A 567-foot-tall obelisk stands 20 minutes outside Houston.
The structure commemorates the Battle of San Jacinto, which won Texas’ independence from Mexico on April 21, 1836. Retreating Texan forces, led by General Samuel Houston, surprised General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s larger Mexican force near the San Jacinto River. The 18-minute rout, launched during the Mexican soldiers’ afternoon siesta, resulted in 630 Mexican soldiers being killed and 730 imprisoned, compared to nine Texan deaths. Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco the next day to end the war.
This foundational event in Texan history encompasses the purpose of my column: to present a clear perspective of history that allows us to learn from well-developed conclusions. Finding a balance between honoring and criticizing the past is difficult, but also crucial to discerning valuable lessons from history. The United States often wrestles with the appropriateness of questioning established historical conclusions; in the final installment of “This Week in History,” let’s face this apprehension head-on.
Independence is a great source of Texas pride and singularity. My family has taken countless guests to the Alamo, just south of my home near downtown San Antonio. Yet recent years have brought deeper examination of the moral legitimacy of the revolution, as well as of its portrayal in schools and popular culture.
Traditionally viewed as freedom fighters, Texan leaders have recently encountered greater scrutiny. William Travis, who died at the Alamo, came to Texas to escape debtors’ prison in Alabama. Along with James Bowie, another Texan soldier killed in San Antonio, Travis was a slave trader. Many Texans like Stephen Austin, who established the first Anglo-American colony in Texas, and Houston himself owned slaves. These beliefs were codified by Texas’ legalization of slavery and its membership in the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The righteousness of Texan desires for independence has been questioned along with the character of its leaders. Slavery and illegal immigration were major factors in the push for self-determination. The 1829 Guerrero Decree abolished slavery in Mexico, creating a divide between Texan settlers and Mexican leadership. The empresario system, enacted by the Mexican government to bring American settlers to Texas to develop the land, devolved into massive illegal migration from the U.S. over the empresario quotas. The restriction of all immigration into Texas in 1830 — a law hardly enforced — was another contentious point for Texans who desired autonomy.
The Mexican side was not scot-free in its trespasses and controversial actions during this time either. Santa Anna forcefully drafted indigenous soldiers to quash the Texan rebellion, marching them untrained and under-equipped through a harsh winter on their way to combat. The man was an authoritarian caudillo, or military leader, who hoarded wealth from his impoverished country.
I struggle to categorize my home state’s history. I have great pride in our story, yet I know its founders would view me as inferior because of my ethnicity. Texans argue over seemingly unresolvable classifications: historical figures who held widely accepted beliefs or racists who fought for slavery. My home state was built simultaneously on oppression and a thirst for political autonomy and freedom.
Many of us grapple with similar stories. We want to feel pride in our backgrounds but are repulsed by the ugliness they hold. The importance of recognizing this paradox is often ignored. Discussing the mistakes or flaws of our predecessors should be neither taboo nor disrespectful: However flawed our ancestors may have been, they are our best teachers. In this column, I have attempted to show that understanding the reality of history is how we respect our heritage.
Our past is shaped by imperfect people from different eras, a truth that makes simple categorizations difficult in a world of constantly shifting viewpoints and cultural norms.
We should not worship historical characters as deities incapable of mistakes. We should likewise not discard the parts of history that we find difficult to acknowledge. By knowing the full truth, by analyzing all sides of any given story with an open mind, we can come closer to bridging the gap between divisions of heroes and demons, righteous and nefarious.
I hope I have helped in this endeavor.
Nabil Kapasi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of This Week in History.