Senior editor Pamela Colloff on writing about Laredo debutantes.
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texasmonthly.com: How did this story about debutantes in Laredo end up being a feature for the magazine? Was it your idea? What attracted you to this story?
Pamela Colloff: I first heard about the Society of Martha Washington Pageant and Ball a few years ago, and I always thought it would make an interesting story. I think I had the same reaction that most people do when they hear that Laredo has a huge annual celebration of George Washington, which is “Why Laredo?” I wanted to understand what it was all about. The fact that it involved debutantes and fancy dresses that take nearly a year to make only made the story seem more interesting.
texasmonthly.com: Were you at all familiar with the world of debutantes before you started working on this story?
PC: Not at all! But that’s true of most things I write about; I have to learn a lot about a subculture very fast.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this feature?
PC: The way that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are interconnected was fascinating to me. The border city that I’ve spent the most time in is McAllen, and it’s very different. McAllen and Reynosa [the city directly south of the Rio Grande] just aren’t bound together in all the different ways that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are. Before the violence broke out, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo really functioned as one.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get the sense that the debutantes in Laredo were any different than debutantes in the rest of Texas? Why or why not?
PC: Not at all. They aren’t any different than your average upper-middle-class teenage girls in Dallas or Houston. The only difference is that almost all of them are bilingual.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to include the recent violence in Nuevo Laredo in your story?
PC: When I first started working on this story, I thought I would just be writing an article about Laredo and the ball. But the longer I spent there, the stranger it seemed to be ignoring the biggest news event that was happening in that part of the world. There was a total disconnect between what I was reporting each day and what I was reading in the local newspaper, and that, to me, was where the crux of the story lay.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
PC: Everyone in the Society of Martha Washington was extremely generous with their time, so this story did not pose the reporting challenges that a lot of others do. I think the most difficult aspect of working on the story was to strike the right tone while writing it. The easy feature to write is one that just makes fun of the whole thing. I really didn’t want to do that.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get the sense that the relationship between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo has changed since the drug wars have taken hold over Nuevo Laredo?
PC: Fundamentally. In fact, it would be hard to overstate just how much it’s changed. Many people I met in Laredo used to visit their relatives and go grocery shopping in Nuevo Laredo on a weekly basis. Now, very few people venture across the river.
texasmonthly.com: You don’t really have a central character in your story. Did that decision make it more difficult to write the piece? Why or why not?
PC: I really wanted the central character to be Laredo. That seemed more interesting to me than picking one particular debutante. I don’t know if that worked or not, but I wanted to at least try it. I thought Laredo was the most interesting character of all.
texasmonthly.com: Has anything from the pageant stayed in your mind?
PC: I was really moved by the International Bridge Ceremony, which the story ends with. I thought it perfectly summed up the incredibly complicated love-hate relationship of the two cities.