Laredo, Texas – a 96 percent Hispanic city located on the U.S.-Mexico border, happens to throw the largest birthday part for George Washington in the country.
Every year, around President’s Day Weekend, there is a solid month of festivities in honor of the United States’ first president. There are galas, parties and parades. But the big event, is the annual Society of Martha Washington Pageant and Ball, in which daughters of the city’s wealthy families dress up as the wives of America’s founding fathers.
It’s pageant day, Society of Martha Washington president Minita Rramirez gets her hair done while juggling production calls.
After almost a year of parties, luncheons and rehearsals, 17-year-old Karina Alexander will debut tonight at the pageant, playing Abigail Adams. Hairdresser Grace Torres says she gets booked years in advance for the pageant. “I never thought I’d be making colonial hairstyles, but here I am,” says Torres. Alexander says she considers herself a proud Mexican-American.
A young Laredoan who will be acting on-stage as a “page” at the pageant gets a fake pony-tail attached.
Gowns from past events are on display at the showroom of dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez. They can way over 100 pounds, and are rumored to cost tens of thousands of dollars. How much exactly? “This is my answer and it always has been – my lips are sealed. It’s the utmost rudeness to ask somebody in Texas – ‘How many acres and how many wells do you have?'” Many of Laredo’s wealthy families owe their money to oil wells, found on land granted to them by the Spanish kings centuries ago.
Dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez is in her ’70s and shows no signs of slowing down. “They call me from the hospital when they give birth to a girl to ask me to make her dress,” says Linda. “I think it’s hilarious.” Like many of Laredo’s high-society residents, Linda’s family is descended in part from original Spanish settlers given land grants in Texas by the Spanish kings in the 1700s. She married a man from a prominent family across the river, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
The Washington Birthday Celebration is a major event for South Texas politicians to campaign and shake hands. This year, Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar plays George Washington at the pageant. “Just to be part of this is a great honor, it means a lot to our community,” says Cuellar. “When you look at our country, you have to keep in mind that the first language they spoke in the United States is Spanish.”
Each debutante makes their way downs flight of stairs, curtsies, and promenades across the stage while an announcer recounts her family’s past participation in pageants, as well as historical facts about the founding mothers they are meant to portray. Back in the day it was common for a debutante to go on to marry her pageant escort, but nowadays, it’s not quite as serious.
Traditionally, it’s been very difficult to be selected to debut at the pageant – an honor reserved only for the old-school aristocrats of the town. More recently, they’ve liberalized their policies. A would-be debutante from a less-monied family can looks for sponsors to help pay for her gown and other pageant expenses. With children of the elite families moving away for the first time, less legacy girls are applying each year.
“I’m dying, my dress is so heavy,” complains Karina Alexander after the pageant. “But it was amazing, I felt like a princess.”
After all the gowns and parties, all that’s left from the pageant are the pictures. Minita Ramirez, president of the Society of Martha Washington, says she chose a summer in Europe over debuting in the pageant when she was a teenager. But sometimes she’s not sure she made the right choice. “The photos stay on your mantle forever, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Minita Ramirez may not have her own pictures on her mantle, but she does have those of her son, who participated in several of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration events over the years. This is from years back, when her son represented the U.S. in the annual International Bridge Ceremony.
The ceremony takes place near dawn, on one of the international bridges crossing the Rio Grande to Mexico. Laredo is the third-largest customs district in the United States, after New York and Los Angeles, and the nation’s largest inland port. “We process goods and people like there’s no tomorrow,” says city tourism official Blasita Lopez.
At the International Bridge Ceremony, the pair of children representing Mexico stands in front of the Mexican delegation, including a man representing Padre Hidalgo, the Mexican counterpart to George Washington.
Cameras click as 9-year-old Riley Puig, representing the United States, exchanges a hug with a girl representing Mexico. “I was a little bit nervous, but after I did it, I became more confident,” said Puig after the ceremony.
At last, it’s time for the big parade. Laredo is 96 percent Hispanic, but that doesn’t stop residents from coming out and celebrating George Washington in grand style.
Each of the Martha Washington debutantes rolls down the parade route on her own float, tossing beads at parade-goers.
Just like Mardi Gras, beads are currency at the George Washington Parade. Marching bands, politicians, local law enforcement, and dance groups all make their way down the route.
What’s more patriotic than a man in a bald eagle costume?
There’s another debutante pageant during the Washington Birthday Celebration – the Princess Pocahontas pageant, in which area high-school girls dress in blinged-out Native American garb.
“It’s a Washington celebration, but it’s also a family event,” says Diana Perez. “Do you feel connected to George Washington?” I ask. “Yes personally I do, because I’m an American citizen and I’m very proud of it.”
Texas pride on display at the George Washington Birthday Celebration parade.
That evening, it’s time for the annual Jalapeño Festival – featuring carnival games, live concerts from Los Tigres Del Norte, and a jalapeño eating contest. A lucha libre competitor hams it up for the crowd.
Luis Bruni claims victory in the jalapeño eating contest for the third time. “I’m retiring,” he says. Every time he participates in the contest, he gets a jalapeño tattoo on his right arm.
Marlon Bishop is a radio producer and journalist with a focus on Latin America, New York City, music and the arts. He got his start in radio producing long-form documentaries on Latin music history for the public radio program Afropop Worldwide. After a stint reporting for the culture desk at New York Public Radio (WNYC), Marlon spent several years writing for MTV Iggy, MTV”s portal for global music and pop culture. Marlon has also lived and traveled all over Latin America, reporting stories as a freelancer for NPR, Studio 360, The World, the Village Voice, Billboard and Fusion, among other outlets. He is currently a staff Producer for Latino USA.