In a park just east of Houston, Texas this past Saturday, troupes of living history activists re-enacted the Battle of San Jacinto, which was fought on the site on April 21, 1836. As a result of the victory by General Sam Houston and his rebel army, Mexico was forced to relinquish control of Texas and, eventually, an area that today includes such states as California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the events of 168 years ago remain vivid for Texans and the millions of people of Mexican descent who call the state home.
Firing vintage flintlock rifles of the type used in the early 19th century, several dozen men dressed in period costume salute the men who fought and died on this ground. It was here, in 1836, that a ragtag army led by General Sam Houston, charged Mexican lines with the cry, "Remember the Alamo!" and won the day. The siege of the Alamo and the battle fought here at San Jacinto are depicted in the new movie called "The Alamo," which is currently showing in theaters nationwide.
The rebel spirit remains alive in Texas thanks in part to those who keep telling the stories and re-enacting the battles. One of the battle re-enactors is David Pomeroy, Coordinator of the weekend festival at the San Jacinto Monument and battle field park.
"We normally have about 20,000 people come out for the battle re-enactment and with the Alamo movie we are expecting 30,000 easily, if the weather is good," he said.
One place where Texas history is viewed from a somewhat different perspective is Mexico. There, many people see the battle of San Jacinto as the beginning of a large land grab by the United States that eventually cost their country half of its territory.
The author of the new book Lone Star Nation, H.W. Brands, who teaches history at Texas A&M University, said that the real story is somewhat more complicated.
"Mexico claimed authority over Texas, but because there were very few Mexicans here when the Americans arrived, they were able to outnumber the Mexicans very quickly," he explained. "If anyone has a gripe in this battle it was the Indians who were displaced by all this. Mexico was seizing land from the Indians and the Americans were trying to seize the land from the Mexicans and the Americans wound up with it. Of course, history moves on and there is a very large and growing Mexican population in Texas today. So just because you call something independent and put a border on the ground that does not stop the movement of people. It did not stop the movement of people in the 1820s and 1830s when it was the Americans who were coming into Texas as illegal immigrants and it does not stop illegal immigration from Mexico into Texas and other parts of the United States today."
Mexican Americans have their own gripes about the way the Texas history has been told and are generally pleased that the new Alamo movie includes the Hispanic rebels, called Tejanos, who joined in the fight for Texas independence. Here, at San Jacinto, Spanish/Mexican Americans like Tony Tristan have been championing the role of Tejanos for some time now.
"In the last several years I have seen more people researching their Tejano roots and more air time dedicated to the Tejanos and what their contribution was," he said. "It is getting a lot better. Before it was mostly Texan versus Mexican and the Tejano was omitted, but that is coming around and I am glad to see it."
In the re-enactments, sometimes Tony Tristan plays a Tejano rebel and sometimes he plays a Mexican soldier. His wife, Patti, and his 13-year-old daughter, Alicia, often join him dressed in the style of Mexican peasant women from that time. In spite of the efforts to educate people about the history of the period, Patti Tristan said that many young people still tend to oversimplify the conflict.
"When we are in our Mexican army portrayal, children will sometimes say to us, 'You are the bad guys'" she said. "I will say, 'It is all a matter of perspective.' Mexico had a right to defend its land against what they considered land pirates, people coming to take the land away. The people moving here [from the United States] were used to having rights under the U.S. government and they wanted those same rights here. There was no right or wrong. We cannot look back and say there was a right and a wrong, a good and a bad. Each side one had a right to feel the way they did and each one had reasons to go into battle."
Telling the many sides of the story is one of the goals of the Daughters of the Texas Revolution, a women's group whose local chapter secretary, Loretta Martinez Williams, counts a Tejano member of Houston's army among her ancestors. She said the festivities to mark the anniversary include much more than a re-enactment and festival.
"I think that with educators coming to the San Jacinto symposium, one of their roles is to open up and make people more aware of both sides and I think that with leaders like Dr. Andres Tijerina who is considered a leader in the Mexican-American community as an educator, I think new insights will be looked into," she said.
Through the ceremonies, festivals and educational forums held every year to mark the anniversary of San Jacinto, Texans are coming together to develop a better understanding of their past and the influence it has had on their state and country.