To some, the Alamo, the San Antonio fort where Texans died while fighting off the Mexican army, is a symbol of liberty and Texas pride. To others, it’s a monument to slave-holders and racism. “Remember the Alamo,” the famous saying goes—but how you remember is just as important.
A United Nations committee is expected to announce this weekend whether the Alamo will receive UNESCO World Heritage status, putting it in the same league as Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, and the Statue of Liberty. The decision could also enflame a decades-long debate over what the Texas fort symbolizes. At a time when Confederate flags have sparked controversy around the U.S., some wonder why a fort defended by whites fighting Mexicans for the right to own slaves deserves international recognition.
The Battle of the Alamo was part of the Texas Revolution, in which American settlers in the Mexican state of Texas fought for secession from the increasingly centralized and autocratic Mexican government. In early 1836, a small group of Texas volunteers at the Alamo held off the Mexican army for 13 days before being defeated (and executed). The battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” became a symbol of victory in future battles, when the Texans defeated the Mexican army. Texas became an independent republic, and nine years later, it was annexed as an American state.
In the early 20th century, the Alamo was seen as a symbol of Texas pride and Americans fighting for freedom. The story, and the heroism of frontiersman Davy Crockett, was mythologized in movies and taught to schoolchildren.
The reality is a lot more complicated, says James Crisp, a historian at North Carolina State University who’s written a book about the myths and the reality of the Alamo. “Even though the Texans were fighting against a certain kind of tyranny, they were also fighting for an independent republic where slavery was legal,” Crisp told Fusion.
Some of the men defending the Alamo were slaveholders, and many of them weren’t even Texans: they were Americans paid by New Orleans merchants who saw the potential for big profits if the state seceded.
Although slavery was part of the Texas revolution, it wasn’t one of the main issues revolutionaries were fighting for. Unlike Confederates, who explicitly said they were fighting for slavery (despite the bogus “state’s rights” argument dreamed up years after the end of the Civil War), the Texan revolutionaries were more interested in local autonomy, including the right to bear arms, English being a legal language, trials by jury, and free trade with other countries, Crisp said.
“The early depictions of Texas history was good guys against bad guys, white guys against brown guys, democracy against tyranny,” Crisp said. “Then, there was a counter-story switching good guys and bad guys—the Americans were all racist, taking the Mexicans’ land. Both of those stories are way overly simplistic.”
And the Alamo is more than just a battle of 13 days—it was a Spanish mission for more than 100 years before it became a fort. San Antonio was built around it.
"There is a definite, deliberate attempt in mainstream Texas history to start Texas history in 1836, with the arrival of the anglos," Joe Lopez, a columnist for the Rio Grande Guardian, told Fusion. "The Alamo is part of that."
Owing to its complicated history, the Alamo has been controversial in the city for decades. It was the site of numerous protests from Latino rights groups in the '70s and '80s, led by activists like Rosie Castro, a leader of La Raza Unida and the mother of former San Antonio Mayor and potential future Vice President Julian Castro.
“They used to take us there when we were schoolchildren,” she told the New York Times Magazine in 2010. “They told us how glorious that battle was. When I grew up I learned that the ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were a bunch of drunks and crooks and slaveholding imperialists who conquered land that didn’t belong to them. But as a little girl I got the message—we were losers. I can truly say that I hate that place and everything it stands for.”
Protests have become less common in the past few decades, as the city made an effort to include more of the contested histories in its educational material. The Alamo (technically, the surviving structure is a former church next to the fort) is the top tourist destination in Texas, and a new museum is under works.
The UNESCO decision, which would also apply to four other 18th century Spanish missions in San Antonio, is expected to be released on Sunday from the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany. International recognition would mean increased tourism and potential UN support for upkeep. A 2013 Bexar County report predicted a $100 million benefit to the local economy and more than 1,000 new jobs if the sites receive heritage status.
"International travelers seem to use world heritage as a bucket list item," Richard Oliver, a spokesperson for the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Fusion. “The whole ‘Remember the Alamo’ cry was the reason Texas was born—it’s a true and great symbol of how Texas came to be.”
When asked about the Alamo's history of slavery, Oliver said that “it’s not something we dwell on."
“We’re very much about today,” he added.
Meanwhile, some conservatives balk at the idea of the UN getting involved in this icon of Texas pride. After the U.S. Department of the Interior nominated the Alamo for UN recognition last year, State Senator Donna Campbell introduced a bill preventing any foreign entity from gaining “any ownership, control, or management" over the fort.
One wrinkle in the nomination is that the U.S. hasn’t been paying its dues to UNESCO since the agency recognized Palestine as a state in 2013, which means the U.S. doesn’t have voting rights on this or any other world heritage decisions. But city and state leaders are optimistic that the site will be recognized. And even Crisp, the historian who emphasizes the complicated narratives of the fort, said he agrees it deserves world heritage status.
“It’s one of the most famous historic places in the world,” he said. “Recognition will get more people to read the actual history of the Alamo… instead of the awful Hollywood myths.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.