BEFORE THE DAUGHTERS of Laredo’s most prominent families are presented to society, they come to see dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez. Her rambling white Victorian sits eight blocks north of the Rio Grande in the city’s downtown historic district, on a quiet side street lined with orange trees and bougainvilleas. When I visited one afternoon in early February, Gutierrez and her seamstresses were hurrying to finish the faux eighteenth-century ball gowns that local debutantes would wear to the social occasion of the year: the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball. The event, in which a dozen or more well-bred high school seniors promenade across the stage of the civic center dressed like contemporaries of Martha Washington, falls on Presidents’ Day weekend and is the centerpiece of an extravagant, 108-year-old celebration in honor of the country’s first president. Around Laredo, the debs are sometimes referred to as “the Marthas.”
Gutierrez, a magisterial blonde who made her debut in 1960—and who, like both of her sisters, married her escort—led me through her house, fingering unfinished beadwork and summoning her seamstresses when she spotted a detail that needed attention. “A girl gets her social education the year she is a debutante,” Gutierrez said. “She learns manners and poise and the old social graces.” It was less than two weeks before the ball, and her dressmaking operation had, by then, come to occupy all thirteen rooms of the house. Sequins and rhinestone banding covered the dining room table, and unfinished gowns with enormous hoopskirts trimmed in Spanish lace spilled out of doorways and across the hardwood floors. Their historical reference point—Colonial America—had been somewhat lost in translation; some of the gowns came in colors like burnt orange and chartreuse and had so many sequins that they weighed nearly as much as the girls themselves. As we stepped over stray scissors and spools of thread, I asked what the dresses—which take a year to make—usually cost. “I can’t say,” Gutierrez said with a laugh. “That’s like asking someone, ‘How many acres do you have on your ranch?’”
The Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball has always been a genteel celebration of patriotism, or at least of “Americanness” as imagined on the edge of Mexico, but this year’s celebration felt different. While Gutierrez and the rest of Laredo were gearing up for a weekend of revelry, its sister city—with whom its economic interests and family trees are so intertwined that the two communities are often referred to as los dos Laredos—was stranded at a bloody impasse in the ongoing turf war between two rival drug cartels. Nuevo Laredo was averaging nearly one murder a day, and articles on the front page of the Laredo Morning Times about Washington’s Birthday Celebration competed for space with lurid crime-scene photos from the other side of the river. Kidnappings and execution-style killings had become routine half a mile south of where we stood. So chaotic had the situation become that last year Nuevo Laredo’s new chief of police had been gunned down eight hours after taking office, and the city councilman in charge of public security had been murdered a few blocks from city hall. Just two days before I visited Gutierrez, masked gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades had forced their way into the newsroom of the city’s biggest newspaper, El Mañana, and opened fire on its reporters.
But what was happening across the river did not make for polite conversation. Gutierrez’s focus that afternoon was on a more remote moment in history—specifically, March 3, 1797, the last night that President George Washington spent in office, when his wife held a reception that would be reenacted in the pageant. And so Gutierrez turned her attention to a pretty, sweet-natured seventeen-year-old debutante named Alyssa Cigarroa, who had made an appointment to practice bowing in her eighty-pound periwinkle silk shantung gown. (“Some girls can’t wait to get out of their dresses,” Gutierrez whispered. “But this one? She was born to be a debutante.”) The gown was substantial enough that it took four women to lower it over the stiff folds of Alyssa’s petticoat. With her arms suspended in the air, the high school senior rehearsed lowering herself, inch by inch, to her knees and then bending forward at the waist until her head nearly touched her skirt. She practiced it again and again, her smile never wavering, and when she dipped down so low that her nose grazed her gown, Gutierrez clapped and cried, “Bravo! Bravo!”
WASHINGTON’S BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION began on February 22, 1898, when members of a largely Anglo fraternal organization known as the Improved Order of the Red Men dressed as Native Americans and staged a mock attack on Laredo’s city hall. (They took their inspiration from the Sons of Liberty, who disguised themselves as Mohawks in 1773 before instigating the Boston Tea Party.) This peculiar bit of theater evolved into an annual parade that celebrated the father of our country and was often accompanied by fireworks and a bullfight across the border. It’s fair to say that the idea caught on. There is now a Founding Fathers Fun Run and a Comedy Jam for George, as well as a carnival, a jalapeño-eating contest, and a less exclusive, rival debutante presentation called the Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball, in which girls make their debuts in beaded Ultrasuede and headdresses. The headquarters for the main festivities are located in a two-story, colonial-style house that is, of course, nicknamed Mount Vernon.
All of this was originally intended to promote patriotism and a sense of American identity in a place where Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo were celebrated with at least as much enthusiasm as the Fourth of July. Laredo already had a long and storied history of its own to reflect on; Spaniards had settled there in 1755—two decades before the American Revolution—and while under Mexican rule, the town had served as a national capital when a short-lived secessionist movement founded the Republic of the Rio Grande. But