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 Their historical reference point—Colonial America—had been somewhat lost in translation; some of the gowns came in colors like burnt orange and chartreuse and had so many sequins that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 European immigrants and Anglos, who began arriving on the railroad in the 1880’s, wanted an American holiday. In 1939 a predominantly Anglo group of women founded the Society of Martha Washington, as the group’s literature puts it, “to foster in the people of Laredo and Webb County an appreciation for the Americanism of George Washington and … to honor his wife, Martha Dandridge Washington.”
“Celebrating Washington’s birthday allowed them to feel American in a place that was culturally Mexican,” said Gloria Canseco, a past president of the Society of Martha Washington. “Hispanics began taking part because ‘Americanness’ signified progress and upward mobility.” Many of the two hundred women who currently belong to the society are descended from the same old-money, old-line families: Leyendecker and Bruni, Sanchez and Benavides, Deutsch and Slaughter. (Anglos long ago married into Laredo’s Hispanic establishment, and intermarriage remains the rule, not the exception, in the society’s principal families.) Most of its members can recite the themes of bygone colonial pageants and the exact year their mother—or sister-in-law or great-aunt or second cousin—made her debut. Anyone wanting to enter the society can apply—along with proof of American citizenship and at least two letters of recommendation—but only those who receive a majority of votes at the society’s annual luncheon can join. Even then, vacancies so rarely become available that names often languish on the waiting list for years. Women who are at last invited into the society must adhere to its unwritten rules or else risk committing what is jokingly referred to as “Martha suicide.” The most grievous violations include recycling a previously worn dress or, worse yet, having a daughter who declines the society’s formal request to be presented. (In the sixties, after one girl scrawled “No thanks” on her invitation and dropped it in the mail, her mother successfully pleaded with the postmaster to open the mailbox and fish out her daughter’s reply.)
The only girls who are guaranteed the privilege of making their debuts at the Society of Martha Washington ball are the daughters of the members. Granddaughters and nieces can also be presented, but because daughters take precedence, and because only so many six-foot-wide hoopskirts can squeeze onto the civic center stage, grandmothers and aunts have been known to occasionally engage in ruthless politicking. The cost of a dress—never mind the outlay for the parties that a girl’s parents host in the months before the ball or the jewelry or the private dance lessons or the photographer or the wardrobe required for the myriad debutante events—is a well-kept secret, since both Gutierrez and her clients value discretion, but a custom, hand-beaded gown is rumored to run from $20,000 to $40,000 and higher. When it comes to presenting a daughter to society, many families partake in an old practice: “echar la casa por la ventana”—literally, “to throw the house out the window,” or to spare no expense. The ball has become a theater for conspicuous consumption; as Laredo’s upper class has been enriched over the past decade by NAFTA, a colonial gown has become the ultimate status symbol. “The dresses didn’t used to be as elaborate,” observed a former debutante who asked not to be named. “They’ve started to look more Marie Antoinette than Martha Washington.”
Those excesses have left some residents, who remember all too well when Laredo was known as the poorest city in America just four decades ago, feeling uneasy. Meg Guerra, a self-described “recovering debutante” and the editor and publisher of the irreverent monthly paper LareDOS, points out that even though a booming economy has put Laredo among the top ten fastest-growing cities in the country, the city’s economic extremes are most vividly on display during Washington’s Birthday Celebration. She even satirized the gulf between the city’s haves and have-nots in a piece she wrote in the late nineties about an imaginary gala she called the Colonia Ball. In the breathless style of a society columnist, she described the outfits worn by the make-believe debutantes who hailed exclusively from Laredo’s barrios and colonias. “Her chartreuse and aqua frock was heavily beaded with miniature 55-gallon drums and fish skeletons,” Guerra wrote of one girl, whose gown was also adorned with “teeny tiny Border Patrolmen fashioned of embroidered green polyester.” The debutantes arrived not in a fleet of chauffeured limousines but “in a dazzling assortment of low riders and conversion vans.” The ball’s theme was “Home Is Where You Live.”
Forty years after Guerra made her debut, she remains bewildered about why Laredoans persist in rallying around George Washington rather than a homegrown revolutionary figure, such as her personal choice, Colonel Antonio Zapata. An accomplished cavalry officer, Zapata led military campaigns that won independence for much of northern Mexico, an area that briefly became the Republic of the Rio Grande. But when Laredo fell to the Mexican Centralist government, in 1840, Zapata was tried for treason, executed, and beheaded. His head was displayed on a pole as a warning to anyone contemplating insurrection. “We have so much history here,” Guerra said. “Why have we all agreed to ignore it?”
THE PARTIES FOR THE DEBUTANTES began in September. There were the afternoon teas at the Laredo Country Club, including an all-pink tea party with pink tablecloths and pink roses and big pink bows tied around each girl’s chair. “We had to be very proper,” debutante Meaghan Farrell explained to me. “You couldn’t chew gum, and if the tea was held in your honor, you had to greet everyone and write thank-you notes.” There was a slumber party where the debutantes arrived in their pajamas and ate sushi. A makeover party where everyone got makeup lessons and updos. A hamburger bash. A boot-scootin’ party with country music. A disco-themed bowling party. A Christmas caroling party, in which the girls serenaded the two Laredoans chosen to portray George and Martha Washington. A spa party with pedicures. A shoe party where girls modeled their most stylish high heels. All told, there were 56 parties—Friday night dance parties, Saturday afternoon teas, Sunday brunches. There was even an Academy Awards party where the debutantes walked down a long red carpet wearing sunglasses and silver lamé gloves and struck poses for the pretend paparazzi. Each girl received a gold star with her name on it, like the ones on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and competed for an Oscar statuette made of chocolate that was awarded to the Best Debutante in a Leading Role.
But the biggest party of them all always follows the ball, at a bar across the Rio Grande. The time-honored debutante tradition is to stay up all night and then return blearily by limousine at dawn to have makeup reapplied and hair styled and gowns put back on for the parade that morning. And yet this February, the talk among the debutantes was that the after-party, for the first time in memory, would not be held in Nuevo Laredo. Though generations of teenagers had knocked back tequila shots on the other side of the river and rambled down Avenida Guerrero from bar to bar, the violence between rival drug cartels—or what some Laredoans refer to as “the trouble”—had put an end to all that. Teenagers still crossed over now and then to attend their cousins’ weddings and quinceañeras, but the wealthiest among them brought bodyguards. Rather than an after-party across the border, the debutantes ended up having only the chaperoned fiesta their parents threw for them last fall, in Laredo, with mariachis and nonalcoholic drinks. “This hasn’t been the best year to be a senior,” sighed debutante Arleen Averill.
In the week before the ball, the front page of the Laredo Morning Times trumpeted bad news from across the river: “Criminals Winning,” “Three More Die in N.L.,” “Crime Wave Spreads.” Around Laredo, political posters calling for “Order on the Border” were everywhere, as were bumper stickers of a white dove emblazoned with the slogan “Paz en los dos Laredos vale la pena” (“Peace in the two Laredos is worth the effort”). Conversations centered on the news that many of Nuevo Laredo’s wealthier families were relocating to Laredo, as were businesses and restaurants. “We have a lot of new students from Nuevo Laredo,” Arleen told me. “When you see them at school, it’s like, ‘Oh, she lives on this side now?’” For locals, moving between one city and the other was nothing new; when the Rio Grande became the international boundary, in 1848, residents who wanted to keep their Mexican citizenship settled south of the river, and in 1914, when Nuevo Laredo was burned in the Mexican Revolution, they returned for a while. But this particular migration seemed different, since Laredoans said they felt no hope that Mexican authorities would be able to stem the violence. “We used to think of ourselves as one city with a river that ran through it,” said Quico Canseco, an attorney who was chosen to play George Washington six years ago. “What is happening now bodes very badly for the convivencia—the coexistence—we have enjoyed. Now there is fear. We lived together as one place, and we treasured each other’s company. But if it continues like this, there will only be one Laredo.”
As the celebration of the city’s Americanness got under way, members of the Society of Martha Washington busied themselves revising the script for the pageant and readying decorations for the parade floats. The debutantes practiced their bows under the tutelage of 92-year-old dance instructor Lula Lacey, who had taught many of their mothers how to bow for their debuts as well. (“Every girl should have a chance to be a queen for a day,” Lacey said. “I think it’s grand.”) And the society’s own George and Martha Washington, along with a group of volunteers called the Sons and Daughters of Liberty, visited local schools in colonial costume, talking to students about early American history and encouraging them to take part in the upcoming celebration. I tagged along one morning when they spoke to an assembly at the Sanchez-Ochoa Elementary School. George Washington—portrayed by Robert H. Summers, the congenial owner of a Jiffy Lube franchise and a descendant of the esteemed Bruni family—took to the stage in a ruffled colonial shirt, waistcoat, breeches, and riding boots, accompanied by Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, and assorted other historic figures. One wide-eyed boy ran up to the stage and stared hard at Summers, looking back and forth between the man who stood before him and the figure depicted on the $1 bill he clutched in his hand.
Before students were led in a rousing rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a volunteer playing Lady Mary Montague spoke to the group about her contributions to the development of a smallpox vaccine. At the end of her presentation, she asked the assembled students, many of whom were dressed in red, white, and blue for the occasion, a simple history question. “Now, what nationality would we be today if George Washington hadn’t won the Revolution?” she said.
From the sea of children who sat before her, waving miniature American flags, came the unexpected answer, loud and clear, in a few hundred voices all converging at once. “Mexican!” they cried.
TWO HOURS BEFORE the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball was set to begin, guests began arriving at the civic center for the Caballeros Cocktail Party, an event hosted by those men who had, in years past, portrayed George Washington. Socialites draped in chinchilla and mink greeted the visiting dignitaries, who included Senator John Cornyn and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, as a photographer snapped pictures.
While guests admired the ice sculpture and nibbled on crab puffs, the debutantes bided their time in the dressing room. There were seventeen debutantes in all, and they stood, a bit nervously, in tight corsets and old-fashioned bloomers, trying not to smudge their stage makeup or touch their false eyelashes or fiddle with the hairpieces that cascaded down their shoulders in perfect corkscrew curls. It took the Mistress of Wardrobe and several assistants to dress each girl, lowering the enormous, weighty folds of her gown over her petticoat. (So wide is the girth of a colonial gown that, years ago, when the debutantes used to get dressed for the pageant at home, they had to be transported to the civic center in moving vans.) Their mothers stood by and appraised them, straightening hemlines and fluffing skirts and offering the occasional reprimand (“Give me your gum, young lady”) between soothing words about how radiant they looked. With half an hour to spare, the girls walked backstage, trailing satin and lace and aurora borealis beads, and waited to make their debut.
Every seat was filled by the time the lights went down and the string orchestra began to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience rose, hands over hearts, to sing. Among the various luminaries in the crowd was Princess Pocahontas—or at least the dark-haired high school senior in a beaded tunic who would portray her in the parade the next morning—and when she was introduced, she waved enthusiastically to the crowd. A fife and drum corps began to play, and the curtains drew back to reveal a mint-green drawing room with a faux fireplace, wainscoting, and chandeliers—a set modeled on the actual room in Philadelphia where Martha Washington once entertained her guests. “Tonight Martha and George Washington commemorate the president’s last night in office with Martha’s final drawing room reception and farewell celebration to honor George,” the emcee announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Society of Martha Washington presents … the first president of the United States of America, General George Washington!” A spotlight followed Robert Summers as he strode onstage in uniform, and a huge cheer went up from the crowd. “He was widely revered as the greatest man of his age!” the emcee exclaimed.
After Martha Washington promenaded before the audience and took her place next to George, it was time for the girls to be introduced. The debutantes emerged, each one in turn, from behind a set of French doors, which were swung open by pages in colonial attire. “Presenting … Katherine Janice LaMantia! … Alejandra Maria Vela! … Cristina Gabriela Echavarría!” the emcee cried as the girls appeared, resplendent in sequins and rhinestones that glittered under the stage lights. Taking the arm of her escort, each debutante descended a staircase into the drawing room as her pedigree was read. (“Meaghan’s family has participated in the society for five generations …”) And then, as she had practiced over and over again before the mirror, she bowed. Standing alone at the front of the stage, she sank into her dress and bent little by little, as deeply as she could, until her head was nearly flush with the ground. Every time, cameras flashed around her and the audience went wild. When the girls were at last all arrayed onstage and had taken their turns walking the length of the drawing room so that their dresses might be fully admired, the string orchestra struck up “America the Beautiful.”
The ball began as soon as the pageant ended, and the debutantes, who settled onto jeweled stools that had been fashioned for the occasion, received their well-wishers. Grandmothers, aunts, nieces, and friends hovered around them, kissing them on the cheek and exclaiming over their gowns. (“Don’t they look lovely?” Gutierrez said to me, clapping her hands together as she surveyed the room.) Late in the evening, after the crowd had thinned out, the girls gathered at the center of the dance floor as the band broke into Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” When they had danced so much that they couldn’t stand anymore, they dropped to the floor, laughing, their colossal skirts collapsing around them like fallen soufflés.
THE DEBUTANTES RODE through town the next morning on floats high up above San Bernardo Avenue. It was a bitterly cold day, but they looked serene as they waved to the crowd, their mothers’ furs thrown over their shoulders. On the sidewalk below, the hoi polloi had gathered with their camcorders and folding chairs and coolers. They cheered when the floats glided by and clamored for Mardi Gras beads, which the girls’ escorts tossed out by the handfuls. “Show us your shoes!” little kids cried, and the debutantes smilingly obliged, lifting their skirts to reveal that they were wearing sneakers or furry slippers under their ball gowns. Street vendors hawked cotton candy and chicharrones, and Miss Jalapeño rode by on a float decked out in hot peppers. There were drill teams and Korean War veterans, clowns and sheriff’s deputies, Shriners and peewee cheerleaders “cheering for our nation.” More than one float drifted by blasting “Born in the U.S.A.” from its loudspeakers.
The more poignant event was the one few people attended earlier that morning on the Juárez-Lincoln International Bridge. Each year before the parade, a pair of children from each side of the Rio Grande meet halfway across the river and exchange the abrazo, or “embrace,” that represents the mutual understanding between both nations. That morning, as the wind blew hard off the water, the parents of Americans who have disappeared in Nuevo Laredo over the past several years—27 Laredoans have gone missing—sat in silent protest at the entrance to the bridge, holding up photographs of their children. American officials sat in the grandstand that had been erected at the midpoint between Laredo and its sister city; Marines stood at attention. A clutch of reporters eyed the other side of the bridge as everyone waited quietly for the Mexican contingent to arrive. (“Ay, this happens every year,” the woman next to me whispered. “They take their time, and we wait and wait.”) For a while it seemed that no one was coming, but after almost an hour had passed, the sound of a military band began to reverberate from across the river.
After handshakes at the center of the bridge were exchanged between the two delegations and both the Mexican national anthem and “The Star-Spangled Banner” were sung, politicians took to the podium to talk of the opportunity that the day presented. “Let us mend the differences between our nations, learning to appreciate our differences, and strive toward our goal to continue to coexist harmoniously,” said Congressman Henry Cuellar. “We all recognize that what we ultimately share is far greater than what divides us.” Nuevo Laredo mayor Daniel Peña said, “There is no wall that can separate us … Que vivan los dos Laredos!” As the speakers continued on about this “time of crisis” and the need for “peace in our border cities,” the children at the center of the ceremony shivered in the cold.
At last it was time for the abrazo, and they stepped forward. The first hug would be exchanged between an eight-year-old boy from Laredo, who wore a black colonial cape and tricorne hat, and a seven-year-old girl from Nuevo Laredo, whose dress was elaborately embroidered with the image of the Mexican eagle. But rather than embrace, they stood looking at each other uncertainly.
“Go on, Ruben,” one man whispered from the sidelines. “Go on.”
The boy hesitated. Then he reached out and threw his arms around the girl’s neck before pulling away.