To see the first capital of Texas, you’ll have to leave the state. If you time your visit right, you can join the multitudes who gather for the annual presentation of the royal court of the tamale queens. A dozen or so young women and girls, several in flamenco dresses, will cast off their tiaras and commence a ritual display of fall abundance and Spanish heritage in Zwolle and Ebarb, a pair of towns where the isolation of the Piney Woods has, for centuries, preserved a little-known remnant of Texas’s past.

To put it more precisely, these regal gals are about to chow down on heaps of tamales.

“Shucks are fixin’ to fly, folks!” a hype man howls above the roar of the crowd that has assembled for the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta. He’s referring to the grease-soaked corn husks that wrap the delectable pillows of steamed masa and spiced meat. “Are y’all ready to see some shucks fly?”

The answer: an emphatic yes. Following a three-two-one countdown, the queens dig in while the emcee prowls the stage. “They got to put ’em down!” he barks. “Come on, girls! There you go. The shucks are flying! Cheer ’em on, now. Let ’em hear you!”

A queen in a purple T-shirt emerges as the clear favorite. She’s packing away pork and masa with single-minded determination as the young women race to see who can dispose of a half-dozen tamales first. “Chloe’s going good. She’s got half of one left,” says the emcee. Then that final half is gone in a matter of seconds, and he can’t believe it. “Chloe just put down six tamales like it was nothing! Good job. Wow.”

While there’s nothing unusual about a tamale-eating contest, this one is different. Zwolle and Ebarb aren’t in traditional tamale hotbeds like Texas or Mexico, or anywhere else in the Southwest. They perch on the western edge of Louisiana, just down the road from the historic site of a Spanish mission and presidio named Los Adaes.

Relics of this Spanish heritage have persisted for centuries in the pine-strewn hills near what is now the eastern shore of Toledo Bend Reservoir. The culture here is a piquant blend of Spanish, Native American, Creole, and Southern redneck that locals have celebrated every autumn since 1975, when the first Zwolle Tamale Fiesta was held.

Having grown up in East Texas, just an hour from the Louisiana border, I had always assumed that traces of the region’s Spanish and Mexican heritage had been scrubbed away from the area not long after Texas won its battle for independence. As far as I knew, the only evidence of those earlier periods existed at largely ignored historical sites and markers, and in the names of scattered towns and waterways, like the Neches River and Bayou Loco, given to them by a vanished people.

Yet here was a pocket of Spanish culture hidden in plain sight, right across the state line. “It’s like they’re orphans, orphaned to history,” says Francis X. Galán, a historian at Texas A&M–San Antonio, whose book Los Adaes, the First Capital of Spanish Texas (Texas A&M University Press) came out this summer. “Maybe their isolation allowed for their culture to survive.”

And yet, when it’s not festival time, this culture has often felt the need to disguise itself.

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The 2019 Zwolle Tamale Fiesta Teen Miss, Keeley Garcie, on the royal court’s float on October 12, 2019.

Cindy D. Ezernack

El Camino Real de los Tejas is frequently described as the first trail across Texas. It fords the Rio Grande south of Eagle Pass, makes its way toward San Antonio, then curves eastward, toward and through Nacogdoches. Herds of bison probably blazed the path several hundred years ago, if not earlier. Native people used it as a trade route. By the late 1600s, the Camino Real was connecting Spanish explorers and missionaries from Mexico with powerful bands of Caddo Indians who lived along rivers and streams on the northeastern edge of New Spain. Later, Anglo settlers and opportunists from the United States would follow the Camino Real into Texas from the opposite direction—different people across different eras, all of them using one “route along which the history of Texas would be determined,” as Stephen Harrigan described the Camino Real in a 1991 article for Texas Monthly. Today, State Highway 21 largely follows a major portion of the Camino Real from San Marcos to the Sabine River.

In the early eighteenth century, Spaniards were founding a string of missions along the Camino Real in the Piney Woods. Most of these places didn’t last long. The easternmost mission, Los Adaes—the only Spanish outpost that now falls on the Louisiana side of the state line—was established in 1717, with an eye to blocking the French from encroaching into New Spain from the east. The mission was abandoned in 1719, during the hostilities with France known as the Chicken War, and then reestablished two years later by about a hundred Spanish soldiers and, in some cases, their families, who showed up with 3,000 head of cattle, 2,500 sheep and goats, and even more horses. “When they came this way, they didn’t come empty-handed,” says Mike Marbut, a pastor and the retired police chief of nearby Robeline, who serves as a volunteer docent at the Los Adaes State Historic Site. “They came to stay.”

From 1729 to 1772 Los Adaes served as the first seat of colonial power in Texas. The outpost was, however, too far removed from the rest of New Spain to be an effective capital; governmental directives and fresh rounds of supplies often took many days or even weeks to cross the four-hundred-mile distance between Los Adaes and San Antonio.

Los Adaes was so isolated, in fact, that instead of fending off the French, the Spaniards stationed there became friends with the French who were living in Natchitoches (pronounced “Nak-a-dish”), fourteen miles east. They smuggled much-needed goods back and forth across a small creek called the Arroyo Hondo, which served as a border between the colonies. They shared the same Catholic priest, married into each other’s families, and learned each other’s recipes, including tamales and empanadas (today rebranded as Natchitoches meat pies). At Los Adaes, archaeologists have found as much French pottery as Spanish pottery, even though cross-border trade in such wares was illegal. That the two settlements would develop a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship is remarkable, argues Galán. “Their accommodation and coexistence is a big deal,” he says. “It runs counter to our intuitions about the frontier, that it was just violence.”

Weakened by war with Britain, France gave Louisiana to Spain in 1762 in order to draw Spain into the conflict as its ally. This meant that Spain no longer needed to maintain a defensive presence in the area. In 1772 the Spanish government disbanded Los Adaes and designated San Antonio the new capital of Texas. An estimated five hundred “Adaeseños” were ordered to relocate to San Antonio. Though most went, some weren’t willing to abandon their homes. “When the Spanish pulled out, there was a lot of families that didn’t go,” says Marbut. “They hid in the woods.”

Many of the Adaeseños who relocated to San Antonio eventually moved back to the Piney Woods, where, led by a prominent rancher, government official, and wealthy smuggler named Antonio Gil Y’Barbo, they established a new settlement on the site of a different mission that Spain had abandoned, founding what is now the East Texas town of Nacogdoches.

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States and Spain both claimed western Louisiana as their own. The U.S. declared that its western border lay along the Sabine River, the present-day border between Texas and Louisiana. Spain declared that its eastern border lay east of that, along the Arroyo Hondo and the Calcasieu River, which flows through present-day Lake Charles. In 1806, to avoid a bloody conflict, the two nations agreed to regard the large strip of territory between those two borders—the overlap of their respective claims—as a neutral ground that neither would have dominion over. And that’s how it stood for fifteen years, until, in 1821,  the U.S. prevailed and took the territory for itself. The Sabine officially became the boundary between Texas (which was still part of Mexico) and Louisiana. Spanish settlers who’d lived near Los Adaes for generations suddenly found themselves cut off from their former countrymen on the other side of a national border.

During the Texas Revolution, many Tejanos, including some former Adaeseños, fought alongside the Texian rebels against Mexican dictator Santa Anna. Yet after Texas gained its independence, the Anglos began to treat the Spanish people and Mexicans badly, Marbut says. “They killed them and stole their land.”

Some of the Adaeseños fought back. In 1838, Marbut’s wife Sue’s distant uncle, Vicente Córdova, led a band of about four hundred Tejanos, Native Americans, free Black people, and others from the Nacogdoches area in a rebellion to return the Republic of Texas to Mexican rule. When Texas troops squelched the insurrection, the rebels fled East Texas. Some, including Córdova, ran for Mexico. Other ancestors of Sue’s eventually wound up back on the east side of the Sabine, where they have remained ever since. Sometime later—no one seems sure when, exactly—Antonio Gil Y’Barbo’s Texas-born great-grandson, Alcario Y’Barbo, is said to have founded his own settlement in Louisiana, just across the Sabine River. The community of Ebarb still goes by the family name, modified at some point from Y’Barbo. There are still a lot of folks named Ebarb on both sides of the river, as well as folks who go by other variants, such as Barbe, Ebarbo, and Barber. (Zwolle, by contrast, was named after the hometown of a Dutchman who invested in the area in the late nineteenth century.)

Over the course of nearly two centuries, much of the area’s Spanish heritage faded away. Branches of the Córdova family changed their surname to the more English-sounding Cordoway. Some of this was the sort of slow-motion assimilation that one can find among, say, the German and Czech populations in Central Texas. But some of it was more fraught than that. “They didn’t want nobody to know they were Spanish for the simple reason of persecution, people retaliating against them,” Marbut explains. “They’d been retaliated against in East Texas, so most of the Spanish people in this area right here were quiet. They didn’t say nothing, didn’t get too involved, didn’t talk about anything.”

For the most part, west Louisianans of Spanish descent learned to play their heritage down. And yet, today, even amid a growing backlash against Hispanics in some quarters, you can find pockets of pride.

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A priest visiting Adaeseños in the Bayou Scie area, near modern-day Zwolle, in the mid-1800s.

Courtesy of Rhonda Gauthier

Because of the coronavirus, this year’s Zwolle Tamale Fiesta has been canceled. But anyone who attended last year’s festival would have known what to expect. Amid the festival decor—hoary Mexican tropes like red and green chile peppers and cartoonish drawings of men in sombreros and bushy black mustaches plucking Spanish guitars—the queens chowed down on their tamales, hundreds of revelers paraded down Main Street, and others engaged in a Spanish costume contest. For the main event, a couple thousand or more festivalgoers made their way toward an open field to watch jacked-up trucks splash through mud puddles, a pastime known as “mud dogging.”

“Mud dogging and hunting are very important, right after family and church,” Mary Lucille “Betty” Rivers, a historian and retired schoolteacher, notes in her book Folklore in an Indian & Spanish Community: Zwolle, Louisiana. At the tamale festival, the monster trucks roared and spun their wheels, kicking free clods of mud and occasionally peppering the cheering spectators.

The following morning, the queens took part in a solemn procession, in their royal finery, as part of the Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church. The reigning queen, Alison Beatrice Garcia, wore a beautiful gown and a tiara bigger than her head. Her velvety red train was decorated with an elaborately sequined tamale fiesta logo. It trailed the floor behind her, making a steady sweeping noise heard over a warbling vocalist.

The Zwolle Tamale Fiesta was founded by a local tourism booster named Rogers P. Loupe. “And he was a Cajun,” points out Rivers. “In the seventies, some people [of Spanish descent] wouldn’t go to the fiesta because they said it was a put-down on their heritage.” Rivers recalls feeling like a second-class citizen because of her ethnicity, which is mostly Spanish and Native American. “When I was a kid, if you called somebody a Mexican, it was a put-down. You would have a fight.” Now, she says, nobody cares that much about those sorts of ethnic differences, and many of the residents of Spanish descent have embraced the festival and made it their own.

But along with assimilation has come loss. When Rivers was a girl in the forties and fifties, all four of her grandparents spoke Spanish. Today she doesn’t know any young people who remember more than a few words of the ancestral tongue. “We have one old lady, she’s 103,” Rivers says. “She could speak Spanish when she was young, but I don’t think she could find anybody to speak it to now.” (A handful of recent immigrants—7 percent of Zwolle’s population is Mexican or of Mexican descent—do in fact speak Spanish, although the Zwolle dialect is unusual for its nasality and the truncated pronunciation of certain words.)

Some of the area’s families of Spanish descent still know how to make tamales from scratch, and E. B.’s Tamale Co., a food manufacturer on Main Street in Zwolle, has been supplying the region with Zwolle tamales for four decades. But Rivers doesn’t know any locals who still make corn tortillas, a onetime staple. She and her neighbors hold on to their connection to the past through the annual tamale fiesta, their close-knit families, and the Catholic church, making them an anomaly in northern Louisiana where, in contrast with the southern part of the state, most people are Protestant.

After Mass, I stopped at a roadside food stand called Double D’s, hoping to buy tamales to bring home. Sarah Parrie, a Zwolle native with dark eyes and jet-black hair, greeted customers through a walk-up window where she takes in cash and hands out tamales. She told me that her parents were of Spanish and Native American descent and that she learned her recipe from her late mother, Ruby, using pork filling that has just enough red pepper kick and masa with a delicate, yet pleasingly coarse, texture. She grinds her own corn, rather than cheating with store-bought masa powder.

“Did you ever hear anything about your Spanish heritage?” I asked her.

“Not much,” she said. “Daddy used to speak Spanish a little. We didn’t even understand what he said, but him and his daddy would get together, and they would talk a little Spanish.”

Below the walk-up window, a small, handwritten sign announced that Parrie’s family recipe had won second place in a tamale-tasting contest at the fiesta just a day earlier. Her tamales were delicious. The announcement, of course, was in English