Most contemporary entertainment set along the Mexican border tends to focus on the brutal drug wars that have killed scores of thousands. Consider the film No Country for Old Men, or the FX series The Bridge. And with the exception of the occasional hard-driving female detective, women in these stories tend to be passive figures or the victims of grisly violence.
But the documentary Las Marthas, which will be broadcast Monday on PBS as part of the network’s “Independent Lens” series, offers a striking alternative portrait of border-town life. The film, directed by Cristina Ibarra looks at Laredo’s annual Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball, a debutante dance in which young women don ornate, Colonial-style gowns and portray early American historical figures like Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter from her first marriage, to Daniel Parke Custis.
Current events are not overlooked. Las Marthas includes snippets of radio news about the drug violence in the region. Yet the film is primarily a chronicle of ordinary teenage girls leading ordinary lives—albeit while wearing dresses that can weigh up to one hundred pounds and can cost from $15,000 to $30,000.
“There’s a way of thinking about the border story, and it’s usually set in the kinds of situations that are very urgent and dangerous,” said Ibarra, a first-generation Mexican-American who was raised in El Paso and now lives in New York. “I’m really interested in showing the border from the inside out. People live here; people fall in love; people get married; they have quinceañeras; they come of age.”
Erin Ploss-Campoamor, the documentary’s Canadian-born producer, said “The nonfiction films that get funded tend to be about pressing, urgent social issues. It’s harder to explain to people that there are other stories that are a little more nuanced.”
First held in 1939, the ball traditionally invites ten to twenty girls to participate each year, usually the moneyed daughters, granddaughters and nieces of former “Marthas” from both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side of the border. The ball, to be held on February 22 this year, is part of a monthlong series of events in Laredo honoring George Washington’s birthday.
Ibarra, who was a co-director of the documentary The Last Conquistador (2008), about a controversial statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate erected in El Paso in the mid-2000s, first heard about the Laredo event more than a decade ago, when she was visiting a friend who lived in Laredo. She said she was intrigued by the cultural contradictions of the event: the mostly Mexican-American debutantes, many of whom trace their lineage to Laredo’s founding Spanish families, would seem to be celebrating the ancestors of the Anglo oppressors who seized their land in the nineteenth century.
Ibarra first reached out to the organizers in 2008 and filmed portions of the 2009 ball. Organizers, however, were skeptical because they felt, according to Ibarra, that national journalists had previously portrayed the ball as frivolous. Ibarra returned in 2010 and 2011, eventually deciding to focus on two of the eleven participants in the 2011 ball—Laurita Garza-Hovel, who came from a long line of Marthas, and Rosario Reyes, a Mexican girl who attended high school in Laredo and whose family had no previous connections to the society.
“They were the ones who stepped up to the plate and agreed to let us follow them,” Ibarra said. “We were just lucky that they were in completely different positions.”
In addition to the 52-minute version of Las Marthas that will air on PBS, Ibarra and Ploss-Campoamor also completed a 69-minute version that they hope to show at film festivals.
Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion and Resistance, said that Las Marthas was bucking stereotypes firmly entrenched in the cultural consciousness. “The modern-day cinematic drug lord,” Berg said, is a descendent of the Mexican bandido of silent westerns. Mexican and Mexican-American women, he said, usually fall into one of two categories: the clown figure or the untrustworthy harlot counterpart of “el bandido.”
“The bandido and the harlot figures have been around for a hundred years or so,” Berg said. “The female clown since at least the thirties and forties.”
All the more reason, Ibarra said, to give respectful treatment to what others might dismiss as a silly, beauty-pageant-style spectacle. Indeed, Las Marthas takes an evenhanded, fly-on-the-wall approach, refusing to editorialize about the proceedings. The few skeptical statements are expressed by academics that Ibarra interviewed, but even they speak of the event thoughtfully, as being part of a complex tradition not easily grasped by outsiders.
“This is one of the few opportunities that the Latina teenagers in Laredo get to be celebrities and earn the attention of the entire town,” Ibarra said. “There’s a parade, there are balls, and they are at the center of it. That’s a rare opportunity in the broader cultural landscape of the United States. So for me, the question should not be, why do these people take the ball so seriously? It’s more like, why doesn’t the rest of American society give Latina girls opportunities like this?”