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introduction I no longer recall the month or the week, only the place. Wrapped in our winter coats, gloves, scarves, and hats, my third-grade class was on its first field trip of the year. The thrill of leaving behind workbooks filled with three-place addition and subtraction problems was electrifying. The trip, like many of those that would follow in my elementary school years, was to the Alamo: bastion of Texas liberty and memorial to brave men. I had passed by it numerous times before, on my way to see my father, who worked at the pharmacy across the street. I remember wondering if he ever ventured there during his lunch break and felt what I would surely feel walking amid the Alamo’s ancient stone walls where, I had learned, heroes died. My every expectation was met. The stones cried out to me with their sense of history. I looked closely at the wall, searching for pockmarks, imagining muskets displacing rock with each shot. The silence of the main room, the mission church, filled me with awe and heightened my senses. There, beneath the floor that I and my classmates trod, was where legends fell in martyrdom for my freedom. Bowie. Travis. Crockett. Texan heroes all of them. Once outside, the air fresher and the light brilliant, I lost my equilibrium . I recall it vividly. Robert, my best friend, nudged my elbow and whispered, “You killed them! You and the other ‘mes’kins’!” It is not that I didn’t know I was Mexican, I couldn’t escape it. I just hadn’t realized the liability it was in the eyes of my best friend. My initial response was to argue. “I never killed anyone. And my papá [my maternal grandfather, whose age I must have thought made him more a contemporary to the Alamo battle than anyone else in my family] never did either.” Although I recalled overhearing his laments, on several late-night occaxiii 00B-T2008-INT 2/25/02 11:41 AM Page xiii sions when the men were playing dominoes and I should have been sleeping , about working for “esos caranchos gringos.” But he didn’t kill them. I do not know what I lost that day. Innocence? Certitude? Identity? Or some other existentially derived nine-year-old sense of self ? Whatever it was, it was gone. And, like many other losses in my life, this one could not be replaced. Somehow, deep inside, I knew that moment would last forever , etched into my youthful memory. Unfortunately, this experience is not mine alone. Over the last few years as I have retold this story at various places throughout the United States—some as distant from Texas as Ithaca, New York—someone would invariably approach me with his or her own Alamo story.1 Soon after starting this research project, I began to ask close associates and friends their thoughts on the Alamo. While all had their particular understanding of the subject, many of my Mexican American and Latino/a friends and colleagues were ambivalent, if not hostile, to the place. It became very clear to me that the Alamo, and its various representations, did not reference the battle that took place more than one hundred fifty years ago. The Alamo resonated with something deeper, more powerful, and less obvious. Why was it that the stories, legends, and myths spawned by the Alamo created both pride and ambivalence, patriotism and disregard, heroes and tyrants? Was it because it told a story of winner and losers? Perhaps but rather unlikely. Was it related to the taken for granted axiom that victors tell history from their own vantage point? This was not it either. Did it concern the relationship among the past, its representation, and identity? Perhaps, but it was much more than this. Such were the questions that shaped my early interest in the Alamo and that have led to the writing of this book. It is my contention that both the breadth of the Alamo story—its reproduction in film, literature, and folklore, and more generally its presence in the repertoire of American cultural memory—and the divergent understandings of it—the competing, even at times silent interpretations—are the result of its transformation from a site of defeat in 1836 into a powerfully rendered and racially produced icon of American cultural memory. While similar sites—Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and Pearl Harbor— easily come to mind, their transformation into major sites of public history...


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