“Remember the Alamo!” is the famous battle cry that rallied Texans to win their independence from Mexico in 1836. The Alamo is the iconic San Antonio mission where an estimated 200 Texans died at the hands of troops under Mexican President and Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna after a 13-day siege. The site, established by Franciscan missionaries as Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718, embodies the turning point in that bid for independence.
Historians can’t verify every element of the Alamo legend. For example, there’s no proof that Col. William Travis, a co-commander during the Battle of the Alamo, required those willing to stay and defend the mission to cross a line he drew in the sand with his sword. But one thing’s certain: The Alamo is a must-see destination, with more than 2.5 million people visiting annually. In addition to walking the site, they also come for a commemoration of the battle each year from Feb. 23-March 6, the dates of the siege.
It would seem no one is immune to this Texas tale of valor. How else to explain why British-born rock star Phil Collins, who has sold more than 150 million albums during his career, came to amass and donate a priceless collection of artifacts from the Alamo. While some of that collection in on display now, an ongoing preservation plan seeks to create a purpose-built museum for the items and “restore dignity and reverence to this sacred historic site.”
We spoke with Sen. José Menéndez (D), whose district includes this linchpin of state history.
Were you born in Texas? Do you remember learning about the Alamo growing up?
I am the son of immigrants … and have lived my entire life in San Antonio. Like every school kid in the city, at one point or another you went on a field trip to the Alamo. Also, my mother owned a Spanish-language music store downtown. It was next door to the Spanish-language movie theater, so I spent a lot of time down in the neighborhood near the Alamo as well. But at a young age you can’t realize its significance.
There’s a lot to see at the Alamo. What guidance would you give a first-time visitor?
You should start in the Alamo Plaza in front of the church. But even there, you can’t have a complete appreciation of what the site looked like back during the siege. You’ll have to envision the wall that guarded it … Then you should visit the Long Barrack, where the defenders made their stand against Santa Anna’s army.
I see that efforts are underway to better preserve the history of the site.
It was good that the city has grown over the years, but the way it has grown crowded this space. It’s important to remember that the chapel is still a sacred place: people died there, people are buried there. Now they have plans to close the street in front of the church and, with the removal of some of the close-in businesses, reduce the circus-like atmosphere and help create a more respectful space.
And that’s good, because the sad part is, people will often come to see the Alamo and, when they get there, look at the church and go, “That’s it?” They don’t see the 200-odd people who were defending it against the 3,000 soldiers of Santa Anna’s army. They don’t see that this is where the liberation of Texas began.
I understand that the Alamo isn’t the only significant mission in San Antonio.
It’s a little frustrating sometimes to hear Texans who think that the state’s history starts in 1836 (when the Battle of the Alamo was fought). You shouldn’t let the Alamo be the only mission that you visit in the area. Make sure you see some of the others on the Mission Trail.
San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated the Alamo and four other frontier missions near San Antonio a World Heritage Site in 2015. It’s one of 24 World Heritage Sites in the United States.
What other significant events happen in San Antonio?
Every year we celebrate Fiesta San Antonio (April 20-30), which I would describe as a family-friendly Mardi Gras. It starts with the Battle of the Flowers Parade (started in the 1890s to honor the heroes of the Alamo and Goliad and in the Battle of San Jacinto), which attracts more than 500,000 people. And there are other parades and celebrations, as well as food from around the world. It’s the one event for which it seems like all of San Antonio takes time off to attend.
Another event that speaks to the heart of San Antonio is the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner. It was started in 1979 by Raul Jimenez, who became one of the state’s largest producers of Mexican sausage, tortillas and other foods. One year he decided he wanted to do something for the less fortunate in his neighborhood and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner. It grew so much over the years that now it is held in the convention center, where they serve over 25,000 seniors and needy people. Thousands volunteer to help, and you can really see the heart and the soul of the city on display.
San Antonio is a great food destination. Can you suggest a place every visitor should check out?
There are so many great restaurants, it’s hard to name just one. But I would mention Mi Tierra, which opened in 1941. It’s open 24 hours a day, and it feels like Christmas in there every day of the year. You could say it’s kind of touristy, but you also can find just about everybody in there at one time or another. Presidents and all sorts of celebrities have visited there.
The area is represented in the House by Rep. Diego M. Bernal (D).
“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events and destinations to the fun facts only the locals know. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Joe Rassenfoss is a Denver-based freelance writer.