"Don't it always go to show that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." Joni Mitchell
In 1903, that was almost what happened to the Alamo. A large eastern business interest came with plans to raze the abandoned Hugo-Schmeltzer warehouse and erect modern buildings in its place. The old warehouse was an eyesore and stood as a daily reminder that perceived progress is only transitory.
The problem? The gaudy wooden building, that in some ways resembled an amusement park structure with it's crenelated exterior and fake cannon, sat atop the original stone construction of Mission San Antonio de Valero's convent--a.k.a. the Long Barracks. In short, they wanted to tear down the Alamo.
Under the leadership of two extraordinary women, Adina de Zavala and Clara Driscoll, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas engaged in what became known as the "Second battle for the Alamo."
Clara Driscoll, a wealthy socialite, put up the $75,000 necessary to buy the property with the understanding that the State of Texas would buy it back and assign custodianship to the DRT. Adina de Zavala, a Mexican-American woman whose roots ran deep in Texas, was a fierce advocate for preserving the historical structures of San Antonio. Two women from two different cultures, but with a common goal.
Because we hold the Alamo and all that it represents so dear, it's surprising, that the people of Texas were once politically divided on this issue. For five long years there were turbulent disputes. It finally took Adina de Zavala barricading herself inside the Alamo for three days to bring resolve to the situation and to protect the buildings from demolition.
In Scott Zesch's novel, the title "Alamo Heights" represents the social struggle between Anglos and Hispanics and within the strata of Hispanic culture itself. In 1903, Alamo Heights was the Knob Hill of San Antonio. If you lived in Alamo Heights, then you had arrived.
In the novel, Adina De Zavala is characterized by Rose De Leon Herrera, the wife of a young aspiring lawyer, Antonio Herrera. In one sense, she and her husband "have arrived" and are part of San Antonio's social elite. At the same time they must struggle to remain there. Antonio Herrera is constantly mortified by his wife's outspoken behavior for fear it may topple him from his hard-won social position. Rose Herrera wants to protect the Alamo as a symbol of her heritage. To do so, she comes to odds with nearly everyone.
Clara Driscoll is characterized by Alva Carson Keane a young girl of privilege who has become a popular modern romance authoress. Alva's reasons for saving the Alamo property, we find, are to erect a monument to her late cattle-baron father.
Both women are strong characters and conflict ensues as their egos and cultures clash. This conflict becomes clear when we discover that Alva is heir to Tres Piedras, a large cattle ranch near Laredo that once belonged to Rose's grandfather. Bad blood, culture and race separate these two women, but they are brought together by a common bond: to save the Alamo.
Zesch introduces us to an equally strong character in sculptress Mathilda Guenther, a composite of several real artists. Matilda is an older woman, but a free spirit who was born too early. A friend and ally to Rose, she would have fit in nicely into the bohemian communities of Soho, Paris or Berkeley.
Rafael Menchaca is the only strong male character in the novel. He is a coarse and uncultured mariachi/street vendor who calls himself the "voice of the people." He expresses his rebelliousness by idealistically voicing the struggles of his people through his songs. Socially, he is the antithesis of Rose Herrera and resentfully describes her kind as the "Tejano Bourgeoisie"
An intergral subplot develops when Rose's son, Enrique, a promising musician, aspires to become an apprentice to Rapheal Menchaca. In the process he falls in love with Menchaca's daughter Eva, a beautiful and talented sculptoress. Menchaca's opposition to this relationship soon draws Rose away from her lofty position in Alamo Heights.
Scott Zesch's novel, Alamo Heights, is a fictionalized account of the fight to preserve the Alamo. He has brought to life another time and place and thoughtfully interwoven this landscape with fully-developed characters, most of whom are based on real individuals.
The groundwork for his characterizations comes from his in-depth research of Zavala, Driscoll and others and of a time in San Antonio's history where women, especially strong outspoken women were a rarity.
The author's grasp of the cultura, or Tejano culture, at the beginning of the twentieth century is comprehensive. He examines Hispanic's attitudes toward women as their community struggles to inculturate with the growing Anglo population.
Each character is dynamic and self-determined, possessing an individual agenda. Zesch skillfully orchestrates his characters through his main story line and numerous subplots, creating a fascinating tale not of history, but an intriguing interpretation of real historical events.
Though heady stuff, Alamo Heights, is a light, easy read. It is well written and has inspired me to look further into its historical story behind the story. I look forward to future offerings from Scott Zesch.
Randell Tarin, Managing Editor
Alamo de Parras
6X9. 322 pp. Fiction.
Publication Date: April 1999.