[For Cinco de Mayo, a series on a handful of impressive and inspiring Mexican American voices. Leading up to a special Guest Post from an inspiring young scholar and voice!]
On a couple takeaways from a controversial but apparently authentic memoir.
In 1955, Mexican journalist and historian Jesús Sanchez Garza self-published La Rebellion de Texas: Manuscrito Inedito [Unpublished] de 1836 por un Oficial de Santa Anna. Garza’s book comprised the first published edition of the purported Texas Rebellion diary of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican colonel and amateur historian who had served with Santa Anna’s forces at the Battle of the Alamo (among other military engagements); Garza framed the 100-page diary with another 150 pages of introduction and supporting materials. The book didn’t garner much scholarly attention at the time, but in 1975 Texas A&M University Press published an English translation, With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution. Although there was a good deal of initial skepticism about the diary’s authenticity, subsequent work by both historian James Crisp and a team of researchers led by Dr. David Gracy has confirmed that the diary is in fact a legitimate primary source; the manuscript is now held at the University of Texas-Austin’s Briscoe Center for American History.
A great deal of the controversy over Peña’s diary stemmed from one particular detail, a historical twist that is also one of the book’s most compelling takeaways. It had long been assumed that Davy Crockett died fighting at the Alamo, as did most of the Texas Republic combatants there. But according to Peña, Crockett was taken captive by Santa Anna’s forces after the battle, held for a short time, and then executed ignominiously. Even in his own lifetime Crockett had become a larger-than-life, mythological American figure; by the late 20th century, thanks largely to the 1950s Disney TV show but also to John Wayne’s performance in the 1960 film, his legend had only grown. Peña’s far less glamorous version of Crockett’s death seemed to many suspicious historians like an attempt by Garza to capitalize on the Crockett legend, contributing to doubts over the book’s authenticity. But it’s possible to argue something quite different—that in fact it was the scholarly doubts which reveal the enduring and troubling power of the Crockett legend. After all, Peña’s story of Crockett’s death is simply an accurate reflection of the realities of war, and its brutal and destructive effects for those who participate in it; that might not gel with the Disney ballad version of Crockett, but it locates him within the histories to which he was undoubtedly connected.
Moreover, focusing on the small section of Peña’s diary devoted to Crockett only replicates our American tendency to think of the Alamo solely in terms of the Anglo combatants and the Texas Republic. Whereas the most ground-breaking and impressive side to Peña’s book is precisely that offers a Mexican perspective on the battle, the war between Mexico and the Texas Republic, and that whole contested and crucial era in North American and border history. For example, Peña’s role as an aide to Colonel Francisco Duque of the Mexican army’s Toluca Battalion meant that he saw extensive action on the front lines during the siege of the Alamo, as that famously heroic battalion led one of the chief columns of assault on the besieged fort. On a very different note, Peña took part in the Mexican army’s chaotic retreat to Matamoros after Santa Anna was captured at the Battle of San Jacinto; that retreat was so infamous that its commanding officer, General Vicente Filisola, was charged with cowardice for ordering it, and Peña published an anonymous newspaper article (signed “An Admirer of Texas”!) critiquing Filisola and the army’s conduct in the war’s closing stages. These and many other details open up very different sides to the Texan war of independence, and reveal the historical importance of this long-lost, controversial, and compelling Mexican memoir.
Next Cinco de Mayo post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Mexican American figures, voices, histories and stories you’d highlight?