There are more than two sides to the Alamo

Alejandra Garza

This year, a workgroup from the Texas State Board of Education suggested rewording the TEKS’ description of defenders at the Battle of the Alamo. The proposed amendment would remove the word “heroic” from the description “all the heroic defenders who gave their lives,” that was in the TEKS standards. We sat down with Alejandra Garza, a history Ph.D. candidate at UT who worked with Stephen Cure, one of the members of the workgroup, and gave a testimony for a similar case over a Mexican-American history textbook in 2011. 

Daily Texan: Tell us about your experience with the Texas school board.

Alejandra Garza: I gave a testimony for the Mexican-American heritage textbook, so I am familiar with what the state board does, how they operate and how public testimonies go. I didn’t know about this case until recently, and I saw that my old boss, Stephen Cure, was involved. He’s a great educator and everyone’s singing his praises so I was a bit surprised about the outcome of this case. But when you’re on a working group you have a lot of people that you’re working with, so even though everyone on there is an expert, sometimes it’s not worth the public outcry. Our job is to streamline the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) — to make sure everything is factual. When you start getting into values, which is what the “heroic” debate is about, that’s when they start getting fuzzy.

DT: What do you think are the negative connotations of the word “heroic” being used to describe the Alamo defenders?

G: There are a lot of things that happened in Texas, but as fourth and seventh graders, we don’t learn the whole picture. It wasn’t until I was in grad school that I started learning about Mexican-Americans, African-Americans and women, like all the other people who were also in Texas at the time. One thing I like to tell my students is that history is not black and white, but by putting a word like “heroic” in there, you’re immediately saying that the defenders of the Alamo were right and the Mexican-Americans were wrong, but it’s a lot more gray than that. If you have to make teachers put up that word, you’re telling them to teach that there was a good side and a bad side. And that’s not the thing we should be teaching in history. The workgroup trying to change this was streamlining the TEKS — taking out the words that don’t need to be there. That phrase didn’t need to be there. Students need to learn how to analyze and make draw their own conclusion. Teaching them both sides helps them do that.

DT: Do you think it should be amended? If so, why?

G: Teachers can choose what they teach and what they don’t. There’s no one in the classrooms monitoring them 24/7. The thing about the TEKS that I see is that they are standards — this is what we expect you to teach. And taking out the word “heroic” to describe defenders — that doesn’t mean the teachers aren’t still going to view it that way. Even now, there are probably still some teachers who don’t view it that way. It’s all up to the individual. Seeing how the board actually works, they are these people who sit just a block away who control everything for every single public school student in Texas. And they’re elected, so you’d expect them to be impartial in what they’re doing. But when it comes to things like this value-based debate, you see who your advocates are and I don’t think they think of students at the end of the day. I would hope they do, but from my experience, I don’t think they think about it as hard as they should. 

The state board is the governing body of education in Texas. Since they set the standards, you would think that they would try to be as fair as possible in everything that they do. But with this, you also see their values: what’s more important to them. Is it really education and streamlining it, or is it them trying to get their political motives across?

DT: The board workgroup eventually voted against amending the description. What do you think led to that decision and what do you expect the ramifications of it to be?

G: I don’t think it was a decision that they came to lightly. I don’t think it’s necessarily something they wanted to do. I think there must be other bigger issues with the TEKS than this one phrase, and they figured, “Fine, we’ll just keep this in here.” I’ve never worked with TEKS or in that capacity with the state board, so I’m not sure how that process went, but from what I’ve read, it’s months of going through the TEKS and figuring out what to do. 

I think that in the end, the board should be advocating for all students, regardless of what the political makeup is for their district. They should think, “Don’t I want to educate my students in my district more than I was?”

DT: “The board took up the issue this week at its September meeting, beginning with a public hearing of over 60 advocates and opponents of the changes. Early in the testimonies, Stephen Cure, a historian and volunteer member of the workgroup, presented an alternative to the language in the initial recommendation that replaced the reference to Travis’ letter and added a line on the “heroism of the diverse defenders” of the Alamo. Several board members appeared receptive to the new recommendation.” Do you think this is a positive alternative to the former?

G: I think so. In the old TEKS, it seemed that there was so much emphasis placed on just the Battle of the Alamo and those who defended it. But now, and especially in college courses, we try to teach that there were a more diverse group of people at the Alamo. That it wasn’t just Anglos defending against the “mean” Mexicans who were coming — the Tejanos played a big part, too. There were African-Americans there. There were women there alongside the Anglo settlers. But if the board wants to keep that emphasis on the defenders, I think putting in the word “diverse” will make teachers think twice about just teaching about Jim Bowie and Sam Houston.

DT: How does this version of Texas history, as it is now, present people of color to students?

G: In my experience, it doesn’t. It doesn’t really present anyone besides the Anglo settlers. I think it’s because, one, you learn that history is written by the winners. For me, it wasn’t until I started studying history that I saw this diverse group of people. What I learned in fourth and seventh grade about the heroism of what people who came into San Antonio, is that their backstories are not as heroic as you would think. You’re not taught that this country was opened to them by the Mexicans. 

History is a lot more gray than we present it, especially to students. I think part of that stems from the fact that we don’t think someone who’s 10 and 13 can comprehend the whole picture. But we’re not bombarding them with information. What might be beneficial is to show them that, “Hey, this is what was happening with the Mexican side, and this is what was happening with the people who lived in Texas at the time, and this is where they clashed.” Students surprise you all the time, and maybe they’ll come to conclusions on their own, and the point of the teacher isn’t to constantly spit facts at their students and make sure they can repeat them — it’s, “Can students think bigger picture?”

DT: Why should this matter to UT students?

G: You should want “better” for students in your community. My high school has probably no more than 400 kids and my former teacher started teaching Mexican-American studies this year. To see something we worked for actually happening was so exciting. Even a small school in a tiny district can teach kids, “Hey, you’re in the history books, too.” Students will learn about people like them, with last names like them, so they feel that they are a part of something. They don’t have to wait until they get to UT. You have to be aware of what’s happening in the education system, especially in Texas. Don’t settle for what you were taught. 

Garza is a history Ph.D. candidate.