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San Jacinto: Different Times, Same Meaning

An Op-Ed Column by Jim Haley

Sunday, April 21, marks the 166th anniversary of that brief, terrible battle that secured the independence of the Republic of Texas in 1836. At first hailed equally by Anglo and Tejano participants, it was the subsequent pervasiveness of prejudice and racism that bleached the victory into a largely white celebration. Many Hispanic Texans now feel, or are urged that they ought to feel, cheated and demeaned by celebrations of the victory at San Jacinto. This is unfortunate and needless.

For generations, the rectitude of the Texas revolution, and the celebration of its success at San Jacinto, were rarely questioned, at least within the Anglo community. However, the study of history has undergone many changes in the intervening century and two-thirds. Scholars in recent decades are more sensitive to injustices suffered by minority groups, and they have grown willing to take a more critical look at the participants in our history and their motives. This has been beneficial, because for too long the study of Texas history basked in a rosy glow of unquestioning Anglo hero-worship, which eventually established itself as a mythology that was, at times, far removed from historical reality.

But the study of history, like history itself, has swings of its pendulum, and the current trend of historical “revisionism” has gone, one senses, about as far as it can. When revisionism was reinforced with the advent of what we call political correctness, resulting in the construct of the “New History,” assertions about our past have become more abstruse and equally as removed from reality as the hero worship they replaced.

One can read today that Sam Houston deliberately let the Alamo fall because he was jealous of Jim Bowie and William Barret Travis. One can read that the Battle of San Jacinto was essentially unimportant, because if the gates to the Pacific were not thrown open to American expansion there, it would have happened elsewhere. That Americans “stole” Texas from Mexico has become an article of faith in many academic circles. Much of the study of Texas history has gone rather the way of classical music, conceived and written to outdo other professionals, with the appreciation or understanding of the everyday person having become irrelevant. It’s time for a reality check.

When the Mexican government first began to sense it was losing its grip on Texas, it sent its most able officer, General Don Manuel de Mier y Teran, on an inspection tour of the province. In his report of June 1828, one of the causes of unrest he listed was the Anglo colonists chafing under a government he called “venal and ignorant.” He found both the Anglo and Tejano residents united in the desire for separate Mexican statehood for Texas, as was promised in the Constitution of 1824. He found other causes of unrest, political, social and religious, to which he was largely sympathetic. but he had to tailor his advice to a government that was becoming increasingly authoritarian in outlook. General Mier y Teran, a trusted friend of Stephen F. Austin, fell on his sword in 1832 after it was clear that power would fall to a new autocrat, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

When Santa Anna abolished the Constitution of 1824 and began to crush resistance to his regime, most notably in the state of Zacatecas, he lost any legitimate claim to allegiance. That his brutality was matched by his military incompetence cost Mexico the province of Texas. No one “stole” it. That appeal to past enmities is refuted by the patriotism of Juan Seguin and Lorenzo de Zavala and other liberal Tejanos who fought the dictator, and is seconded by uncounted Mexicans put to death in the interior during Santa Anna’s march to power.

His overwhelming defeat on the Plain of St. Hyacinth was just cause for joy for both Anglo colonist and native Tejano. It was the following unattractive chapters of prejudice and abuse of the Tejano population that still need healing.

Importantly, the reasons to celebrate San Jacinto are better seen, not then, but now. Today a full one-third of Texas’ 21 million people speak Spanish as their first language. Many families have been here for generations, and the current statistics of immigration, both legal and undocumented, need no recitation here. People who are oppressed, either politically or economically, still vote with their feet and for hundreds of thousands of Hispanics every year, the quest for a better life brings them to the Texas that was freed at San Jacinto.

The Texas revolution was waged to secure political liberty and economic opportunity for its inhabitants. For several generations, ethnic minorities in Texas, not just Hispanic and African-descended but many others, did not fully share in that promise. But as the promise moves closer to reality for all, there is no need to apologize for honoring the sacrifice, and victory, of those who liberated this vast and remarkable land to fulfill its destiny by letting its people – all of them – reach their potential. Texas is a multi-cultural society and can be celebrated as such without resort to blame.

James L. Haley is the author of more than a half dozen books devoted primarily to Texas history including Sam Houston (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002). He will be a speaker in the Battle of San Jacinto Symposium 2002: Personalities of San Jacinto on Friday April 19. His topic is Sam Houston and San Jacinto: It Wasn’t Supposed to Happen This Way.