Monday, July 5, 2010

remember the alamo

This past weekend, close to sixty-thousand recovering alcoholics from around the world gathered in San Antonio, Texas for the International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous. There were meetings and workshops, dances and hospitality suites, a flag ceremony with flags from more than seventy nations, old-timers meetings, and events held in the Alamodome, a sixty-five-thousand seat multi-purpose facility that is primarily used as a football and basketball stadium.

While I feel that the word is overused, when tens of thousands of people rose as one, held hands, and recited the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference" it was truly awesome.

The air was electric. I looked around the stadium at the massive and diverse crowd of strangers holding hands, many silently weeping, and felt we were all joined by a common solution to an oftentimes fatal affliction.
For me this emotional sentiment was echoed on the streets of San Antonio, as recovered alcoholics from all over the world had literally taken over the town. This convention was, supposedly, the largest that the city had ever hosted.

I heard some remarkable speakers share their experience, strength, and hope. I also heard a few truly inspiring stories of how tragedy had transformed people's lives, and set them on a path of spiritual enlightenment and an altruistic practice.

Yesterday was independence day, and I spent the day in rental cars, airports, airplanes, and taxicabs traveling from San Antonio to New York City.

San Antonio is a lovely, even charming, southern, Texas town. The San Antonio River winds its way through the center of town and the River Walk (Paseo del Río) is beautiful. The River Walk is a pedestrian walkway along the river, one story beneath street level. It is lined with restaurants, shops, beautifully designed plant-beds (where the indigenous bald cypress, often hundreds of years old, can reach ten stories high), and water features (falls, ponds, fountains, etc) all linked by a network of bridges.

I learned that after a disastrous flood in the 1920s, plans were developed to pave over the downtown bends in the river to prevent possible future floods. There were protests against the paving over idea, and in 1929 San Antonio native architect Robert Hugman submitted plans for the River walk. His plans included dams and floodgates to regulate flow. Support for Hugman's River Walk plan grew and in 1939 crucial funding for its construction finally came from the WPA. Its continued expansion, ability to withstand flooding, and its draw for tourism has made San Antonio's River walk one of the WPA's great successes.

What San Antonio is probably most famous for, however, is the Alamo. While not terribly impressive by magnitude (it's actually rather small), its historical and cultural significance made a considerable impact on me.

It is important for me to note my observation that mostly everyone I encountered, who was a San Antonio native, seemed to be Mexican, or of Mexican descent. There is, in fact, a decisively Mexican flavor to the town itself. That being so, the concentration on the history of the Alamo set me into a pattern of deep and puzzling thoughts. Here is a building, indeed a National landmark, that is held up as an iconic symbol of American freedom and patriotism. While initially built by Mexicans as a Catholic mission, a place of worship, it is primarily remembered for its function as a fort in The Battle of the Alamo, and its role as a stronghold in the United States' battle against Mexico.

While I am certainly not a expert on the Mexican - American War or the Texas Revolution, my understanding of the history of the Alamo is as follows: Abandoned as a mission, the compound was taken over by the Texan army. At the time, the land we know as Texas was still Mexico. The Mexican army launched an assault on the Alamo to reclaim it, and almost all the Texan troops were killed. More Texan troops were sent to reinforce and reclaim the Alamo, and further bloodshed ensued. In other words, the Alamo is an historic site of a bloody American, white-man, land-grab from our Mexican neighbors.

The Alamo remains a symbol of American freedom, even though, at the time of the infamous battle, America was still a nation that saw fit to enslave black men (and women, and children).

I am grateful that my recent race, class, and gender studies have encouraged me to look at things from multiple perspectives. But while others were nonchalantly enjoying vacation time and sightseeing, I found myself wrestling with my understanding of our violent past. I considered the complex relationship that modern, Mexican-Americans (particularly San Antonio residents) must have to this history. It sharply brought to my mind the recently put into place anti-immigration legislation in Arizona, and the vehement, anti-immigration fervor, parading as patriotism, that is quickly spreading throughout the country, specifically the Southwest region.

Just as African-Americans (both free and enslaved) have played an integral part in the development and identity of the United States, so too have Mexican-Americans contributed to the cultural fabric that makes up our collective American experience. Unfortunately, it seems we may be entering into a new era of Jim Crow laws, this time with a focus on Latin-Americans as the threatening and feared "other," forced to adhere to stern, discriminatory regulation.

My increasing awareness of this vitriolic and rapidly growing opposition to all things immigrant directly counters my experience of the friendly and welcoming Mexican-American, San Antonians that I encountered on my trip. It continues to be my experience that our (America's) continued stringent, often enforced, cultural division remains the antithesis of the principles expressed by those who gathered in San Antonio this past weekend. We are a fellowship of men and women who share our experience, strength, and hope so that others may find what has been so freely given to us. As members of a spiritual and altruistic movement, we are people from every race and every walk of life, whose practices have given us an opportunity to develop a relationship with a God of our own understanding, and granted us the capacity to help others by sharing its healing and loving message.

While reflecting on the history of the Alamo, and my personal responsibility to be an ambassador of kindness, I am reminded of the text of the AA program itself, which states that "love and tolerance is our code." I believe we could all benefit if it were the code of many more.

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