Tom Horne and the Alamo

by George Saunders


The current Arizona “superintendent of public instruction” is a man named Tom Horne. His claim to fame—and apparently one of the bases on which he was elected to his current position—is that, as a school board official in Paradise Valley, part of the Phoenix metro area, he got rid of women’s studies programs in the schools of that questionably named valley.

Tom Horne gave a press conference this past June 12 outside the offices of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).

Horne is on a campaign to shut down the unique ethnic studies programs in Tucson schools. In this campaign he is pursuing the same purpose as the recently tabled bill in the Arizona Senate (SB1108). That bill, SB1108, received national news coverage on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio and TV show on June 19. The bill, sidelined for now, may well be revived in a different form, and its intention is to shut down ethnic studies (and women’s studies) programs at public universities and community colleges as well as secondary schools in Arizona.

Tucsonans actually can be proud that theirs is the only school system in the country so far that has an entire ethnic studies department, with programs from kindergarten through twelfth grade (K–12).

And why shouldn’t such programs exist? After all, some 69 percent of the students in the Tucson school system are people of color, and the ethnic studies courses allow them to study their own history, not just the Eurocentric “mainstream” version of history. It was community pressure—from Mexican Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans—that brought the Tucson schools’ ethnic studies program into existence in 1998.

Horne’s 10 am press conference was preceded by a 9:30 am press conference inside the TUSD headquarters building at 1010 East 10th Street. Some 300 people crowded in and around that building to show support for ethnic studies and oppose Tom Horne’s attack.

At this earlier event, the Tucson school superintendent, Roger Pfeuffer, made a strong statement, affirming the positive academic achievements by students enrolled in the ethnic studies courses.

(One example of such achievement is a young man, nicknamed “DJ,” who was alienated from school and had poor language skills. The Raza Studies courses at TUSD turned him around, as he explained in a talk he gave at the May 1 immigrant-rights rally at Armory Park in Tucson this year. Through those courses, he became interested in his own background, the history of his family and his people. He began to write about these things, because they were meaningful for him, and he was motivated to learn to write better. His language skills improved so much that now he has won a full scholarship to the University of Arizona, which he will enter later this year.)

The statistics show that students who have taken ethnic studies courses have better test scores than other students, said Supt. Pfeuffer, and he asserted unequivocally that these programs will continue and be expanded. He questioned whether Tom Horne didn’t have better things to do than engage in political grandstanding that ends up hurting the students.

A spokesperson for the Tucson Pan-Asian community, which has cooperated with the school system in developing the Pan-Asian studies courses at TUSD, mentioned among the positive results of this program that there are currently 300 students in the TUSD system learning Mandarin Chinese.

The tribal chief of the Pascua Yaqui nation also praised the American Indian studies courses at TUSD, which help the children of his people keep alive their heritage.

Richard Elias, of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, spoke of his own positive experiences as a member of the Chicano student movement, MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), when he was in public school. Arizona Senate Bill 1108, incidentally, would have made it illegal for such a student group “based on ethnicity” to exist.

Elias assured the audience of 300 or more supporters of ethnic studies that as a member of the metropolitan school commission he would continue his backing for the ethnic studies programs in the Tucson schools.

Clarence Boykins, former head of the Tucson NAACP and current head of the Black Chamber of Commerce in the city, reminded the audience that a few years ago (in 1987-1988) a wacko racist, Evan Mecham, managed to become governor of Arizona and used the power of his office to abolish the Martin Luther King holiday in this state.

Boykins said this had the effect of bringing all positive and enlightened forces together, Black, Brown, Euro, Asian, and Native American. Mecham was ousted and Martin Luther King Day was restored.

The current attack on ethnic studies programs will also bring us together, Boykins said.

United, we can defeat this racist attack.

Now what did Tom Horne say, this man who is trying to gain attention for a run for the governorship?

He complained that the ethnic studies courses were producing “rebels.”

I guess his idea of education is “Good Germans” who “only follow orders.”

One of his points struck me in particular.

He charged that some book used in Raza Studies at TUSD allegedly cheers for the Mexican side at the battle of the Alamo.

Golly! That’s like siding with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull against Custer.

As a kid in a “middle class” family of mixed European background, growing up on the East Coast, in Maryland, I of course heard the standard Alamo story — that these brave and glorious Texans, defenders of the Alamo, though greatly outnumbered, met their deaths in defying the cruel, corrupt Mexican dictator Santa Anna.

Those heroes were Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Bill Travis.

In recent years I’ve been hearing a different side of the Alamo story. A friend of mine, a trade union activist who lives in Tucson, went to elementary school at Davy Crockett Public School in San Antonio, Texas.

Once a year the 1950s Disney film “Remember the Alamo” would be played, and the racist white kids would beat up or threaten the Mexican kids, saying: “You Mexicans killed our heroes at the Alamo!”

Then a few weeks ago I heard more about the Alamo, from a different angle, when I attended a talk by Ron Wilkins, a professor of Africana studies from the University of California, who was visiting Tucson.

Ron Wilkins pointed out that ALL of those Alamo heroes were slave owners!

That was never mentioned in the accounts I had heard before.

But then I remembered.  The dominant forces in the South at that time (the Alamo and the “glorious Texas revolution” happened in 1836) were the cotton-growing plantation owners. And they were fiercely intent on adding new slave states in the South of the United States to counterbalance the free states in the North. That issue dominated political life in the United States to such an extent that by the 1850s a preview of the Civil War erupted with the fight over whether the Kansas territory would be slave or free. That’s where John Brown got his start as a freedom fighter against slavery.

If the “rebels for slavery” at the Alamo had lived, they would have been fighting on the side of the slave states in the Civil War of 1861–65.

To me John Brown is preferable as a freedom-fighting hero over John Wayne (who gave Hollywood hero portrayals of such “brave frontiersmen”—that is, border-crossing Dixieland conquistadors—as Crockett, Bowie, and Travis)?

A Chicano union brother with the Machinists here in Tucson wears a Che Guevara cap. He says “Che fought for the poor, against the rich.” He tells some of the more backward, white-supremacist types he runs across: “My heroes are different from yours.”

So there is more than one valid way of looking at the so-called Texas revolution, symbolized by the Alamo. One view (the “official,” Tom-Horne view) is that it was a glorious fight for “democracy against dictatorship,” for “progress and civilization” against “ignorance and backwardness.”

Another view is that settlers from the South kept crossing in larger and larger numbers across the frontier into Texas, which was Spanish territory and later Mexican territory. They brought their slavery and cotton plantations with them. But Mexican President Vicente Guerrero, who was part African, abolished slavery throughout Mexico in December 1829. Six years later, the alien, slave-owning residents in the Texas part of Mexico (with or without green cards) rose up and rebelled and established an independent Texas, which “just by chance” reestablished slavery under its 1836 constitution.

Prof. Ron Wilkins pointed out that any Black slave who entered the territory of Mexico was considered by the “backward, ignorant, dictatorial” Mexican government after 1829 to be a free person. Mexico would not acknowledge slave status and refused to let U.S. slave owners pursue fugitive slaves into Mexico (but they could do that in the Northern “free states” before the Civil War).

Another point made by Ron Wilkins, who incidentally also spoke at some ethnic studies classes at Tucson High School while he was here this past May, was that in fighting against the Texas “rebels” one of the Mexican generals made sure to free the slaves at any Texan plantation his forces took.

We all know that Texas was one of the powerhouses of the Confederacy. The pro-slavery Texans tried but failed to conquer New Mexico, and pro-slavery “rebels” in Arizona were defeated right near Tucson, at Picacho Peak. I’m told that Tucson was even designated briefly the “western capital” of the Confederacy of slave states.

So let’s quit it already with the “heroes of the Alamo” propaganda. They were Southern colonels, rebels for slavery.

If the courses at TUSD help students learn some of the complexities of history, like the ones I’ve run across in connection with the Alamo; if students learn to look behind the patriotic rah-rah façade, which Tom Horne wants to preserve unquestioned, I say more power to them!