Review copy was received from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Before the Alamo by Florence Weinberg
on September 17, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction
Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Emilia Altamirano, Tejana, half Native American, half Spanish, is the daughter of a Royalist officer who fought against Mexico's independence in the Battle of the Medina River. Growing up in Bexar de San Antonio, she becomes literate, is adopted as a ward of José Antonio Navarro, and acts as a page in the Ayuntamiento (City Council). She serves as a nurse in the Battle of the Alamo but survives to face an uncertain future.
Getting a famous historical event from a different perspective, a very personal story, and full of rich cultural detail was a fabulous reason to pick up a historical fiction piece on a whim and get rewarded greatly for taking the chance.
Before the Alamo is an apt title as it tells the story of the town of Bexar (San Antonio) from the perspective of a young woman who was born there and came of age against the changing times as governments rose and fell. Emilia Altamirano was born of a Spanish royalist soldier, Juan Andres Altamirano and a Native American woman adopted into a Spanish household and ending up a slave, who had a short illicit relationship during the upheaval when Mexico becomes independent of Spain. The affair ends when Altamirano’s wife returns when a butchering Spanish general and his army are routed by the Mexican independence. He tries to hide his infidelity by denying Maria and his own baby girl and keeping them as servants in his house. Maria is a strong woman and teaches her daughter to be the same. She makes Emilia understand that through her own hard efforts she can rise above her humble circumstances.
And, rise Emilia does. She is intrepid and talks an influential man, Jose’ Antonio Navarro, into teaching her to read and write. He is so impressed that he brings her to town council meetings to observe and learn which she does. She enjoys the friendship of people in all strata of Bexar society and ends up meeting the Anglo leader, Stephen Austin who brings in the first wave of Anglo settlers.
But, all is not sunny. Emilia is a beautiful young woman and a rough squatter sees her as prey, a cholera outbreak rushes through the town, Damaso Jimenez, the young man she loves, must flee to stay at liberty, and the Mexican government goes through another great change so that Mexicans are divided in loyalty and Anglos grow agitated at the latest power grab in Mexico led by Santa Ana. War breaks out and Emilia’s city of Bexar is a pivotal location for both sides.
Before the Alamo is well-researched and the historical backdrop of Bexar de San Antonio comes alive as Emilia’s story unwinds. I was very taken with this girl, and later woman, who had vulnerabilities, but beat her circumstances. I found the social structure within the Spanish-Mexican community and the changing authorities along with the arrival of the Anglos quite fascinating. The author cleverly wove all this in so that it was part of Emilia’s story rather than a big info dump.
I should add here that there were periods in the book when others were narrating like Emilia’s love interest, Damaso, whose story took the view point of a Mexican cowboy and then impressed soldier in the Mexican army. This gave even more perspective to the whole story since Emilia’s viewpoint was limited to the city and to her limited access to out of town information.
Emilia’s life was parts triumphant, but she had some sorrow and dark times, too. Trigger warning about sexual assault and abuse present though not graphic in Emilia’s story. I liked seeing her fictional life woven so well into the story with real life figures who were part of Bexar.
The story read swiftly for me and climaxed with the Battle of the Alamo with an epilogue to see what direction Emilia’s life took. I appreciated this tale told from the perspective of marginalized peoples and how it adds to my own historical view. I can definitely recommend this for Emilia’s story alone, but the historical backdrop is fabulous, too.
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