Chicano Artists Challenge How We Remember the Alamo

Josh Feola
Jul 9, 2018 5:10PM

Mari Hernandez, The Signing, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

On May 1, 1718, a Spanish expedition to the northern reaches of what was then New Spain established the Mission of San Antonio de Valero—a building today known as the Alamo—and the city that is now San Antonio, Texas, was officially founded. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and passed the General Colonization Law three years later, allowing individuals to own land in Mexico, regardless of race or citizenship. Today, the Alamo is best known for a pivotal battle fought there by white settlers in 1836 in the lead-up to Texas gaining independence from Mexico.

A city that likes a party, San Antonio has gone all out for its 300th birthday this year. On May 1st, it celebrated with Catholic church bells, Buddhist chants, and a gospel choir in the city’s Main Plaza, half a mile from the Alamo. The king and queen of Spain were in town last month to add to the festivities, launching a landmark exhibition of paintings from Madrid at the San Antonio Museum of Art before heading to Washington, D.C., for a reception with the president.

One of the most revelatory exhibitions mounted for the city’s tricentennial, however, aims to rebut rather than celebrate one of San Antonio’s origin stories. “The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth,” on view through October at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on San Antonio’s west side, inverts the narrative around the building that was ground zero for the city’s founding.

The symbol of the Alamo evokes a specific American ideal: a rugged mix of frontier grit, revolutionary zeal, and Spartan sacrifice. The small band of martyrs who dug in against the overwhelming force of the Mexican army at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—including widely hailed folk hero Davy Crockett—are credited with galvanizing the Texan revolt and assisting a definitive victory over Mexico one month later, setting the stage for Texan independence and, eventually, entrance into the United States.

Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, The Fall of the Alamo or Crockett’s Last Stand, c. 1903. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


Or so goes what artist César Martínez calls, in a wall text, “the John Wayne version of Alamo history,” referring to The Alamo, a 1960 film that has shaped the popular mythos. Martínez’s Cenotaph Aguila, a photograph he took in 1972, is one of the most striking images in the exhibition: The Alamo sits to the left of the composition, with the foreground dominated by the Alamo Cenotaph, a monument commemorating the 100th anniversary of Texan independence. Looming large in the background is the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas, which was built in 1968 to commemorate San Antonio’s 250th anniversary and remains the city’s tallest building. But the viewer’s eye is drawn to a symbol confronting the monumentality around it: a spray-painted stencil of the eagle logo adopted in 1962 by United Farm Workers (UFW), the labor union led by Chicano activist Cesar Chavez.

Martínez, age 74, moved to San Antonio in 1971 and quickly became involved with a wave of political activism inspired by the UFW. He was a peripheral member of Con Safo, a Chicano artist collective whose prime movers Felipe Reyes and Mel Casas are also represented in “The Other Side of the Alamo.” One of the group’s tactics was to expand the symbolism of the UFW logo—which takes the form of an inverted Aztec temple topped by an eagle’s head—to include broader Chicano issues. The exhibition opens with Sacred Conflict, a 1971 painting by Reyes whose composition plants the UFW flag in front of the Alamo. It is a reframing of the Alamo as a symbol of “Anglo aggression instead of Mexican tyranny or cruelty,” writes Dr. Ruben C. Cordova, the show’s curator. Reyes views the Alamo as a symbol of Chicano victory, as quoted in the wall text: “The Alamo to me represents vengeance for the Chicano, and the flag is the Chicano symbol for justice.”

Though primarily known today as a painter, César Martínez devoted much of his early career to photography, documenting the work of Chicano muralists in New Mexico and California, as well as the guerrilla activists who stenciled the UFW eagle all over San Antonio’s west side in the early 1970s. He mentions the wartime photography of Richard Avedon and the portraiture of Rolling Stone-era Annie Leibowitz as key influences, but unlike those guiding lights, Martínez said his work at the time was viewed neither as art, nor as documentary. “One of the things that used to be said by the art world in general, and local critics, was that [this work was] not really art, that it was propaganda,” he explained. “This is ironic, because at that time the art world was very proud of what it was doing to push the limits of what art was, and here we are, known as propaganda. So we must have been at the cutting edge in our own way.”

“They didn’t want anything that was ethnic, and they didn’t want anything that was political,” said Cordova of the art world in the 1970s, which was preoccupied with hard-edged Minimalism. Given the UFW’s union roots, the work of Chicano artists invoking its symbol was viewed in light of the Cold War as “Communist and propagandistic,” Cordova added.

César Martínez, Cenotaph Aguila, 1972. Courtesy of Ruiz-Healy Art.

If there’s one core message of “The Other Side of the Alamo,” it’s that this determination has it backwards. It is the mainstream myth of the Alamo—the “John Wayne version,” in which a noble band of martyrs sacrifice themselves to the cause of Texan independence—that is propaganda. In Cordova’s show, this version is revealed as a triumphal narrative designed to obscure the fact that the Texas Revolution was fought primarily to protect the right of settlers to own slaves.

Cordova’s catalogue for the exhibition was originally scheduled to be released on Juneteenth—a holiday marking the end of slavery in Texas in 1865—but has been postponed as he plunges deeper into research. What started as a five-page essay now cascades across more than 60 pages, including a substantial aside about the lengths to which President Andrew Jackson went to facilitate the Texan Revolution—which was fought in 1835–36, and led by colonists like Sam Houston and local Tejanos like Juan Seguín—with the ultimate goal of annexing another slave state into the American South. Cordova said there is ample evidence that, despite an official U.S. position of non-intervention, there was “no end to scheming and collusion” between Jackson and Texan leaders such as Houston. “I think that’s one of the reasons that propaganda has gone into history and stayed there—because [the early Texans] knew they had to be secretive to ever get statehood,” Cordova asserted. After gaining independence from Mexico in 1836, Texas was annexed into the United States in 1845, triggering the Mexican-American War the following year, and exacerbating a conflict over slavery that would only be resolved by the Civil War.

Mari Hernandez, Epidemic from the series “Hombres,” 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Mari Hernandez, Manifest Destiny from the series “Hombres,” 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Though the exhibition had been planned “well before Trump,” one can’t help but read it through a political lens at a time when the U.S.-Mexico border is a heated topic of debate, and anti- Mexican rhetoric has experienced a “renaissance of acceptability,” in Cordova’s words. One wall is taken up by selections from “Hombres” (2016–17), a photographic series by Mari Hernandez that “engages regional history in the broader context of the revival of racism and xenophobia in the age of Trump.” The centerpiece is The Signing (2016), a surreal tableau in which Hernandez recreates the signing of the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War by ceding half of Mexico to the United States. “I believe the history we are taught is biased, and it’s an intentionally created narrative that sides with and represents those in power,” she said.

Hernandez, who has been active in community work on the west side of San Antonio for 18 years and co-founded the Chicana art collective Más Rudas in 2009, said that her “artistic purpose and mission [are] rooted in representation,” adding: “One of the reasons Más Rudas was formed was to find ourselves in the art we were viewing. I seek out art that speaks to me as a Chicana.”

Though earlier Chicano artists like César Martínez ultimately achieved wider recognition, the effort to confront themes that lie at the heart of America’s history of racial and colonial oppression remains a fight. “Most places wouldn’t touch this show, even today,” said Cordova. A timely collection of work critiquing one of the central founding myths of Texas, “The Other Side of the Alamo” provides the latest salvo in a struggle for recognition—both of historical fact and of underrepresented voices—that has been simmering for decades, even centuries. As Cordova noted: “It’s a battle that’s still going on.”

Josh Feola