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

9 minute read

Less than a month after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill he described as “a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas”—which educators worry will limit how they can talk about the history of systemic racism and current events—the Republican leader put the issue back on the agenda for a special session of the state legislature that began on July 8, as part of a wave of state actions in Republican-led states designed to regulate how the legacy of racism and slavery in the U.S. is taught in public schools.

The Governor can call a special session to address emergencies, which in this case, also includes issues of voting rights, trans students competing in sports and perceived censorship of political views on social media. The Texas Tribune reports that lawmakers have already introduced new legislation that seeks to limit teaching on the histories of marginalized groups in the U.S., even as questions remain about how the bill signed into law on a similar vein will be enforced when it is expected to go into effect in September.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick may have provided a glimpse of what may be to come recently when he cancelled a July 1 event at the state’s history museum with the authors of a new book aimed at debunking myths about the 1836 siege at the Alamo. Confirming that he ordered the talk’s cancellation on Twitter, Patrick tweeted that “fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place” at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Pushback over history that paints a fuller picture of the Tejanos (Mexican Texans) in the state is not new, but in 2021, academic debates are increasingly caught up in the curriculum controversies engulfing school boards nationwide—and, in particular, arguments over whether critical race theory is being taught in schools.

Read more: Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

“To me the example of the Alamo is useful in understanding how history gets taken out of context—the story itself has become universalized almost to the point of losing all context,” explains Raúl A. Ramos, an associate professor of history at the University of Houston who teaches an undergraduate Texas history course that some students take to be certified to teach the subject in the state. “At some point the myth itself becomes a stand-in for history.”

TIME spoke with Ramos for context on what’s new (and what’s not) about the current controversy over the Alamo’s history, and how the way Texans tell its story relates to how Americans—especially Mexican Americans—see each other more broadly.

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.

Do you see any way that teachers could teach inclusive history with the way the law is written?

That’s a tricky question because it’s still unclear how this is going to be applied. When you read the actual legislation, so much of it is written in a way that, you look at it, and you’re just saying, “Nobody teaches history this way.” One [part of the law] says, students should not be made to feel bad about their race. I don’t know a single teacher who wants their students to feel bad about themselves!

I think in a lot of urban school districts, nothing’s going to change. It’s in the suburbs, if I were teaching in those areas, where I would feel a little bit more reluctant or when I think you’d see at least initially, a lot of teachers self-censoring, saying, “Well, I don’t want to risk my career.” It’s a question of how much risk they want to expose themselves to; [the law] creates this extra layer of fear that one student or one family might be unhappy with what you’re doing and destroy your career.

As you mentioned, the law emphasizes that teachers shouldn’t teach children to feel bad about themselves. How can teachers prepare for that?

When I read that, the first thing I thought of was, well, if you’re Mexican American, and you’re being taught that Mexicans are evil in the Texas Revolution—isn’t that supposed to make you feel bad? Wouldn’t that give [teachers] a platform to push back on this mythologized story of Texas, which is to emphasize Anglo American superiority and ethnic Mexican inferiority? But it’s clearly not what was intended; I don’t think the legislation was intended to protect the feelings of Mexican American kids who are being taught that Anglo Americans are superior in the triumphant Anglo mythology of the Texas Revolution.

That’s one of the internal contradictions, if you will, of how this legislation is being presented. The subtext is that white families’ feelings are hurt by talking about the racial history that, certainly, Mexican American families are well aware of and African American families are well aware of in Texas.

You recently wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle about having taken 7th-grade Texas history. For readers who don’t know about this class, what did you learn?

Well, first of all, you actually take [Texas History classes] twice—in fourth grade and seventh grade. You get a double dose of Texas history. When I was growing up in the San Antonio suburbs, we only spoke Spanish at home; after school I’d come home and sit down at the dining table and my father would ask what we learned in Texas history, and then I’d get a different version of Texas history from my parents who are both from Mexico. That, in a lot of ways, shaped my own sense of who I am, but also my sense of the world around me and how history, how the same exact event, can be seen in different ways. A lot of kids at my school didn’t get that.

You raise a good point that it’s important to acknowledge that people learn their history not only at school but also through their families or through their church or other community members who pass on these stories.

I mean, look at the other Texas history-related national story of the last month: Juneteenth. Juneteenth has been celebrated for decades in Texas, primarily in African American communities unabated—and stories were passed on that way.

The place we’re in now, at least in our culture and our history, it feels like we have two contradictory discussions going on. To me, the legislature having to come out and legislate history and culture is a sign that the history and culture has moved on. It’s an acknowledgment that the prevailing view has shifted and has changed, and I don’t think legislating is going to move it back.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com