In 1725, the commanding Chapultepec hilltop rising steeply 200 feet above Mexico City was the site chosen by Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez (1746-1786) for his manor house. During the Mexican War of Independence, the site was abandoned. The Mexican government then remodeled it for use as a military academy.
Two hundred cadets, some as young as 13, were among the 1,000 Mexican soldiers guarding the citadel when General Winfield Scott (1786-1866) set his eyes on the target as a strategic asset facilitating the capture Mexico City during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848.) Following intensive shelling, American troops were able to scale the fortress and engage in bloody hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.
The costly victory for participating Marines is engrained deeply in the corps’ tradition, “From the halls of Montezuma….” For Mexicans, the battle heroes remembered are six brave cadets who refused to surrender. Fighting until the bitter end, one wrapped himself in the Mexican flag before leaping off the precipice so the flag would not be captured. Virtually every city in Mexico has an avenida memorializing the valor of the cadets, los ninos heroes.
Captured flags arouse countries, and the aging silk banner of the New Orleans Greys seized by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) during the 1836 Battle of the Alamo is displayed in Chapultepec Castle today despite continual efforts to negotiate its return to San Antonio. History always is subject to the interpretation of the teller, and it is not surprising that the slant given the Mexican-American War in the United States differs slightly from the version presented in the museum housed in Chapultepec Castle.
For the United States, the war represented the fulfillment of its Manifest Destiny. As explained on the San Jacinto Monument, the Texians’ victory at the Battle of San Jacinto laid the foundation for the next violent chapter of relations between the neighbors:
Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.
With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States paid the Mexican government $15 million, or about $15 per square mile, for the land it now claimed.
The treaty meant Mexico lost half its territory for the same amount of money paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase. The interpretation at Chapultepec records the war as a land grab by its greedy neighbor, a war that cost many their lives. At the very bottom of the signage is a quotation from President Ulysses S. Grant, expressing shame for the “wicked” war.
I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign…. I considered my supreme duty was to my flag. I had a horror of the Mexican War, and I have always believed that it was on our part most unjust. The wickedness was not in the way our soldiers conducted it, but in the conduct of our government in declaring war…. We had no claim on Mexico. Texas had no claim beyond the Nueces River, and yet we pushed on to the Rio Grande and crossed it. I am always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.
mural by Juan O’ Gorman
mural by Juan O’Gorman
mural by Juan O’Gorman
mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros
nuns admiring portrait of Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz
mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros
banner of the New Orleans Greys from the Battle of the Alamo
mural by Juan O’Gorman
mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros
malachite from the Porfirio Diaz period
mural by Juan O’Gorman
mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros
Another intrusion into Mexico’s sovereignty occurred soon after. The $15 million received from the United States did little to alleviate the debt Mexico incurred during the expensive war. President Benito Juarez defaulted on Mexico’s loans from France. A conspiracy between out-of-power Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III resulted in an 1862 invasion by France. The French were defeated in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, the reason for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
But that was one battle, not the entire war. While the United States was occupied fighting the Confederacy, France succeeded in installing Maximilian I, a Hapsburg prince, as Emperor of Mexico. Emperor Maximilian transformed the castle into his residential palace with a grand boulevard, now known as Paseo de la Reforma, leading into the heart of the city.
Not surprisingly, many in Mexico were not fond of having a foreign monarch with no command even of the Spanish language, and forces loyal to Benito Juarez executed him in 1867.
During the extended off-and-on terms of President Porfirio Diaz from 1876 to 1911, the castle served as his palatial headquarters as well. Amazingly, during the following tumultuous years of the Mexican Revolution that followed, much of the opulent décor contributed by Maximilian and Diaz remained unscathed.
Chapultepec was declared a national museum in 1939.
Masterful murals depicting the revolutionary period were commissioned in the late 1950s to 1970s. Juan O’Gorman’s (1904-1982) murals commemorating Mexican independence were begun in 1960. Work by David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) was interrupted when he was imprisoned followed anti-government protests in 1960, and he completed his 175-foot mural after his release in 1964.
Although San Antonians continue to exuberantly embrace the more than 100 events packing the calendar, few pause to remember the origins of Fiesta. The festival was founded as a salute to the Texian victory at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
Perhaps a reporter, though, writing a century ago in the San Antonio Light best summarized what the annual event means for natives: it transports San Antonians “from the prosaic, work-a-day world to a wonderful fairyland” – a ten-day escape from reality.
The year 1915 was the first year the king assumed the name of King Antonio. Following his ceremonious arrival aboard a whistle-blowing Southern Pacific train, Dr. T.T. Jackson’s chariot drawn by six milk-white horses transported him to Alamo Plaza to kick off Fiesta San Jacinto.
Later in the week, Josephine Woodhull was crowned as “Her Majesty, the Queen of Arcady” at the Majestic Theater. She wielded her scepter over the “Court of Old Romance.” Edged in ermine, her peacock blue velvet train was embroidered heavily with gems, shimmering as a peacock’s feathers.
Numerous parades filled the week, including the “Pageant of Caliph,” a burlesque night parade staged by the Fiesta Association. The first float in 1915 bore the “Duchess of Frijoles,” satirizing the high society coronation of the prior evening. Politicians, local to international, received “a goodly share of ‘guying,’” including a “Floating Vote” float with politicians portrayed aboard as “pulling the strings.”
A century ago, the Battle of Flowers Parade represented the high point of the week, with floats and carriages laden with thousands of fresh flowers. During the mock battle circling Alamo Plaza, even visiting Governor “Pa” Ferguson was pelted with flowers.
Somehow, the flower-pelting tradition was allowed to continue, despite its tumultuous first year. The following is pulled from a post from several years ago. Sarah Reveley transcribed the description of the 1891 melee from an April 25, 1891, edition of the San Antonio Daily Light:
…The procession contained over 100 carriages and other vehicles, all gaily decorated and many containing decorations of real artistic merit. Mr. Madarasz’s carriage, decked in pure white lilies and variegated grasses, with honeysuckle was plain, pretty and neat. Col. H. B. Andrews’ pony phaeton, with four Shetlands drawing it, was exquisite, and J. J. Stevens’ children in a four-in-hand Shetland surrey, representing a yacht, was also very pretty….
On arriving at the plaza the police divided the procession into two lines, each half going in opposite directions and passing around the park were brought, face to face with each other. The crowd on foot pressed the carriages closely and the fight began and waged furiously for nearly an hour. The occupants of the carriages had all the ammunition while those on foot had none. They began picking the fallen roses from the pavement, and even tore off the trimmings of the carriages, and soon had the best of the fight. Heavy bunches of laurel thrown soon had their effect, and many ladies lost their temper and used their carriage whips indiscriminately on the crowd. One lady struck Mr. Doc Fitzgerald, a passive spectator, a severe blow on the face with her whip, but did not see fit to apologise for her mistake. Mr. H. P. Drought made an ugly cut with his whip into the crowd…. One young angel with white wings appealed to the crowd for protection from the missiles saying, “I wish you men would make them quit….”
The police were powerless to keep the people off the park beds, and prevent them from tearing off the flowers. One outright fight occurred. Mr. Phil Shook, one of the horseback party, lost his temper, and cutting a man in the face with his riding whip, was assaulted, and a fist fight on the pavement resulted. Both combatants were arrested by the police. Mr. Charley Baker used his umbrella for defense. While the crowd was very dense on the plaza, waiting for the procession to come along, Mr. Cristoph Pfeuffer’s splendid team and carriage took fright on South Alamo street, at an electric car. The carriage was decorated and contained several ladies, a child and the driver. Dashing into Alamo street, past and into the crowd of people and vehicles, it overturned a buggy and horse at the corner, and its driver jumped out and was dragged under the carriage by the lines. The lady on the front seat caught one of the lines and held it, but the horses made straight for the crowd of women and children in the park and struck a very deep mass of them, it being impossible for them to move out of the way. The ladies were thrown out and their clothing was badly torn. One little boy was knocked senseless, another was bruised, and one little girl had her apron torn off. Other children were trampled by the frightened people. The plunging horses were secured and the carriage was taken to a side street….
Some irrepressible small boys arranged a dog fight in the midst of an interested crowd of spectators, during the battle, and a regular stampede ensued. Some of the combatants whose supply of ammunition had exhausted, resorted to buggy robes and quirts for aggressive warfare, and umbrellas and parasols for the defensive….
The battle was a success, but if it is given next year, more police will be needed, carriages must not be allowed on the plaza at all, and the participants must not lose their temper.
There we were, sitting beside each other. Phil and I.
I’m talking about Phil Collins. But I just call him Phil now. Because I sat beside him for about one minute.
As you can tell this is leading to one of celebrities’ worse curses: people who don’t know them writing about them.
But, of course, this is different. Because I know him. Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And he politely introduced himself to me and shook my hand.
That, and we have several things in common.
Davy Crockett, for one.
When Phil Collins was a kid growing up in a London suburb, he would often watch an amazing show on his family television. There, in black and white, was Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. As he matured, Collins not only acted out the exploits of his new hero, but he often refought the Battle of the Alamo with his toy soldiers.
While I’ve never sure been it’s psychologically healthy to adopt Texans’ fascination with the battle they lost, playing Alamo seems a better alternative than the Davy** Crockett chapter that influenced me as a child in Virginia Beach.
I sat alone in my room, playing the record. Over and over and over.
It wasn’t this one, or, if it was, it was part of a much longer recording. I can’t find the version in my mind online.
Perhaps what I remember didn’t exist except as a compilation in my jumbled file cabinet of a mind. But it was Davy Crockett. Or Fess Parker. And it was a life and death struggle with bears and Indians… and the part that haunted me.
I have no idea how many times I listened to that recording, but definitely many times too many.
Even I knew my mother was exasperated.
I would wet my bed. We’re not talking about a three-year old. I was six.
But I had my reasons.
I ran screaming to my parents one night about the bears in the house – my visiting Great Aunt Mary snoring.
There were Indians in my closet. I finally learned keeping the light on in the closet kept them at bay.
But the light filtering through the louvered door did not help with the Crockett family’s other adversaries.
The women then slacked the rope a little and made it fast round a hickory stump, when my oldest darter took the tongs and jumped on [the alligator’s] back, when she beat up the “devil’s tattoo” on it, and gave his hide a real “rub a dub.”…My wife threw a bucket of scalding suds down his throat, which made him thrash round as though he was sent for. She then cut his throat with a big butcher knife. He measured thirty seven feet in length. (Davy Crockett’s almanack,*** of wild sports in the West, life in the backwoods, & sketches of Texas. 1837, p. 10).
My self-preservation instinct was strong. Who in their right mind would risk getting out of bed with alligators on the prowl? Alligators hungry for a “tongariferous” fight. Bladder be damned if I would.
Not only would I not set foot on the floor when alone in my room at night, I would not let a pinky slip over the edge because…. Snap! Those alligators were fast.
And I had a family to protect – a toucan whose name now escapes me; George the green monkey whose rubbery pink hands and feet were comforting to chew nervously upon when trying to make it through dangers lurking in the night; and Nipper, a huge RCA dog who took up easily half of my single bed. I never once let George’s tail hang over the edge. I would sleep rigidly, never ever tumping one over the edge into the alligator pit.
To dream of an alligator, unless you kill it, is unfavorable to all persons connected with the dream.
The flaw, of course, was no one understood this was why I wet the bed. And, when I finally managed to explain, no one took the danger seriously. Of course, now they have books about this. But that was the late ’50s, and they had not yet been written.
Finally, midway through first grade, a solution was found. A path of folding chairs was set up each night between my bed and the bathroom. Somehow, I was able to summon the courage to imperil myself by crawling across this wobbly bridge to the safety of the bathroom, and, of course, everyone knows alligators would never cross the threshold onto the tile floor.
So, as I was writing, Phil’s interest in perpetually fighting – probably trying to change the outcome – the losing battle at the Alamo seems a preferable Davy chapter in which to be stuck.
And Davy seems to have stuck with both of us, Alamobsessive souls that we are.
I focus on and fret about the Alamo as the city’s front door. I constantly nag, in blog form, the city to enforce its historic ordinance to keep illegal signs from multiplying at night. I have even used some of the historic postcards I have assembled to create protest collages.
These efforts have had limited effect. And, not surprisingly, these particular collages have not resonated well with art collectors.
Now, legislation has been filed to form a commission to study the state of Alamo Plaza. Good news to some, but the bill would go farther than my Alamobsession wants by giving the commission the mission to “reclaim its original footprint.” I might not love Ripley’s, but I love the Alfred Giles’ Crockett Block.
Plus, if returning Alamo Plaza to its appearance at the time of the battle is taken literally, the Alamo would get a crewcut (Click here for a long-winded post about that particular issue).
I don’t know how Phil feels about this. Because how much ground can you cover in one minute?
But I do know, while I was collecting postcards of chili queens on Alamo Plaza, Phil was collecting everything else Alamo. When Phil does something, he doesn’t fool around. He gets serious. He even collected a building off the plaza. This is from his myspace page:
From Bill Wyman’s metal detecting to Alex James’s cheese-making, every self-respecting musician is obliged to cultivate a hobby to relieve the stresses of the rock star life. Collins is no exception, utilizing the basement of his Swiss home for his twin enthusiasms: building model railways and tending to his vast collection of Alamo memorabilia.
“… it’s an all-consuming thing for me. I spend as much time in San Antonio as I can. I rent a little property out there on the walls of The Alamo itself where I’ll dig for artifacts. I’m always looking for stuff to buy and the collection is growing fast. I’ve got a huge number of cannonballs, muskets and bowie knives that were used there, Lady Crockett’s pouch and many documents that were written by the main protagonists. One of my prized possessions is a receipt signed by Commander William B. Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.
“My kids are convinced that I was present at The Alamo in a previous life. Just recently I attended a convention out there and met a clairvoyant who is married to a man who’s attempting to restore the Alamo compound. She walked up to me and said, ‘’You’ve been here before. In a previous life you were John W. Smith, one of the major couriers who survived the Alamo and become one of San Antonio’s first mayors.’ Oddly enough one of the first documents I bought for my collection was the receipt for Smith’s saddle. So maybe my kids are on to something.”
Phil collected so many Alamo things that photos and information about them now fill a 400-page book, which brings us to another thing we have in common.
Because I sat beside him for about one minute. And, as you can see, we obviously engaged in animated conversation. Probably because we have so much in common. And I didn’t even get a chance to tell him I’m married to a bluesman.
Somehow, KSAT-TV failed to catch this important connection on camera, which is good because I would not have wanted to end up in the pages of some publication, such as The Star, where they zoom in on the superficial shortcomings of someone my age – the preponderance of wrinkles, protruding bellies and falling bustlines.
Another thing Phil and I share is we have changed careers. I have changed career directions several times and feel free to sprint off in any direction I choose. If I choose to write books, that’s fine. No one objects; no one cares.
But, poor Phil. He’s worked hard his whole life – “I enjoyed Genesis when I was 19” – and wants to pursue his hobbies now:
Reporters repetitively bombard him with “why?” Some fans of the Grammy-winning star express anger at him for retiring from concerts. This, even though, according to his myspace page:
His less prolific work rate is partly down to health reasons. Since 2000 he has suffered from loss of hearing in his right ear. More recently he was diagnosed with severe nerve damage to his hands, making drumming extremely challenging. During recording sessions for his new album, he was forced to tape his sticks to his hands.
Owsers. That sounds totally painful. Give this man a well-deserved break.
Keen to accentuate the positive, he explains that his medical concerns have forced him to take stock of his life. “I never used to think of myself as a workaholic,” he says. “I used to work non-stop because I couldn’t believe my luck that I was able to do all these things that I loved. I was everywhere and I can see why that must have been annoying to some people. Then I reached a point where I no longer felt the need to go zooming around the world and attend the opening of every envelope. Basically I stopped.
“I’ve got a nine-year-old and a five-year-old. I take them to football. I like to take them to school and pick them up. That’s my life now. I love doing the things that other people probably find tedious because they’ve been doing them for so long. I never did those things in the past as I was always working flat out. That was my loss. Now I’m able to do all that and also have time to indulge my passions.”
Besides, somehow I feel this man’s Alamobsession will end up helping shape the future of Alamo Plaza. I’m sure it will accomplish more than my haranguing collages and blog posts.
Oh, and, Phil, if you get tired of staying in hotels when you visit San Antonio, the Mister and I might be able to work out a house swap with you. The Alamo’s less than a mile away from our door. Call me next time you are in town and you’ve got a minute. Who knows what else we might have in common?
*With apologies to William C. Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. Hey, at least I didn’t title the post My Life with Phil Collins. Now that would have been a stretch.
** David would be more historically correct, but does not represent the popular culture upon which we – Phil and I – were weaned.
***Oh, dear. I had to stop in the middle of this post to order a copy of Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales from the Crockett Almanacs, 1835-1856, for which I paid a penny, plus $3.99 shipping – quite a bargain unless the alligators return ‘neath my bed. And, as that is an “our” bed, I’m positive the Mister would not relish the thought.
Update on March 25, 2013: John Spong of Texas Monthly spent considerably longer than a minute with Phil Collins.
Update on March 27, 2013:
A follower reminded me to look back for this photo of Phil Collins, coonskin-hatted at age five playing Davy, that appeared alongside an article by Steve Bennett in the San Antonio Express-News last May.
Which reminded me of another obvious thing Phil and I have in common – the Battle of San Jacinto. His collection began with a receipt for a saddle purchased by John W. Smith, who was at both the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto and seems to continue to haunt the collector a bit. My desk currently is haunted by reams of paper pertaining to the families and relatives of John Coker who settled on his land grant on the north side of San Antonio. Jack Coker was a hero of San Jacinto credited with the idea of blowing up Vince’s Bridge, blocking one of the possible escape routes for the Mexican troops.
And, on another note, one of my sisters fessed up that she was the one who told me I’d be safe from dangers lurking in my room if I let no part of me slip over the edge of the mattress. So nice after all these years to finally unload the psychological burden for bedwetting on a sibling.
Update on May 6, 2013: Mary Dearen’s version of the same awards luncheon as published on mywesttexas.com.