To see the first capital of Texas, to stand on that hallowed ground, you have to leave the state.
If you time your visit right, you can join the multitudes who gather for a 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 mestizo heritage in Zwolle and Ebarb, a pair of towns where the isolation of the Piney Woods has, for centuries, preserved a remarkable, if little-known, remnant of Texas’s past.
To put it more precisely, these regal gals are about to chow down on heaps of tamales.
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“Shucks are fixin’ to fly, folks!” a hype man howls above the assembled crowd’s roar. He’s referring to the grease-soaked corn husks wrapping the delectable pillows of steamed masa and spiced meat. “Are y’all ready to see some shucks fly?”
The answer: an emphatic yes. While there’s nothing so unusual about a tamale-eating contest, this one is different. Zwolle and Ebarb aren’t in tamale hotbeds like Texas or Mexico, or anywhere else in the Southwest (or even the Mississippi Delta). They sit on the western edge of Louisiana, just down the road from the historic site of a Spanish mission and presidio named Los Adaes.
Los Adaes served from 1729 to 1772 as the first seat of colonial power in Texas. Following the Louisiana Purchase, the United States and Spain both claimed the area around the mission as their own. This disputed strip became known as the Neutral Ground or No Man’s Land until 1821, when the boundary between Texas and Louisiana officially moved west to the Sabine River. Settlers who’d lived near Los Adaes for generations found themselves cut off from their former countrymen on the other side of the border.
“It’s like they’re orphans, orphaned to history,” says Francis X. Galán, a historian whose book, Los Adaes, the First Capital of Spanish Texas, is being published by Texas A&M University Press next June. “Maybe their isolation allowed for their culture to flourish.”
Relics of that culture have persisted for centuries in the pine-strewn hills near what is now the eastern shore of Toledo Bend Reservoir. It’s a piquant blend of Spanish, Native American, and Southern redneck with notes of French Creole mixed in that locals have extolled every autumn since 1975, when the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta was founded by a local tourism booster named Rogers P. Loupe. “And he was a Cajun,” points out Mary Lucille “Betty” Rivers, a retired schoolteacher turned historian and author.
“In the 1970s, some people wouldn’t go to the fiesta because they said it was a put-down on their heritage,” Rivers says. She recalls feeling like a second-class citizen because of her ethnicity, which is mostly Spanish and Native American. “Now I don’t think anybody cares too much, but when I was a kid, if you called somebody a Mexican, it was a put-down. You would have a fight.”
Much has changed since Rivers was a girl in the 1930s and ’40s. Back then, all her grandparents spoke Spanish, but she doesn’t know anyone from younger generations who remembers more than a few words of the ancestral tongue. “We have one old lady, she’s 103,” Rivers says. “She had her birthday last week. She could speak Spanish when she was young, but I don’t think she could find anybody to speak it to now.”
Rivers doesn’t know any local who still makes corn tortillas from scratch, either. She and her neighbors instead hold on to their connection to the past through close-knit families and affiliation with the Catholic church in a region where most people are Protestant—not to mention the tamales that her kinfolk make, eat, and celebrate each year at Zwolle Tamale Fiesta.
On a sunny afternoon in October of last year at the Zwolle fairgrounds—right across the railroad tracks from E.B.’s Tamale Company, which has been making and distributing them by the dozen for nearly four decades—the tamale queens recite poems they wrote to mark the occasion. “Small-town pride is spicy and hot,” one begins. “Zwolle tamales is what we’ve got!”
Sarah Parrie sells her tamales through a walk-up window at Double D’s Tamales in Zwolle.
Photograph by Wes Ferguson
Tamales served by the dozen from E.B.’s Tamale Company in Zwolle
Photograph by Wes Ferguson
The queens’ bejeweled tiaras rest before them on a long table, as do bundles of piping-hot tamales. They 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!”
The shucks are not, in fact, flying, although royalty and commoners alike have been wolfing down tamales for thousands of years. Ancient people in Central Mexico innovated the chemical process that converts maize to masa. Spain brought over the pork and lard, and the mash-up turned out to be a big hit. Caddo Indians in the Piney Woods served their own version of tamales to French explorers in the 1680s, as a 2017 article in the Journal of Cultural Geography notes.
A queen in a purple 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. He can’t believe it. “Chloe just put down six tamales like it was nothing! Good job. Wow.”
Kudos to Chloe, but there’s no shame in losing a tamale-eating contest in Zwolle. When the spirit moves me, I later take the stage myself, only to be roundly defeated in a competition for the age thirty-plus crowd. The judges let me keep my leftovers, plus a cheap sombrero. I give the extra tamales to my wife, Laura, and the sombrero to a kid standing nearby. I’m here looking for something else, informed by my own experiences as a white guy from the other side of the Sabine.
In East Texas, Anglos call the shots, and most of them like tamales (how could you not?), but anxiety and resentment toward Spanish speakers and “Mexicans” has seemed to be growing more feverish. Before learning about Zwolle and Los Adaes, I had always assumed that traces of our Spanish and Mexican heritage had been scrubbed away not long after Texas won its battle for independence. As far as I knew, the only evidence for those earlier periods existed at largely ignored historical sites and markers, and in the names of scattered towns and creeks and rivers, like Neches and Loco, given to them by a vanished people.
Yet here was this pocket of Spanish, Tejano, and Native American culture hidden in plain sight, right across the state line. Curious about the Spanish legacy of the Piney Woods, Laura and I had headed east on the meandering route of Texas Highway 21, which paved over an ancient stretch of road the Spanish had also followed, now referred to as the Camino Real de los Tejas. We crossed a three-mile-long bridge spanning Toledo Bend and arrived in Louisiana to see what we could find.
The Camino Real is often 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 buffalo 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 rebels 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 “track upon which the history of Texas would be determined,” as Stephen Harrigan describes the Camino Real in a 1991 article for Texas Monthly.
Around the same time that Puritans were hanging supposed witches in Salem, Massachusetts, 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, established in 1717, abandoned during the Chicken War fiasco of 1719, and reestablished just two years later—fared better than most of the others. It was also the only Spanish outpost that now falls on the Louisiana side of the state line.
These days, Los Adaes comprises a small museum and a grassy hill dotted with tall pine trees. On the hill, logs are laid out on their sides to mark perimeters where Spanish colonial buildings once stood. The outlines remind me a little of chalk drawings that mark the placement of dead bodies at crime scenes on TV.
Inside the museum during a recent visit, I met an amiable volunteer docent named Mike Marbut, who is also a preacher and the retired police chief of nearby Robeline, population 175. Marbut explained that the whole point of Los Adaes, from a military point of view, was to block the French from encroaching into New Spain. The mission and the fort, in fact, were built just fourteen miles west of Natchitoches, the oldest permanent French settlement in Louisiana (predating New Orleans by four years, and worth a visit in its own right, especially around Christmastime).
To reestablish Los Adeas after it had been abandoned, 125 Spanish soldiers and 58 families showed up in 1721 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,” Marbut says. “They came to stay.”
Instead of furthering hostilities between their nations, the Spanish at Los Adaes became friends with the French at Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-uh-dish). They smuggled much-needed goods back and forth across the border, 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, archeologists have found just as much French pottery as Spanish pottery, even though trade in such wares was illegal. That the two settlements would develop a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship is remarkable, argues Galán, who teaches history at Texas A&M-San Antonio. “Their accommodation and coexistence is a big deal,” he says. “It runs counter to our intuitions about the frontier, that it was just violence.”
In 1772, the Spanish government disbanded Los Adaes and designated San Antonio the new capital of Texas. An estimated five hundred “Losadaeseños” were ordered to relocate to San Antonio, where they resettled near the Alamo. Others were not as willing to abandon their homes. “When the Spanish pulled out, there was a lot of families that didn’t go. They hid in the woods,” Marbut says.
The Losadaeseños who relocated to San Antonio eventually moved back to the Piney Woods, where—led by the prominent rancher, government official, and wealthy smuggler Antonio Gil Y’Barbo—they established a new town on the site of a mission that Spain had abandoned, Nacogdoches. Y’Barbo’s grandson is thought to have founded his own settlement just across the Sabine. The community still goes by the family name, modified at some point from Y’Barbo to Ebarb, Barbe, Ibarb, and Barber, among other variant spellings. There are still a lot of folks named Ebarb on both sides of the river.
“Let me tell you about the Ebarbs,” says Betty Rivers, the historian from Zwolle, who has done extensive genealogical research on the oldest families in her community. “I deal with them, but I won’t fuss with them. According to the Ebarbs, they were the first ones here. They were the first in everything.”
Like the Ebarb clan, Rivers traces her lineage back to a soldier at Los Adaes. His last name was Del Rio, but in the 1880s, her family changed its name to Rivers. Several other Los Adaes families also anglicized their surnames around the same time: Garcia became Garcie, Perez became Parrie, descendants of Jose Vincenti Micheli, an immigrant from Italy, became Meshell; and so on.
Marbut, the museum docent, told me that some of his in-laws also traded their last name, Cordova, for the more English-sounding Cordoway. His wife Sue’s ancestors had followed Antonio Gil Y’Barbo from Los Adaes to San Antonio, then back to Nacogdoches. In the Texas Revolution, they fought alongside the Texian rebels against Mexican dictator Santa Anna.
“After the Texas people gained their independence, they began to treat the Spanish people and Mexicans bad,” he says. “They killed them and stole their land.”
In 1838, Sue’s distant uncle, Vicente Cordová, led a band of about four hundred Tejanos, Native Americans, free black people, and others in a rebellion against the Republic of Texas. When Texas troops led by Thomas J. Rusk squelched the insurrection, the rebels fled. Sue’s ancestors wound up back on the east side of the Sabine, where they have remained ever since. They have not preserved many of their Spanish traditions, Marbut says.
“They didn’t want nobody to know they were Spanish for the simple reason of persecution, people retaliating against them,” he 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 involved, didn’t talk about anything.”
(An exception is the folklore, including tales of a Crying Woman or the Evil Eye, which Rivers documents in her book, Folklore in an Indian & Spanish Community: Zwolle, La. In South Texas, you hear the same stories about La Llorona and the Mal de Ojo.)
While some were downplaying their Spanish roots, other marginalized people in the Zwolle area benefited by playing theirs up. Small groups of Native Americans from several different tribes had banded together in or near Zwolle following the decline of the Los Adaes mission. They included members of the Adai tribe, from which Los Adaes gets its name; the descendants of Lipan Apaches who’d been enslaved at the Spanish fort; and native soldiers from the Central Mexican tribe of Tlaxcalans, which had allied with Spain to conquer the Aztecs. Choctaw Indians, displaced from their native land in the Southeastern United States, also joined this amalgam tribe in the early 1800s.
Later, when the United States government began to force other Indians to leave their homes for reservations in Oklahoma, native people in the Texas-Louisiana borderlands made their case for staying put. “The Caddo Adai and others were able to say, ‘We’re not Indian; we’re Spanish, we’re French,’ as a way of protection from removal,” Galán notes. In more recent times, the disavowal of their Indian ancestry has come back to bite the native people who still live in the area: although the state of Louisiana recognizes the Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb, the federal government does not.
The mud bog is one of the main attractions each year at the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta.
Cindy D. Ezernack
The royal court of the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta poses with tamales and tiaras.
Cindy D. Ezernack
Back at the Zwolle Tamale Fiesta, we’ve seen the queens chow down on their tamales. We saw the Main Street parade and the arm wrestling and the Spanish costume contest, all while admiring the festival decor, which goes all in for hoary Mexican tropes like red and green chili peppers and saguaro cactuses and cartoonish men in sombreros and bushy black mustaches, plucking Spanish guitars.
Now it’s time for what appears to be the main event. A couple thousand or more festivalgoers are making their way toward an open field to watch jacked-up trucks splash through mud puddles, one after the other, a pastime I’d always called muddin’ but which is described here as a “mud bog” or “mud dogging.”
“Mud dogging and hunting are very important,” Rivers notes in her book about Zwolle culture and folklore, “right after family and church.”
Hoping to divine the cultural significance of mud dogging, we watch about a dozen trucks do their rip-roaring thing—right until a clump of mud flies over and whacks Laura on the cheek. “Okay, we’re done,” she says. We head off in search of boudin and more tamales, then make our way to the eastern shore of Toledo Bend and a public campground at a lakefront park on Bayou San Miguel. The park is jam-packed with RVs, but a spacious tent-camping area is empty. We settle onto a patch of freshly shorn grass on a sheer bluff overlooking the water’s edge, where we get a fire going and watch the sun drop beyond a stand of bald cypress trees, whose fine green leaves have yet to turn.
When I return the following year, to report this story, Betty Rivers tells me not to miss Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Zwolle. That’s where the kings and queens take part in a solemn procession, in their royal finery, on the morning after the fiesta. The forty-forth annual queen, Alison Beatrice Garcia, wears a beautiful gown and a tiara bigger than her own head. Her velvety red train is decorated with an elaborately sequined tamale fiesta logo. It trails the floor behind her, making a steady sweeping noise heard over the live music on her slow march to the altar, before a standing-room-only crowd inside the handsome church.
After Mass, before my drive back to the East Texas side of the Piney Woods, I stop at a roadside food stand called Double D’s, hoping to buy more tamales to bring home. Sarah Parrie, a Zwolle native with dark eyes and jet-black hair, greets customers through a walk-up window where she takes in cash and hands out tamales. She tells me that her late father, Leo, was “99.9 percent Choctaw.” 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 ask her.
“Not much,” she says. “Now, Daddy used to speak Spanish a little. We didn’t even understand what he was saying, but he and his daddy would get together, and they would talk a little Spanish.”
Below her window at Double D’s, a small, handwritten sign announced that Parrie’s family recipe had won second place in the tamale-tasting contest at the fiesta just a day earlier. Her tamales were delicious. The announcement, of course, was in English.