During a summer vacation in 1961, my brother and I sat in a Lampasas, Texas, movie theater off the main square and watched with fascination “The Alamo,” produced and directed by John Wayne.
It was our first exposure to Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and the rest of the mission defenders. I left the theater conflicted at the images of Santa Anna ordering the Mexican soldiers to storm the fort and kill rifle-swinging men. How heroic it was to see John Wayne take a lance through the belly and set off the munitions in a fiery explosion to his death. The truth was that Davy was captured alive after the fighting and executed.
The Hollywood historical epic projected that the Texians and Tejanos, fighting for freedom, were good and the Mexicans, fighting for oppression, were bad. The movie’s “Green Leaves of Summer” tune pressed upon us “A time just for livin’, a place for to die.”
My Lampasas cousins said that a few years earlier we wouldn’t have been allowed to sit on the main theater floor, but instead directed to the balcony with the other Mexicans. They laughed that my grandfather’s light complexion earned him a pass to the first floor. Lampasas theater owners remembered the Alamo too well.
By 2018, the theater was gone and the Texas State Board of Education considered deleting the term “heroic” in reference to the Alamo defenders. They thought “heroic” was value-laden. After a righteous bombardment by the moniker’s defenders, the board left the field with their tails tucked. In my estimation, the board’s intention was not a play for political correctness, given that the majority of Texas public school students are Latino, but an attempt to teach children to discern the truth based on facts.
Perhaps, they would learn that it wasn’t Smitty, played by Frankie Avalon, who escaped the Alamo to seek reinforcements. In reality, the defenders decided correctly that Tejano Juan Seguin could break through the encirclement. Curious students would learn that Seguin fought at the Battle of San Jacinto, accepted the Mexicans’ surrender at the Alamo and buried the Texian and Tejano defenders’ ashes.
A progressive social studies teacher could challenge her class to discuss the motivation for the Lone-Star leaders’ decision to run Seguin out of Texas. The teacher could show statistics that slavery in Texas went from an estimated 4,000 in 1837 to an estimated 23,000 in 1845, according to the Texas Slavery Project. A student essay could prompt “Explain how freedom-loving Texans justified legalizing slavery.”
In an era when some elected officials lie to their constituents, impede freedom of information requests, stoke racial fears and malign professional journalists, could we expect the clarity of historical facts to shine in our classrooms? When Texas teachers are expected to feed students propaganda porridge, we impair children from developing cognitive skills. These skills are desperately in need among Texas schools especially in Fort Worth and Arlington school districts that ranked C level performances in 2017-2018, according to the Texas Education Agency Accountability Report Card.
We should encourage school districts to raise the smart bar with historical facts about Texas slavery and lynching, Tejano oppression and Native American killings. We should commend the state board’s recent approval of Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies.
Let’s not follow the John Wayne school of history lying. The Duke’s myths might feel good, but they’re bogus lessons that impede students’ mental maturity.
It’s a time just for thinkin’, a time for to tell the truth.
Richard Gonzalez is a local writer.