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The Rio Grande Valley once had a revolution

By Jonathan Salinas

"In regard to the Republic of the Rio Grande, that embryo nation died a-borning. At Laredo, upon the high eroding bluff that overlooks the river, there still stands in mute testimony of a dream an inconspicuous but massive walled building that once was its capital." - Milton Lindheim, author of The Republic of the Rio Grande

Revolutionary history is insufficiently taught in schools and in public, under capitalism, because the employer class does not want us to know about it. When mentioned or discussed, they blur and distort it, or outright lie. For if we knew about the amazing capabilities demonstrated by our ancestors, we might apply lessons learned in past struggles to our current situation. For this reason, the Rio Grande Revolution is generally unknown.


We've all heard a little bit about the "Republic of the Rio Grande," an attempt by a small band of rebels to establish a country doomed from the start, so we're told. In fact, the Republic of the Rio Grande was the result of an insurrectionary struggle waged by several hundred people in northern Mexico who aspired to emulate the Texas Revolution, which had just commenced in 1836. Far from being a pipe-dream of just a few crazies, it very nearly succeeded. Its defeat in 1840 actually shaped our region, as we know it today.


In a certain sense, the Rio Grande Revolution was an extension of the American Revolution of 1776. The revolutions of '76 and '89 in France set the world on fire as humanity broke from the former feudal rule of kings and queens, which plagued humanity for two-thousand years, and ushered-in modern capitalism. As sister-revolutions sprung in Haiti and Mexico, problems ensued in the young democratic countries. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte seized total power in what is now known as a coup d'état. Something similar happened in Mexico that would spark the embers of revolution in Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.


Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna also seized power in Mexico, dissolving its democratic-republican constitution which enshrined its independence from Spain, in 1835. Santa Anna therefore became a hated dictator. Many instantly rebelled, leading to the creation of independent republics in Zacatecas, the Californias, the Yucatan Peninsula, Tejas and finally the Rio Grande. In defiance of the "centralist" government Santa Anna established, centralizing all power into the executive, the rebellious regions defended Mexico's young "federalist" system.


On 3 November 1838, a Mexican soldier and attorney named Antonio Canales delivered a speech in the city of Guerrero, in today's western Matamoros. His speech resembled the Grito de Dolores, an independence speech delivered in Mexico in 1810, which sparked the Mexican independence movement against Spanish colonialism. Canales, who came from a land-owning family, listed land-seizures as one of his key grievances against Santa Anna's dictatorship. Canales' speech stirred many, as he possessed a reputation as a rabble-rouser. For a definitive history of the Rio Grande insurrection, you can read for free, The Republic of the Rio Grande: Texans in Mexico, 1839-40 by Milton Lindheim, here.


Lindheim described Canales, as follows:


For perhaps a decade, Antonio Canales of Camargo, a lawyer by profession, a rebel leader by preference, had prowled the borderlands from Boca Chica westward, strewing seditious doctrines. He was a strange, erratic person: not handsome, but strong of body, passions, and mind; adventurous and skilled in horsemanship; cowing weaker men and yielding to stronger; entrancing the masses with glib talk, apparent recklessness, and masterly propaganda.

One can see features of an early Fidel Castro in Lindheim's descriptions. In January 1839, in Laredo, Canales held a conference where attendees resolved to uphold Mexico's federalist constitution. In ensuing months Canales raised a militia of around 600 composed of mostly landless Mexicans, Carrizo Indians, Mexican Texans whose land was taken by the new Texas government and some American Texans. The new Texian Republic, the lone star state, strongly aided the Rio Grande rebels militarily with arms and volunteers from its police forces as well as veterans of its revolution. As Santa Anna had not recognized Texas' independence, Texian President Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar believed the Republic of the Rio Grande could buffer a re-invasion from Santa Anna.


From October to December of 1839, the Rio Grande militia took northern Mexican towns just south of present-day Laredo, all the way to the outskirts of Matamoros. Santa Anna's garrisons, numbering hundreds at each post, retreated into Monterrey where they awaited the oncoming rebels. In Monterrey in December of '39, both sides took casualties but the Mexican army used infiltration tactics to convince Canales' troops to defect, which many did. Having failed to secure conquered positions in Mier and Matamoros, Canales retreated back to Laredo where he held a second conference on 18 January 1840.


At the second conference, Canales and the attendees established the Republic of Rio Grande. The new government constituted in Laredo was entirely composed of land-owning families from Mexico's three northern states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila also known as the "breakaway states," giving the republic's flag its three stars.

The Republic of the Rio Grande's flag. Source.


Canales remained commander in chief of the militia, which re-armed and re-organized for what would be a final showdown with Santa Anna's army. They'd take a similar route into Monterrey where they were militarily and politically defeated. The government and Canales cut deals with the Mexicans to keep their land and their heads. The only martyr who refused to concede was Colonel Antonio Zapata, the Che Guevarra to Canales' Fidel Castro, in whose honor Zapata County was named. As history had it, Mexico alas would not recognize Texas' independence. Its border dispute became the U.S.' in 1848 when annexed, leading to the Mexican-American war and the partition of the Rio Grande River.


Historians, including Lindheim, attribute the defeat of the rebels to military mistakes decided by Canales. There is a lot of truth to this view, although it's deeper than that. As we can see from Lindheim's exhaustive history, the land-owning leaders enticed the landless peasants of the area to join the militia with the promise of land, in the event of victory. At several points they were willing to plunge ahead, when Canales was not. Canales and his fellow land-owning families knew that if the landless fighters were at the head of the revolutionary victory, they would demand their just-reward, which they were unkeen to fulfill.


As also seen in the European revolutions of 1848 and the Second American Revolution known as the "Civil War," as well as the Russian Revolution and Cuban Revolutions of the twentieth century, big land-owners would rather die than give land to the landless as they would rather die than hand-over control of factories and restaurants to those who produce the goods society consumes. The rulers in this region, with exception to the Republic of the Rio Grande's Museum in Laredo, are embarrassed to teach this history because it demonstrates their treachery. We, however, as class-conscious workers must never forget it.


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