Meet the ‘Angel of the Alamo’: Adina De Zavala’s grand stand in 1908 saved a landmark of Texas history

The first night in the dark, cold barrack of the Alamo was the hardest.

Adina De Zavala had no bed or even a chair to sleep on. Rats skittered nearby. The electricity and telephone lines had been cut.

But years of effort, of obsession, had led her to this desperate stand. It was February 1908, and the oldest building in the Alamo complex in San Antonio was in danger of being razed. She’d locked herself inside as a sheriff waited at the door with a court order.

The barrack was a two-story building of a Catholic mission that, centuries earlier, had been home to priests and nuns during the time of Spanish rule over Texas. By the time De Zavala occupied the former convento, there was little trace of its past. The historic building had been owned by a grocery company and had housed crates of milk, sugar and other goods. Now, the place was barren and musty. Without food or drink available, she was left to find the coziest spot on the floor.

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Word spread quickly in San Antonio and beyond. The morning after De Zavala’s one-woman standoff began, journalists and supporters jockeyed to speak to her through the door. 

She didn’t emerge for three days.

The Alamo is one of the most iconic images in Texas; the site had an average of 1.7 million visitors per year before the coronavirus pandemic. More than 70 years after Mexican soldiers overran Texas rebels at the Alamo in 1836, the site became the subject of another battle: how to commemorate its history. It was waged in large part by De Zavala – the granddaughter of a Mexican man who was the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, a schoolteacher and author, one of the first preservationists in the country and, by many accounts, a sharp-tongued firebrand.

More recently, De Zavala has earned the moniker “the Angel of the Alamo.” It took almost a century for that recognition to catch on in part because of her Mexican last name. Yet De Zavala’s complicated identity as a Tejana, or Texan of Mexican descent, was her driver in saving the Alamo and its storied history.

“If it were not for her, we probably wouldn’t even have an Alamo today,” said Sharon Skrobarcek, treasurer general of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and of the organization’s Alamo Mission Chapter in San Antonio.

Know Adina De Zavala: The woman who saved the Alamo

Annie Rice, USA TODAY

Strong will, strong heritage

De Zavala was born in Harris County, Texas, in 1861. She was the oldest of six children of Augustine and Julia De Zavala. Her father was a Confederate soldier and later worked as a ship caulker.

Adina De Zavala, pale-skinned and blue-eyed, was one-quarter Mexican. In a time of deep anti-Mexican racism, the family’s surname became an “ethnic label,” according to Suzanne Groves, who wrote a 2013 master’s thesis on De Zavala at the University of Texas at Arlington. The family tried to Anglicize their name by capitalizing the D. They earned no special status from their association with her grandfather, Lorenzo de Zavala, a prominent figure of the Texas Republic.

Adina De Zavala was described by contemporaries as a firebrand whose legacy in Texas history was obscured because of her Mexican last name.
Adina De Zavala was described by contemporaries as a firebrand whose legacy in Texas history was obscured because of her Mexican last name.
Dolph Briscoe Center for American History,The University of Texas at Austin

Native Americans had lived in what is now Texas for thousands of years when Spanish conquistadors settled there in the 1500s. Despite that early occupation, the Spanish largely ignored the area until the French claimed Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast near the end of the 17th century. That colony lasted only two years, stricken by disease and attacks by Native Americans.

The Spanish took over the region by founding villages and Catholic missions, the latter of which were meant to “civilize” the natives. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain – and Spanish Texas became part of the new country.

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To grow the population, Mexico granted land to empresarios, or land agents, who would recruit Americans to settle there. With the new settlers, the population with Mexican heritage shrank; Anglo influence swelled. The face of Texas was changing, and with that evolution came unrest. The first attempt to secede from Mexico came in 1826, with the Fredonian Rebellion that created a short-lived Anglo state near Nacogdoches in east Texas.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo de Zavala, who was born in Yucatan, Mexico, had climbed the ranks of Mexican politics; he helped write the new country’s constitution and became an ally of politician and general Antonio López de Santa Anna. When Santa Anna took dictatorial power in Mexico in 1834, de Zavala resigned in protest and defected to Texas to join Stephen F. Austin, one of the principal empresarios, to help start Texas’ revolution. 

The most famous battle in Texas’ war for independence came on March 6, 1836, at the Mission San Antonio de Valero. Now it’s better known as the Alamo.

An illustration of the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio on March 6, 1836.
An illustration of the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio on March 6, 1836.
Kean Collection, Getty Images

It was the final assault on the Texas fortress; Mexican forces had begun a siege on the site in February. Santa Anna had about 1,800 soldiers, outnumbering the rebels by about 10 to 1. Virtually all of the Texas defenders were killed that day.

Texas was vindicated, however, at the Battle of San Jacinto a month later. The Texan army battered the Mexican forces in a surprise attack that lasted 18 minutes, and won.

The Texas Revolution, and specifically the Alamo battle, became shrouded in an Anglo-centric myth of heroic white settlers defending their independence against barbaric Mexicans. Only recently has the true history of the revolution become mainstream – that Texas defenders fought in part to preserve slavery and that Mexican Americans fought and died alongside the rebels.

Lorenzo de Zavala helped draft the constitution of the Republic of Texas, and his fellow delegates elected him ad interim vice president of the new country. Due to illness, he resigned in October 1836 and died that year. Texas joined the United States in 1845.

Adina De Zavala grew up in Galveston and later San Antonio. She was a teacher in the rural north Texas city of Terrell for two years in her 20s. She then moved to San Antonio and took another teaching position to support her family – her father was in poor health, and her mother didn’t work. Her father died in 1892.

De Zavala was strong-willed; she did things her way. In 1900, eight years before her Alamo protest, she read aloud a letter to the San Antonio school board protesting her low job classification and salary. It’s not clear if she won a higher salary, but her delivery was so zealous that the trustees voted to bar teachers from giving verbal complaints to the board, allowing them only to submit them in writing.

In the years after the Civil War, historical activism was on the rise around the country in response to an immigration boom and industrial growth, said Groves. Communities cherry-picked historical figures and sites to build a patriotic narrative during a period of deep racial divide. Women, mostly upper class and white, were particularly active in the movement, eager to wield political agency.

De Zavala began learning about her grandfather in this period. For several years, she and other relatives tried fruitlessly to recover land and stock that had belonged to him. They were in search of some respite from their financial woes, or at least some social standing.

In 1889, De Zavala organized a group of women around a goal of preserving Texas’ history. A similar group of wives, daughters and female descendants of men who’d served the Republic of Texas – mostly white and upper-middle class – formed the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. De Zavala’s group joined the  DRT and became the De Zavala Chapter, named for her grandfather.

Her grandfather’s history “gave her some celebrity, and it also gave her passion and purpose,” Skrobarcek said.

Though De Zavala’s grandfather was a source of pride, her relationship to her Mexican heritage was tenuous.

Her last name, along with her lack of status, prevented her from fitting in with Anglo high society, particularly amid the deep racial divide emerging in San Antonio at the time. Across Texas, people of Mexican descent had lost property, faced segregation in schools, were relegated to labor jobs and encountered other forms of discrimination. Hundreds of Mexican Americans in Texas were lynched, sometimes by law enforcement, over the course of almost a century.

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Racism touched the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, as well, according to Groves.

In 1911, an anonymous writer sent De Zavala a letter with damning information about two members: One woman was a descendant of an Alamo fighter’s illegitimate child with a Mexican woman, and another claimed French heritage but was actually of Mexican descent.

In her writings, she did not refer to herself as part Mexican or Tejana; when she wrote about her grandfather, she described him only as Spanish. He and his parents were criollos — people of pure Spanish descent who were born in Spain’s colonies, as opposed to mestizos, who were of Spanish and indigenous Mexican descent.

And in one of her books about the Battle of the Alamo, she listed white soldiers who had died, as well as white women who’d been there. She did not include Tejano soldiers who died fighting.

Yet many Texans connect with her last name and her fervor, even if she was not explicit about her heritage.

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