In Laredo, winter means multicultural parades, fireworks, a jalapeño festival, an air show, fun runs, a period ball and pageant, cabaret nights, live Tex-Mex music, Mexican dance troupes, and much, much more, all in the name of the founding president of the United States, George Washington. From late January until the weekend before President’s Day, the border city of about 217,000 residents is swept up in a patriotic frenzy for Washington’s annual birthday celebration.
Why commemorate our founding father’s birthday in this bicultural border city? According to local history, on the morning of February 22, 1898, a mock battle at City Hall broke out between Indians and white men trying to seize control of Laredo. No party emerged victorious, and in the end, the mayor presented the key to the city to the Great Chief Sachem as a sign of unconditional surrender, and the chief then bestowed it upon Princess Pocahontas, who represented the Indians’ vanishing race. Afterward, the whole town celebrated its newfound harmony in a two-day festival that culminated in a spirited reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. The farcical battle and ensuing celebration are said to mirror a practice of the Sons of Liberty of the American Revolution, which, back in the eighteenth century, frequently dressed up as Native Americans with their leader, George Washington, posing as Sachem.
Now, in its 109th year, Washington’s Birthday Celebration (organized by the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association, which staffs an office—housed in a building that has been made to look like Mount Vernon—all year-round) lasts for 25 days and has become a Laredo institution, its traditions embedded in the fabric of the community. One of the highlights of the festival is the International Bridge Ceremony—children and elected officials from their respective sides of the Rio Grande meet halfway on the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge, and the kids exchange “abrazos,” or hugs, to symbolize the good relations existing between the neighboring nations.