Martín Espada’s “The Other Alamo” takes place in 1990 in San Antonio, Texas, the location of the Alamo. The poem’s five sections move through several layers of time: from the present event of a veterans’ gathering to reflections on Texas race relations since the Alamo siege in 1836. Its central event takes place in 1949, when the poet’s father was refused service at a local diner. “The Other Alamo” refers to his father’s protest against overt racism. To appreciate the poem, one must consider the Alamo’s import.
During the siege of the Alamo, 187 Texans held off 4,000 Mexican troops led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Texans were fighting to gain their independence from Mexico. On March 6, when the Mexicans punched a hole in the adobe wall, they entered and killed all the Texans, including the American frontiersmen Davy Crockett and James Bowie. The names “Crockett” and “Bowie” are mentioned in Espada’s first stanza.
The poem begins at a gathering in the “Crockett Hotel dining room,” where a veteran leads others in prayer. Subsequent lines concern the city’s devotion to religious shrines and to the Alamo historic site. Tourists can purchase a “replica” of the Bowie knife, a hunting knife used extensively by American frontiersmen. Its design—a strong, single-edged blade and a horn handle—was attributed to James Bowie. Espada juxtaposes the military references with the religious, ending his first stanza with a reference to “visitors/ in white Biblical quote T-shirts.”
The second stanza places the Alamo into the context of Anglo-Mexican relations in Texas. Independence won, and Texans soon dominated and denigrated Mexicans. Tourist brochures depict “Mexican demons,/ Santa Anna’s leg still hopping/ to conjunto accordions.” The only Spanish word in the poem, conjunto refers to a musical group featuring accordions; Santa Anna lost his leg in battle subsequent to the Alamo. Texans, the ultimate victors, used the law to appropriate Mexican land and exploit “Mexican peasants.” Espada concludes with an image of “vigilantes” hunting men “the color of night.” This catalog of offenses culminates in a single word: “Alamo,” as if the deeds Espada recounts were in retribution for that massacre.
With no transition, stanza 3 takes readers to 1949, when three Air Force men in uniform, including one from “distant Puerto Rico,” enter a diner where only whites are served. Stanza 4 expands upon the incident in which a waitress, the manager, and the police try to get the men to leave, citing “local customs.” The men refuse and are finally served food cooked by a “black man unable to hide his grin.” Ignoring the food, the airmen leave an enormous tip for the cook. At this stage, Espada interjects: “One was my father; his word for fury/ is Texas.”
The final section of the poem returns abruptly to the present. The son of that Puerto Rican airman discovers that the diner no longer exists. Protest, however, continues: “Vandals,” according to a newspaper account, have damaged the Alamo doors, “scarring” them “in black streaks of fire.”
Forms and Devices
The accessibility of Espada’s poem belies a sophisticated poetic intelligence and subtle effects in word choice and in the ordering of details. Assuming that readers are familiar with the Alamo event, he presents a fast-paced set of images in the two opening sections.
The first stanza refers to “a chalk-faced man in medaled uniform.” Denoting exceptional paleness, the word “chalk” also works alliteratively and in assonance with “Crockett.” This military man “growls a prayer.” Mixing religious and military detail, Espada develops an ironic tone that borders on the scathing. The city may be “saint-hungry,” but the saints are those brave Texans who gave their lives at the Alamo. Instead of a holy relic, tourists...
(The entire section is 949 words.)