I scurried in the church door five minutes early. Walking sideways, I squeezed past the flags, the leather, and the unbleached cotton of the honor guard. It was just enough time for me to grab the last seat in the last pew-the one closest to the door at the rear of chapel. It was the end of a busy week, and I arrived in a busy mood. Getting there just in time for the start of the 2PM ceremonies. I even had a moment to sit there and take in the air. The chapel at La Bahia is long, narrow, and high. The walls are ancient and they were lit with a brown glow of hidden incandescent bulbs pushing outwards against the low blue overcast of this particular December afternoon.
A shadowy form rose to the pulpit at the front and pronounced the lighting of the remembrance candles. And tiny flames were lit for the souls of Colonel Fannin and his men. Men who died on this ground 166 years ago. Men whose mass grave lay only a few score yards away from where I simmered in that back pew. And then the congregation rose in a synchronized rustling and began to sing “Texas, Our Texas”.
I stumbled along at first: “…from tyrant grip now free, shines forth in splendor your star of destiny”. And in the middle of these refrains, my busy soul slipped away; “We are your children true, proclaiming our allegiance, our faith, our love for you.”
I looked down a narrow corridor filled with the backs of peoples heads. In the same instant, they were strangers, and they were brothers. A wave of solidarity washed over me as I realized that I was in a room full of people who hadn’t traveled very far over the last 175 years. These are all, every one of them, sons and daughters of the Republic of Texas. Gathered here to light little flames and to remember our ancestors. What a wonderful anachronism this was. A little Spanish chapel filled to the walls with people who refused to forget.
The speeches that followed that afternoon reinforced the oxymoronic peculiarity of this gathering. There was a lone black woman, and a handful of extra-brown citizens mixed in with the mostly northern European stock. Yet, the speakers, one after another, offered reverence to their Spanish and Mexican roots. In earnest tones, it became clear that they were oblivious to the politically correct myth of ethnic racism. Regardless of the tone of their skin, these were people of this land, and they knew their culture. This was not about a bunch of white guys from El Norte. It was a gathering of former Mexicans; their children, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, here to honor their heritage and to remember great things. O’Connor and de la Pena sitting side by side.
As the afternoon wore on, we followed our leaders to the birthplace of General Zaragosa and listened to casual remarks of modern folk bragging that they had been invited to the Juan Seguin family reunion the year before. A modern-day descendent of Sam Houston shared notes amicably with a fellow named Gomez about the types of long rifles their mutual great-great grandfathers had used against the dictator Santa Anna. In the middle of this, a sharper and more honest picture of the Texas saga became clear.
In modern terms, the comparison is easy. Santa Anna was the Saddam Hussein of Mexico. A dictator who abrogated the Constitution of 1824-the most liberal in the world at that time. The revolution that rose up against him was not the John Wayne-image of gringos against Mexicanos. Rather, it was a classic piece of Mexican history with the norteños rebelling against the central government in Mexico City.
Did the United States have an influence? Of course. But trying to take the Texas Revolution as a singular example of gringo filibustering is absurd. The U.S. Revolution was indeed a “shot heard round the world”. The ideas fostered there led directly to the French Revolution, and within a few years, the Mexican Revolution against Spain. Indeed, the Mexican Constitution of 1824, whose decapitation led to the Texas Revolution, was a product of the same age of enlightenment. The ancestors honored in La Bahia on this particular day were acting on the passions of their times. Some were brown. Most were beige. But all of them were Mexican patriots.
But Texas history, like Mexican history, cannot be unwoven from the omnipotent presence of the gringos next door. I shall not argue that the end-result was not American expansionism. Rather, that there is a qualitative difference between the motivations of the natives at the beginning of the Revolution and what eventually came to pass. The folks I spent the afternoon with in Goliad were all descended from the former. They all had a common torch to bear. And that torch is to remember what really happened 157 years ago; why it happened; and how to preserve the ideals the early Tejanos fought and died for.