Defenders descendants claim discrimination in lawsuit against Alamo

by Ben OlivoOctober 10, 2018
Attorney Art Martinez de Vara (from left), and Alamo defenders descendants Lee Spencer White and Charisma Villarreal discuss a discrimination lawsuit filed against the Alamo last week. BEN OLIVO | SAN ANTONIO HERON

In a lawsuit filed last week in federal court, descendants of the Alamo defenders have accused officials who run the Texas shrine of violating their civil rights because of their outspokenness against the master plan, which is nearing the end of its approval process.

In one part of the lawsuit, the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association (ADDA) accuses Alamo officials of retaliating against the group by moving its 2½-hour memorial and prayer service from its place inside the chapel, where it's been held every March 6, the day the Alamo fell to Mexican forces, the last 24 years.

Also, two descendants—Charisma Villarreal and Samantha White—say they were asked, in separate incidents, to leave the Alamo church for wearing shirts that read, "Don't Move the Cenotaph."

The petition asks for an injunction to prevent Alamo officials—including the Texas General Land Office, and the Alamo Trust, Inc.—from restricting the group's access, and to pay lawyers' fees and $18.36 in damages, a symbolic amount that alludes to the year of the famous battle.

[ Read the lawsuit. ]

Since the latest draft of the Alamo master plan was released in June, the descendants association and other groups have fiercely fought it, specifically the proposed relocation of the Cenotaph, which the groups liken to The Tomb of the Known Soldier and other war monuments, from its current location in front of the Long Barrack to a spot in front of the Menger Hotel.

They say the move is doubly disrespectful because the memorial would rest outside the walls their ancestors died defending.

"We want the Cenotaph right where it sits and not moved, and therefore we're being targeted," said Lee Spencer White, ADDA president and founder, and Samantha White's mom.

This year, the descendants association and the Alamo held a joint ceremony in front of the shrine's iconic facade, the two organizations acknowledge. They both agree that, on the way to a reception afterwards, attendees were allowed to walk through the church for about 15 minutes of reflection and prayer.

However, what Alamo CEO Douglass McDonald describes as a "partnership" and "a wonderful ceremony that included a time or memorial inside the church," the defenders' progeny say they didn't have a choice but to partner with the Alamo, and that 15 minutes inside the church doesn't replace the two-hour-plus ceremony the group's held since 1994.

What makes it a civil rights violation, according to Art Martinez de Vara, the group's attorney, is that an indigenous group is allowed to hold services inside the church, while their Christian-based group isn't. Members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, who have a descendant buried inside the Alamo, when it was known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, have held its own ceremony inside the church since 1995, the year after those remains were unearthed during foundation work. The lawsuit doesn’t name the Tap Pilam Cohuiltecan Nation, but refers to a "Native American group."

"You can’t allow one religious group and not another," Martinez de Vara said. "As a governmental entity, they have to treat everyone the same, especially when it comes to religious expression."

In a statement, McDonald called the lawsuit, which was filed on Oct. 2, the first day of the Texas Revolution in 1835, disappointing.

"This is made even more disappointing by the fact that the Alamo did host the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association's annual 'Remember the Defenders' ceremony this year, on March 6, 2018," McDonald wrote. "It was a wonderful ceremony that included a time or memorial inside the Church. Ms. White was present at this event and spoke."

White said it's not the same, and sees no reason why the group cannot hold its ceremony inside aside from the fact that it vehemently opposes the Alamo master plan. During the ceremony, a roll call of the garrison is conducted with each family member standing as their ancestor's name is called. It's been attended by Phil Collins and other noteworthy Alamo enthusiasts.

Ramon Vasquez, a member of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, descendants of the indigenous tribes that were converted to Catholicism when Spain founded five missions here between 1718 and 1731, has mixed feelings about the defenders' situation.

"It's tough, because I want to be sympathetic, but I can't be sympathetic, or empathetic, because we've been struggling with this for over 300 years, trying to maintain and fight for our rights—our inherited birth rights," said Vasquez, who's also director of American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, a nonprofit the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation formed to run its affairs.

Vasquez is also a member of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, which approved the Alamo master plan in late August. Since then, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Mayor Ron Nirenberg have signed off on the plan, which is scheduled for City Council consideration on Oct. 18.

"The only thing we can do is wish people well," Vasquez said.

Martinez de Vara said the Alamo defenders have just as equal a right to workshop inside the church.

“The Alamo descendants also have ancestors buried—at least three died before the battle, buried on the grounds,” Martinez de Vara said. “We’re not sure where. They died and bled. Their blood, their physical remains are in the church and in the compound.”

White said her group prefers both descendants groups have access to the church.

"We’re not trying to exclude anybody from the chapel," she said.

In his statement, McDonald also described the lawsuit as "frivolous" and as being "full of inaccuracies."

"For example, there are no metal detectors used at the Alamo, and I have never personally escorted any visitor off the Alamo grounds," White said. "This is a waste of the Alamo’s time and resources when we should be educating people on the history of Texas. The lawsuit brought forth by Ms. White and others is an unfortunate event for the Alamo, and unfortunate for all other groups who have made fair compromises to old traditions in order for the Alamo to be transformed in a way that will make all of Texas very proud."

Villarreal and Samantha White say they were asked to leave the church, for wearing "Don't Move the Cenotaph" T-shirts after a press conference on Sept. 14 held by Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg. The lawsuit doesn't name McDonald as the person who escorted them out.

Villarreal, a descendant of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza, said she was asked to leave by a Texas Ranger immediately upon entering the shrine.

"As soon as I walk in, the Ranger said, ‘Ma’am, you have to leave’,” Villarreal recalled. “I said, ‘Why?’, very politely. I didn’t get mad, I didn’t get angry. He said, ‘Ma’am, it’s because of the protest outside.’ "

"There's no protest outside," Villarreal she recalls telling the Ranger. Villarreal said she entered the Alamo about 2½ hours after the press conference was over. She said the Ranger then told her she could change her shirt inside-out across the street.

"I think if my shirt had said something like, 'I like the Alamo Reimagine plan' or 'Relocate the Cenotaph,' I think they would have let me in with open arms, no question," Villarreal said.

Wearing a similar shirt, White’s daughter, Spencer, who’s also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, experienced almost the exact same situation, according to the petition.

The lawsuit also mentions U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Senator Ted Cruz in a few weeks, and who held a rally on the Alamo grounds on March 11, in which the El Paso Democrat took pictures with supporters.

“People were wearing their T-shirts,” Martinez de Vara said. “Alamo Rangers were clearly within sight and no one was asked to turn their shirt (inside out). No one was asked to ‘Please step off of state property.’”

Villarreal provided to the Heron screenshots of a Facebook conversation after the incident between her and a user named "Alamo CEO," which has a photo of McDonald as its profile picture.

In that conversation, Alamo CEO tells Villarreal that she can wear her "Don't Move the Cenotaph" shirt, and that the Alamo has changed its policy so that any political clothing can be worn on the site.

This person also said, "The Beto even was not authorized and I didn't know about it. We wouldn't have approved it and the Ranger on duty should have not allowed it."

When asked to authenticate the screenshot, the Alamo had no comment beyond the statements McDonald already provided for this story.

Villarreal and Samantha White are not members of the ADDA, but both their paperwork is in the works, Lee Spencer White said.

"They're all joined because it's the same underlying governmental action, which again is a discriminatory policy," Martinez de Vara said.

Contact Ben Olivo: 210-421-3932 | | @rbolivo on Twitter

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