Battle over the Alamo


The Daughters of the Republic of Texas maintain it as a shrine. Ozzy Osbourne pissed on it. Luby’s sponsors a laughably maudlin IMAX movie about it. American troops used it as a rallying cry. Most Americans think John Wayne defended it. I was once kicked out of it. It stands as one of the primary symbols of Texas, and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t know what to do without it. To some the Alamo is the cradle of Texas history; to others a monument to a harsher, less subtle era. Undeniably, it is a relic, and a potent – albeit contested – symbol: its curved portico stands nearly alone in American architecture as a building recognized across geographical and cultural lines.

The Alamo’s climactic history is etched in every schoolchild’s mind: there were brave Texans, led by Bowie and Crockett and Travis, who held off the barbaric Mexicans, led by Santa Anna, for longer than reason dictated, and then chose a valiant martyrdom over surrender. The inspiration that they thus provided fueled not only the Texas revolution, but also the Mexican-American War, all of Texas history, and, to hear some tell it, every American achievement since 1836. Although the level of detail may vary, that’s the basic mythology of the Alamo.

Not surprisingly, the Alamo’s true history is more complex and perhaps a bit less fun than its mythology. That’s the case with many American icons: George Washington may cast a flatter figure for not having actually chopped down any cherry tree. And yet it is the less-known stories – like his seemingly doomed love life from which the widowed mother-of-two Martha, the third woman to whom he proposed, eventually rescued him – that add depth to the man and color to the history. And it is one of the lesser known stories about the Alamo that Scott Zesch chose as the central element in his historical novel, Alamo Heights.

To put it quickly and bluntly: Alamo Heights is a lousy novel, but a fascinating story.

Those whose knowledge of Alamo history stops with Bowie, Crockett, and Travis are unlikely to know the name of Clara Driscoll (fictionalized here as Alva Carson Keane), the author renowned among aficionados of Texana as “the woman who saved the Alamo.” Driscoll was seventy years too late to do Travis, et al. any good. But it was she who ensured the Alamo’s perpetuity as an historical destination for elementary school field trips and bored San Antonio conventioneers. She used the not-so-small fortune she had made from her first book to purchase the Alamo outright from the state of Texas and deed it to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. For her efforts, she received recognition as a Texas hero on par with the martyrs of the Alamo and, later, a display within the building that is larger than that devoted to any of those who died there (as painstakingly detailed in Holly Beachley Brear’s Inherit the Alamo: Myth and Ritual at an American Shrine).

How Clara Driscoll came to purchase the Alamo and the circumstances surrounding her transfer of the property to the D.R.T. are muddier issues. This is where Zesch comes in, and with him comes Adina De Zavala. De Zavala (who Zesch renames Rose De Léon Herrera) was an amateur historian and direct descendent of one of the soldiers from the Alamo. She was also Mexican American, a founding member of the D.R.T. (she had actually started a similar group in San Antonio two years before the D.R.T. came into existence, and her group joined the D.R.T. upon its inception), and unflagging in her devotion to preserving the Alamo. Beyond these plain facts, clear, uncontested information about De Zavala is hard to come by. Zesch’s story, though, is really her story. Historically unbound by his opening admission that his is a fictionalized narrative based upon real people, places, and events, Zesch provides a much more complete picture of Rose – but how closely and where precisely she adheres to the real Adina De Zavala remains unclear.

Zesch’s Rose is married to an ambitious white lawyer, whose social status suffers from his wife’s Mexican ancestry and her ostentatious pride in her heritage and history. This is not to say that Rose is anything of a Mexican nationalist: her pride is in Texas and those who settled it. She has no more interest in new arrivals from across the Rio Grande than she does in new arrivals from across the Red River. And she lives (this may be historically accurate or just provide Zesch a punny title) in the even-then toney suburb of Alamo Heights. Thus we get the major class-struggle motif of Zesch’s narrative: Rose lives in Alamo Heights but clings to her own Mexican roots, while she drives a luxury car, sends her son, Antonio, to the ritziest available private school, and fears nothing more than that he spends his free time in the barrio.

It’s all too easy to see where this is headed character-wise, and the narrative unfolds as if tailored by a Marxist version of one of those how-to-write-a-novel manuals. The base and the superstructure must conflict, and our protagonist, trapped in limbo, must choose. The most comical example of these dialectic crises comes when Rose confronts Rafael Menchaca, a street vendor and troubadour on the south side with whom Antonio has been consorting. Menchaca turns the tables on Rose, accusing her of being a bad influence: “Just recently I read about you in the papers. The señora trying to save the Alamo. The Alamo! The cradle of [our] oppression! And you, the tejano bourgeoisie, the agringada, leading the fight to save it –”

To be just a little picky: “tejano” wasn’t in recorded usage for another two decades, “bourgeoisie” was unlikely to have been a common word among San Antonio’s poor in 1907, and describing the Alamo as “the cradle of [our] oppression” reeks of a post-sixties revisionism. Those issues aside, Rose’s wooden response further exemplifies Zesch’s failure as a raconteur: “Let me ask you something – Corrido King. Who built the Alamo mission? The Spaniards! Who occupied it? The Mexicans! And who wants to destroy it? Some company from Philadelphia! By God I’ll fight to save it, just like my grandfather fought–”

Luckily for Zesch, the basic skeleton of the real events from turn of the century San Antonio provides some otherwise missing zest to his narrative.

Make no mistake; the real events are fascinating, exciting, and – depending on how one feelsabout the Alamo – possibly inspiring. In brief, the Alamo at the turn of the century looked nothing like it does today. The church was ensconced in a strip of store-fronts, and the long barracks (the building just to the side of the church, and the site of most of the soldiers’ deaths) was completely within the Hugo & Schmeltzer factory. The State of Texas owned the land, and it had no compunction about profiting from it. The factory, and thereby the long barracks within, was scheduled to be demolished so that a new luxury hotel could be built. Adina De Zavala led the struggle to prevent the destruction of the long barracks and the erection of a hotel adjacent to the Alamo. She enlisted the help of Clara Driscoll, who initially bought a temporary lease on the land so that the Daughters could raise enough to buy the Hugo & Schmeltzer factory. When the D.R.T. failed to raise the funds, Driscoll bought the property herself. Then the problems began.

De Zavala became involved in a power struggle with other factions of the D.R.T. Driscoll aligned herself with De Zavala’s rivals, and ultimately those rivals stripped De Zavala of her position as head of the Alamo chapter of the D.R.T. More than personalities was at issue in this conflict: Driscoll had agreed to allow the hotel to be built adjacent to the Alamo in return for the hotel’s cession of some of its land for a park. The entire notion was anathema to De Zavala: it was the very encroachment on the sacred grounds of the Alamo she had fought so long to prevent.

In Zesch’s version, this plot line is enhanced with a personal conflict wherein Keane (Driscoll) plans for the park to honor her father, a cattleman and land baron, who De Léon Herrera (De Zavala) resents because he bought her father’s ranch for a pittance in a politically-motivated set-up. Whether or not this is historically accurate, it provides Zesch with entire chapters of melodramatic angst. A particularly preposterous scene has the two women in a bathroom showdown, repeatedly flushing the toilet to keep others from overhearing. Keane: “You want the whole state to suffer because your father couldn’t manage that ranch and lost it? Don’t count on it, Rose. I’ll fight you tooth and nail.” … Herrera: “No, you and your daddy will never rob the De Léon’s again! You can’t buy custody, Miss Savior of the Alamo. You have to earn it!”

If one could, seventy years after the battle, earn custody of the Alamo, De Zavala did. Unwilling to allow northern hoteliers to destroy the long barracks, she began her own siege of the Alamo – from the inside. She locked herself in the building, alone, without food, water, or warm clothing, and stayed there for four days. Her protest landed her on the front page of The New York Times for three consecutive days and on the Valentine’s Day, 1908 editorial page: “[De Zavala] has been heroically reviving memories of the bloody incident which gave the fort its fame. It is difficult, so far away, to comprehend the merits of the case, but it does not seem likely that the State of Texas will permit either the destruction or the degradation of the Alamo.”

Even from afar, the Times was right. Although the newspapers did not report the treacly, facile ending that Zesch engineers, Adina De Zavala did ultimately win the war – at least in that the Alamo and the long barracks, stand today. But the Times was also right that it is difficult to comprehend De Zavala’s struggle from afar. The ninety years between then and now have obscured the story. While the Alamo today is a tangible measure of De Zavala’s triumph, the moniker “Savior of the Alamo” that modifies Driscoll’s name in every Texas schoolchild’s history text evidences Driscoll’s victory in the public relations war. For her part, in her History and Legends of the Alamo and Other Missions in and Around San Antonio (1917), De Zavala does not mention this portion of the Alamo’s history, or even attempt to defend her own reputation.

It is unlikely that the story was as starkly one of class struggle as Zesch would have us believe. More likely, it was one of race, as he occasionally mentions, and, most clearly, one of political intrigue and back-room shenanigans (in both the D.R.T. and the Texas Lege). These are the parts of the story that can only be uncovered with more careful research and a sensitivity to the times and persons involved. De Zavala’s unlikely actions are proof that truth can be stranger, and more entertaining, than fiction. In trying so hard to flesh out the story, Zesch robs it of its realness, its improbability, its wonder, and, ultimately, its soul.

Former Observer staff-member Jeff Mandell was once escorted from the Alamo for questioning the authenticity of a sacred artifact (Davy Crockett’s hair) within hearing range of a Daughter of the Republic. He has since gone into exile in Washington, D.C.

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Published at 12:00 am CST