History might not remember those on the losing side, but history podcaster Brandon Seale does.
In The Republic of the Rio Grande, Season 4 of his ongoing podcast A New History of Old Texas, Seale tells the story of Antonio Zapata, “the only Afro-Tejano to have a Texas county named after him.” The first three episodes of the 17-episode series will be released Wednesday on the San Antonio Report, with new episodes out each Wednesday.
Zapata won acclaim for his military aptitude in leading what Seale calls a “second run at the war of Texas independence” from 1838 to 1840, “because it deals with a lot of the same themes around centralism and federalism and the political ideologies of Mexico of the day.”
Some of the same figures from the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, including Juan Seguín and José Antonio Navarro, also played a part in Zapata’s campaigns, Seale said.
As field commander of a small army of Rio Grande vaqueros, Carrizo Indians and Anglo Texian volunteers, Zapata battled multiple Mexican centralist forces seeking to impose their will over the northeastern territories of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and the region of Texas south of the Nueces River.
“He just runs circles around these guys,” Seale said, naming among Zapata’s accomplishments the capture of a general and the rustling of the Mexican president’s horse herd.
Though Zapata did not achieve victories that resonate through history, “he was universally admired in his lifetime and after his death by Texans, by Mexicans, by Native Americans, which is really, really a rare thing for anyone along the Rio Grande,” Seale said.
“By doing this, he gives breathing space to the political class of the Rio Grande of the northeast, in which they do seem to declare a new government, a new provisional government of the northeast,” Seale said, noting that historians debate whether the declaration was toward a true, independent republic, or for a new central government in Mexico. “One of the questions that we’ll look at in the series is ‘But was that actually a declaration of independence?’”
The lack of nameable victories, and no losses such as the 1836 battle of the Alamo that stir inspiring battle cries, are probable reasons why few remember Zapata or the erstwhile Republic of the Rio Grande, Seale suggested.
“When we’re doing history, we always end up using the big political leaders as shorthand for people that are making things happen,” Seale said, when “the people that actually move history are often working at an unseen level.”
The republic lasted long enough to merit a flag, which currently flies among other standards above the entrance to the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum in Laredo. Since only written records exist, the flag is interpretive, and Seale favors a four-color version over the tricolor currently on view.
Other intriguing facts are considered in the podcast, Seale said. “One of the really fascinating things about the Lower Rio Grande is the representation of mulattos in that region. At the time of Antonio Zapata’s birth, something like 25% to 30% of the population was of predominantly African descent,” and several heroes of the Mexican independence movement shared African ancestry.
In earning the loyalty of the region’s mix of inhabitants, Zapata “becomes this figure that represents the region; he clearly commands their hearts and souls.” Without giving away the ending, Seale said the Carrizo Indians under Zapata’s command “were loyal to him to the end and actually almost all died trying to save him after, ultimately, he’s captured.” Rio Grande Valley residents value him to the present day, Seale said.
A New History of Old Texas: The Republic of the Rio Grande will be available for free on the San Antonio Report website and through other podcast sources.