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Texas Town Brings Out Its Debs For George Washington's Birthday


Tomorrow, Presidents Day, is supposed to be a day to honor George Washington and our other founding fathers. But for many of us, it's just a day off from work. Not so in Laredo, Texas, where Presidents Day is one of the most important events of the year. There's an elaborate parade, citizens dressed in colonial garb. But the main event is a debutante ball, honoring the wife of the first president, Martha Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Laura Alicia Gassa ...


MARTIN: In the film, "Las Marthas," Christina Ibarra introduces us to this tradition and to the Laredo teenage girls preparing to be presented into society.

CHRISTINA IBARRA: "Las Marthas" follows the coming-of-age of a couple of Mexican-American debutantes that are participating in the Society of Martha Washington's Colonial Pageant and Ball. And this is one event out of approximately 27 events in 30 days. It's a month-and-a-half-long citywide celebration to honor George Washington in a town that's mostly Mexican-American.

MARTIN: And this has been happening for generations now in Laredo, Texas. How did it originate?

IBARRA: The celebration was introduced by an Anglo fraternity who arrived in Laredo about 50 years after the U.S.-Mexico War. And Laredo was very unlike other parts of Texas, where a lot of the Mexican families had started to get displaced even before the war. In Laredo, it was interesting that, for the most part, many of the Mexican-American families were able to hold onto the land, partly because it was so dry. So, when this Anglo fraternity arrived to Laredo, there was this sense that they needed to remind themselves this is still the United States. I mean, it was a time when the city council minutes were still run in Spanish, people still had Mexican customs. It was a very Mexican-feeling town. So, there needed to be this reminder. You know, we're in the United States, and that's how the celebration was introduced.

MARTIN: And it's come to be the same but different, right, because now it's the citizens of Laredo, many of whom are Mexican-American, use it to assert their American identity.

IBARRA: Yes. What happened was that the celebration became so popular that it was just too much to handle by the fraternity and a new organization was founded that was created by many of the Mexican-American families in town. So, from the outside what might first appear as this very patriotic event to honor George Washington - it is that, but it is also a way to honor the Mexican culture as well. So, it actually becomes a very bicultural celebration. And the Society of Martha Washington, you can see that through the way they celebrate their debutantes.

MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit about these dresses?

IBARRA: The dresses...

MARTIN: They're unbelievable.


IBARRA: They really are. The dresses are inspired by that time period of the American Revolution. So, they are colonial ball gowns, but they are ball gowns that also have a sense of imagination. There is this artistic license that the dressmaker takes that we follow in the film with, Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez(ph). She really is able to take this reference of the colonial gown and create something very spectacular that can weigh between 50 to 100 pounds.

MARTIN: And she's very intense. We've got a clip of her in the film. Let's listen to this.


}LINDA LEYENDECKER GUTIERREZ: I do my style. I know where I'm right and follow it. And if the girls come with their ideas or whatever, and I listen but we end up my way. If there's resistance, they're out the door.

MARTIN: And she's kind of not kidding. This is serious business for her.

IBARRA: She takes it very seriously and she is an artist. I mean, she knows what she's doing. She's been doing it for a long time. But she also has that legacy. Her family members started the Society of Martha Washington. So, really is this isn't a job. This is something that's just a lifestyle for her.

MARTIN: And we should say these girls are working really hard at presenting these dresses, to learn how to just walk in them. As you say, they're 50 pounds or more. They're tightly laced. Here's one of the girls, Laura, describing what this feels like.


LAURA: I was getting a lot of back pain from all the weight that I had to carry. I would get bruises here, especially like rashes. I'd get raw because you're wearing, like, the cage and the pillow that's under the cage and the crinolina on top.

MARTIN: I mean, that sounds arduous.

IBARRA: It's part of their preparation process. I mean, it does take them a year to prepare for this role.

MARTIN: So, it all culminates in this gala event that brings out the elites from both sides of the border. What does this event tell us about the identity of this place and how it's changed, or maybe not changed, over time?

IBARRA: It seems that many of the wealthy citizens of Laredo look the same as before the U.S.-Mexico war in many ways. And the pageant is a reminder of that. And many times you can trace those families back to the original Spanish settlers of the town or to some of the Anglo immigrants who came and introduced this celebration.

MARTIN: Filmmaker Christina Ibarra. Her documentary, "Las Marthas," is airing tomorrow night on PBS. This year's Colonial Pageant and Ball of the Society of Martha Washington takes place this Friday. Christina, thanks so much for talking with us.

IBARRA: Thank you.


MARTIN: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.