One of the most striking (sometimes even a little jarring) things about visiting a place far from home is not so much how the place looks, or how different the people/buildings/trees etc. might be. It’s the birds. One sees familiar flight out of the corner of one’s eye, and then hears, not the expected song, but something wildly different, and suddenly the world is a bit off-kilter. The effect is additionally off-putting when new birds are there in the company of familiar ones (mallards get around, after all). Even when the people and the surroundings are otherwise mostly shared in common with home, the voices of unknown birds are a constant reminder that this is not home at all.
I was recently in San Antonio, TX for an academic conference, listening there to new birds, and I was struck by how competing forms of sacredness can inhabit the exact same space and use the same symbols (sometimes to incompatible ends). San Antonio is a pretty touristy town — it thrives on the money of visitors to all of its shrines. From the Alamo to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, its downtown is an elaborate system of competing (and sometimes weirdly complementary) observances.
The Alamo itself, which sits right across the street from a string of tourist establishments, is the most curious mix of multiply read symbols. The central structure of the “shrine of Texas liberty” (inside of which no photography is permitted) is still essentially what it was at its origins — the bones of the Spanish mission church of San Antonio de Valero. The religious design of the space (the vaulted ceilings, the cross-shaped floor plan, etc.) all speaks to that oldest use, although there is no altar, and no sense of the actual use for which that design was intended. There are no statues in the niches above the door. A representation of the saint is inside, but is only the smallest part of what is remembered here. Mostly, the interior of the mission church itself is a memorial for the people who died there fighting Santa Anna (who apparently did not find the event as significant at the moment as later people did). It was, after all, only about 90 minutes of intense fighting in the very final attack that ended the brief siege.
The memory of these people is most clearly framed in terms of battle and resistance. They are not remembered, either in the church space itself or in the little museum in the Long Barrack, for their families or their farms. They are remembered in the context of the Revolution in which they lost their lives, and amid other small details (buckles, bibles, ornaments), that memory is built of the technologies of death. It is not an accident that there is currently a very fine exhibit of historical guns, “Firearms of the Texas Frontier — Flintlock to Cartridge”, inside the mission church (there from October 2014 to April 2015). The guns in both the special exhibit and in the regular collection — including one donated to the Alamo by the late actor Fess Parker, who was famous for playing Alamo hero and former US Congressman David (“Davy”) Crockett and whose memory will always be associated with coonskin caps and an especially earwormy theme song — are an ambiguous memorial. They are beautifully made, elegantly shaped instruments, lovingly kept on display next to knives, swords, lances, powder horns, and other like tools for the taking of life. One can almost smell both the blood and the polish on them, surrounded by the stories and the national flags and assorted other representations of the honored dead. Each weapon and every flag belonging to the defenders is a sign of defiance and determination and revolutionary spirit, a moment of refusal (“come and take it” is as much the rallying cry for that fight as “remember the Alamo”).
Yet there are also signs of life here — the grounds of the shrine are green and beautiful, and the holy bones of the old mission still remember what they once were for (both the good and the bad, one imagines). Cannons sit on green grass, and plants climb a sort of cloister walk. There was a wedding reception being set up inside while I visited, and it isn’t hard to see the appeal of the space for such an event. The Alamo is a symbol of Texas, and as such must necessarily contain both the revolutionary and the more personal, no matter how uneasily some of these things sometimes might seem to sit next to each other.
San Antonio is also the home of the really lovely Briscoe Western Art Museum, a beautifully restored library building housing several different exhibits of “Western” (in this case referring to Texas and the Western United States) art. While I always have some qualms about this sort of thing — there is a kind of romance about “The Old West” that is intensely problematic for a number of reasons — one of the nice things about the Briscoe is that the museum’s curators have done a really good job of balancing that romance against the practical necessities that often drove the creation of some of the objects now treated as “art.” They have on display, for example, a pretty terrific collection of saddles dating from the colonial period forward. Each one is both a functional item (and shows its function) and an artwork — some are elaborately ornamented in silver and fancy leatherwork, but even the fancy saddles are still plainly built for use, not meant to be stared at but to be sat upon, and even the simplest are graceful
Because I was in town at the right time, I also got to see some fascinating day of the dead displays up in the little touristy artist neighborhood called La Villita. I missed the observance itself, but I was fortunate enough to get to walk through while artists were setting up their work for the celebration, and caught two memorial pieces worth mentioning.
I had brief chat with the artist as I walked by this piece, recalling the deaths of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper in a plane crash not too far from my current Iowa digs. This isn’t quite the finished piece, but it’s pretty close. This was perhaps the least local-looking piece in La Villita, although it obviously participates in the spirit of the memorial business of the celebration/observance really well. Even more interesting, though, was this beautiful piece remembering Robin Williams:
There’s a clear convention in place for representing the dead in this context, and the resulting cultural mash-up that puts Disney’s design squarely within it is appropriate here. The display is right outside of the little La Villita church (visible just to the left in the photo), and its religious character and its fan character sit comfortably together — candles interspersed with photos from Williams’ career (Popeye, Patch Adams, his early suspendered Mork/standup look). It is somehow entirely fitting that the role for which Williams supplied not a body but a spirit is the one that is used to represent him in the conventional Dia de los Muertos stylization of the dead.
And now I have taken pictures, to remember, and when I see them I will hear the sounds of unknown birds.
All of the images in this post are a part of a larger set of images taken in San Antonio. Check out the rest!