Comanche, who were raiding ranches and taking hostages, Canizares-Esguerra said.
Canizares-Esguerra said Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna were not coming to take freedom from the Texans but rather to liberate slaves on east Texan plantations. He called the Alamo "the largest statute to the Confederacy in this country."
"It’s a battle over slavery," he said. "It is telling that Trump goes to Alamo right now. It summarizes the history of white supremacy in this country by that very choice and the fact that the real history of the Alamo is completely ignored in textbooks, in classrooms, in history books."
Buenger, also a professor at University of Texas-Austin, said it's more likely that the Texas revolution was caused by the clash between centralism and federalism than slavery, but making slavery as secure as possible was a priority when the republic of Texas was formed.
He agreed that Trump, who referred to some Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists during the 2015 announcement of his presidential campaign, is likely trying invoke the myth of the battle without acknowledging the involvement of Mexican Americans.
"He wants to sort of tap into this theme of the Alamo as a defining moment in American history and the triumph of Anglo-Saxon civilization and the move west," he said. "It is again tapping into a defense of white privilege."