This past spring, while driving to the Gulf Coast of Texas and turning the radio dial, I caught the tagline for a country-music station: “We’re bigger than Texas, but we prefer to stay in our borders.” A dig at immigrants, a parochial declaration of pride, or both? The Mexican border was almost four hundred miles away, yet these days, it loomed everywhere.
I was making my way to the “birthplace of Texas liberty,” where hundreds of historical reenactors were performing the battle that secured independence for the breakaway Republic of Texas from Mexico in 1836. Every year since the early 1980s, Texans have assembled to celebrate the eighteen-minute skirmish, which paved the way for Texas’s annexation by the United States. That provocation led to the Mexican-American War—or the “American Invasion,” as it’s known in Mexico—whose unpopularity generated the first American antiwar movement. It ended in 1848 with a jagged chunk of Mexican territory roughly the size of France, Germany, and Spain combined joining its neighbor to the north.
Mere days after the battle, curious tourists began making their way to the site. What greeted them were the decaying corpses of hundreds of dead Mexican soldiers, a fact that incensed Peggy McCormick, a slave-owning widow whose husband had been granted the land to help colonize Texas. She demanded that the bodies of the dead men be buried. According to Texan lore, Sam Houston, the leader of the Texan army, refused, telling her, “Madam, your land will be famed in history as the classic spot upon which the glorious victory of San Jacinto was gained!” McCormick then replied, “To the devil with your glorious history! Take off your stinking Mexicans.”
Houston’s vision won out. San Jacinto Day became the state’s first official holiday in 1874, and the tourists kept coming. Finding myself back in my home state, I joined them.
As far as reenactments go, San Jacinto is no Gettysburg, which draws thousands of role-players to re-create the Civil War battle every July. Still, the day is commemorated with a religious, if obligatory, fervor. If Texas has a creation myth, it was born at the Alamo and then solidified at San Jacinto. Not for nothing are the major dates of the war against Mexico referred to as the state’s “high holy days.” Public-school students are indoctrinated in the glories of the revolution in a process that begins in the fourth grade and continues into the seventh, when students are forced to sit through an entire year of Texas history (as the writer John Spong wryly put it, an age when “the kids are old enough to grasp the material but not so mature that they question the orthodoxy”). And like many religions, it’s increasingly being discarded by those who consider it outdated or find themselves excluded by its doctrines. For the state’s non-white majority, there’s little to celebrate about a land grab perpetrated by white settlers.
When I arrived at the battlefield, a thousand acres of marshy swampland tucked next to the Buffalo Bayou, I walked toward a path leading to the field where the Mexican and Texan armies had spread out their tents. Golf carts zipped families to and from the encampments. I met seventy-seven-year-old Tom Green, a former reenactor with the Sons of the Republic of Texas, a heritage organization whose membership is limited to men who can prove their ancestors date back to the time before Texas became a state. A virtually all-white legacy group, the Sons are currently trying to diversify, which, Green told me, is “really hard” due to their strict requirements, in addition to the fact that most black Texans at the time were enslaved. (But, he cheerfully tells me, “We’ve found black people whose ancestors married into a white family that you can trace.”)
“Look how many people have moved into Texas and don’t know a thing and a world about Texas, because they didn’t have Texas history.” Tom spent his days giving presentations to bored college students. “Why they don’t love their history more than they do is a real problem. And I don’t know the answer to that.”
I offered that it might not feel relevant to them.
“It doesn’t make any difference! That’s right. Especially if you’ve got any Hispanic blood in you at all. That’s part of the problem there. Sometimes we’re a little too forceful with our history, you know. We insult people without realizing it and all that.”
At the Mexican encampment, down by a reflecting pool, a welcome sign encouraged visitors to step back in time, talk to the soldados and their officers, and ask to examine the weapons of the day. When I walked over a little before noon, visitors were in the middle of checking those weapons. Meanwhile, twenty or so beer-bellied men and one woman were standing at attention as their commander, garbed in a blue wool coat, stalked up and down the line barking orders (in English, aside from the occasional “¡Viva Mexico!”). They were mostly white, as in white white, though I spotted a couple of brown-skinned men in their ranks.
By a cluster of canvas tents, Jerry Tubbs, the main coordinator for all the reenactors (he preferred the term “muzzleloaders”), was squinting at a notebook in his hand. In Jerry’s telling, Mexicans “weren’t necessarily the bad guys,” though Santa Anna, he reckoned, was “a piece of garbage.” “Before, people would say, ‘I would drop dead before I put on a Mexican uniform,’” he told me. “Now they’re saying this is the side to be on—we have more fun!”
The “fun” he’s referring to is expensive. Jerry brought his own tent (cost: $1,000) and his own custom-made brass cannon ($8,000). “You see that guy right there with his brown vest and his uniform and everything? He’s spent around $2,500.”
What’s the appeal of spending so much money to wear a wool uniform and sweat all day? I wondered.
He turns contemplative. “It’s about the love of Texas history. To keep Texas history alive. If we don’t do it, no one else is,” he said. Jerry is from Louisiana and moved to Houston in 1972 (“the best move he ever made!” someone called out). He found out about local reenactment groups from a gun shop. “Like they always say, if you forget history, you’re bound to repeat it. And there’s a lot of people in our government, if it weren’t for gun owners like us, you know, we’d probably be under martial law.”
Texas pride was on display throughout the fairgrounds, with entire families decked out in Texas-themed ball caps and T-shirts that proclaimed: Life is Better in Texas, TGIFT: Thank God I’m From Texas, and Made in Texas. One man had tattooed his devotion on his forearm—an outline of the state, surrounded by a mounted cannon and the San Jacinto monument. “This was all freehanded. Right here, I’m going to get ‘Come and Take It.’ The Alamo will probably be right here,” the owner of the forearm told me, twisting his arm and pointing to a patch of virgin skin.
“My kids don’t get history taught in school anymore,” he said, his mood suddenly melancholy. He lit a cigarette and took a drag. He’d brought his two school-age children with him today. “You ask my kids what they know about the Battle of San Jacinto, the Battle of the Alamo, they don’t know anything.”
Behind all this fretting about history was a deeper anxiety. “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is. And will be again,” promised Gloria Anzaldúa. White Texans have been in the minority since 2004; by the end of this decade, Latinos alone will outnumber the state’s white residents. In 2011, the former director of the Census Bureau looked at the trends in Texas’s population and issued a blunt warning: “It’s basically over for Anglos.” It isn’t, of course, at least not yet, but they’re losing control of their mythical narrative, if not the actual levers of power.
All day, I’d been exhorted to go back in time, a dream that has a renewed appeal for some and is a nightmare for others. The promised border wall and anti-immigrant legislation—such as SB 4, an anti-sanctuary-city bill that made it through the Texas statehouse a week after my trip—were all efforts not only to delay the future but to turn back the clock.
I approached a man at the Texan encampment. His name was Scott Jones, from San Antonio.
“What does the war for independence symbolize for you?” I asked him.
“You’ve moved here with your families, you’ve settled, this is now your home. And it’s just . . . the thought of that being taken from you. It’s something to stand up and fight for.”
I left as the men in the camp gathered to psych themselves up for battle.
“Texas army! Atteeeeen-shun! Everybody got their guns today?”
“Men, today we’re going to fight the battle against the hated Santa Anna. I hope you feel the same way about him as I do.”
A cheer rose from the assembled Texans. “Hoo-yah!”
I joined the crowds making their way to the battlefield and found a spot by the sound booth, where families were lounging on picnic blankets and camping chairs, bathed in an air of placid anticipation. On opposite ends of the soccer-field-size lawn, we could see the Texans and the Mexicans in their camps—some on horseback, others lined up with muskets propped against their shoulders.
A woman with a pack-a-day voice had been here before. “I remember Santa Anna one year came out on his horse drunk,” she said.
The loudspeakers crackled to life, and a disembodied voice began to narrate the scene before us. Cheers erupted from the crowd when the Texans walked out, carrying a flag emblazoned with Lady Liberty, one breast bared. “The Alamo has fallen! They’re all dead!” one man shouted as he walked by. A young blond boy being pulled in a wagon cart began shrieking. There was a note of real fear in his howl.
Reenactments, I soon discovered, are dull affairs. For long stretches at a time, nothing happened, except the back-and-forth of cannon fire. And adding to the confusion of everyone watching, the narration rarely matched what was happening on the field. When the men finally clashed, it was too late. They’d already lost the crowd, and the people around me began to grumble:
“Nothing happened. No one fell. They fired like six times. You think someone would get hit.”
“Why are they still firing?”
“Doesn’t look like they’re going into battle to me.”
Suddenly, it all felt so foolish, a bunch of grown-ass men in ridiculous, outlandishly expensive outfits, shooting blanks in the air. A steady stream of people started leaving the battlefield.
“There was a lot of errors,” Jerry Tubbs told me afterward. To start, his truck had broken down twice on the way to the event. Then a fight had broken out between two reenactors that he’d had to defuse. And, finally, there were the missteps and breakdowns of the battle reenactment itself. This year’s narrator, a wealth manager-cum-amateur historian, was new to the sport, and he had insisted on making edits to the usual script. “I had a bad feeling from the get-go about this one.”