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Emma Pérez’s new novel Forgetting the Alamo, or Blood Memory powerfully presents a revenge tale from an unusual point of view, that of a displaced Chicana in 1836 Texas. The Texas Revolution’s decisive Battle of San Jacinto serves as a triggering event for this wide-wandering story. After the Mexican population had largely been driven from the area, Mexican troops under Santa Anna killed several hundred Texan troops at the Alamo. Later that year, Texan troops took revenge and killed more than 700 Mexican soldiers in 18 minutes during the Battle of San Jacinto under the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo.”
In an exciting and cinematic gambling scene, Pérez introduces Micaela, the multi-racial narrator who undergoes a moving transformation when she stumbles across the ghastly massacre at San Jacinto, including her dead father. She returns home to find that her siblings have been murdered. Disguised as a man, she picks up her father’s rifle and begins her quest to seek revenge on the marauders.
During her quest, Micaela encounters Walker, who represents the new non-native presence taking over Texas. Walker is also the father of her mixed race cousin, Jed. Since Micaela is connected to Jed by blood (one of the book’s major themes, as indicated in the title), she knows that he must have some good about him, even though he repulses her because of his reliance on his good looks, luck, and ability to pass as completely white.
Micaela learns the tortured history of her Mexican and mixed American Indian family from Miss Elsie, the strong pioneer woman who takes in abandoned and abused women, and who runs the whorehouse in San Antonio (the site of the Alamo). While disguised as a man, Micaela can travel freely throughout Texas, working among the accepting American Indian, mixed race, and black men. While working on a farm, she falls in love with Clara, a black woman who values family more than anything else and discovers that Micaela is actually a woman.
Cervantes’s Don Quixote may offer a helpful way to understand Pérez’s novel. Both are episodic stories with narrators who travel on horseback over a wide area to interact with a variety of common characters. Both narrators adopt a new way of dress to go undercover (Don Quixote as a knight; Micaela as a man). Both novels play with character names; men in Forgetting the Alamo include the completely evil Rove (for Karl Rove), the opportunistic Walker (for George Walker Bush), and the cruel Colonel (for Dick Cheney).
But Don Quixote is light and satiric (Quixote’s horse is named Rocinante, which can be translated as “reversal”), while Forgetting the Alamo is tragic and ultimately deals with the displacement of the original settlers of the Southwest (Micaela’s horse is named Lágrimas, or “tears”).
The writing is sharp and clever. The dialogue is realistic. But Forgetting the Alamo is not a simple alternative history or a romance. Micaela becomes a less likeable character as she progresses. She is jealous, uncontrollably violent at times, alcoholic in response to the carnage she witnesses, and sociopathic in her plans for revenge. Sometimes her adventure feels like a myth as she wanders across several states but repeatedly runs into the same men. Again and again, the newly invading white colonists are stupid and sadistic. Vicious betrayals and murders are commonplace.
In the end, however, Micaela survives. Unlike the Mexican warriors at the Battle of San Jacinto or any number of massacres of American Indians, she manages to tell her story. Though unable to participate in the resettling of Texas, she understands the importance of her people’s history. The slightly uplifting end of the novel does not undo all the violence that preceded it, but makes readers aware of the unrecognized sacrifices that the original Texas inhabitants were forced to endure.
FORGETTING THE ALAMO, OR BLOOD MEMORY
By Emma Pérez
University of Texas Press
Paperback, $24.95, 218 pages