Memory  /  Q&A

'The Myth Itself Becomes a Stand-in.' What Can the Alamo's History Teach Us About Teaching History?

What’s new about the controversy over the Alamo’s history, and how the way Texans tell its story relates to how Americans see each other.

TIME: What do you see as the impact of not teaching the full history of the Alamo?

Ramos: Almost on any [given] day you’ll hear somebody talk about, “this is our Alamo” or “this is our line in the sand.” They’re taking these parts of the myth, versus the reality, and applying it to their particular context. The real story is one of tragedy—particularly for Mexican Americans, and for Tejanos. It’s literally one of brother fighting against brother; of people having to make choices that in the end, ended up hurting them. And look at the building itself: it was a Catholic church that [people might think] was built by Spanish missionaries. To be frank, it wasn’t the missionaries who built the Alamo. It was the indigenous people that they were converting who put stone on top of stone to build the actual physical building that is the Alamo. So one place we can start with the elimination of context is by looking at the building itself as a text that tells us the history of Texas. That history doesn’t start in 1836.

Does the current debate about the history of the Alamo feel different compared to times the issue has come up in the past?

History has always been political in Texas because Texas history [curriculum] standards are decided through a political process. Every time they’re revised, it becomes a statewide political issue. The State Board of Education oversees K-12 education in the state of Texas, elected commissioners then oversee the creation of these history standards and then textbook companies use those standards to write their textbooks. Texas being such a large market, essentially the State Board of Education ended up writing standards that became somewhat nationalized.

There have been scholars analyzing the history of Texas and the 19th century history of Texas, around questions of race, for over 80 years now. The scholarship itself is lengthy and thorough, but mostly within academia. And so what appears to be happening is that as part of this “anti-critical race theory”, essentially, pushback to the George Floyd protests, there was a decision among political leadership in Texas to use the history of 19th century Texas—and particularly the history of the Texas Revolution—as an emphasis point for patriotic education, and as a tool to push back on more expansive document-based histories of Texas and of the American West.

My own feeling is that it’s only come up because it’s been made an issue as a litmus test for being patriotic; you have to endorse that myth. You can teach a diverse history as long as it doesn’t contradict the patriotic myth. That’s been very clear all along. You can talk about Tejanos as long as you’re talking about the Tejanos who fought on the Texian side—not the Tejanos who fought on the Mexican side, or didn’t fight at all.