One of the largest celebrations of George Washington’s birthday in the world takes place in the border town of Laredo, Texas. This 116-year-old tradition has evolved into an entire month of inventive reenactments and bicultural celebrations, many of them involving their Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo. The most preeminent event of them all, however, is the invitation-only Colonial Ball hosted by the elite Society of Martha Washington.
Society daughters, most of them Mexican American, are invited to debut in elaborate Colonial gowns representing iconic figures from America’s revolutionary history, to reenact a ball thrown by America’s first First Lady. Las Marthas follows two of the young debutantes — one a prominent member of Laredo society and the other a newcomer from Mexico — as they prepare for this rite of passage.
Laurita is the thirteenth young woman in her family to debut. Her legacy dates back to the original Spanish land grantees in Laredo. As she reminds us, South Texas used to be part of Mexico: “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.” But Laurita constantly wavers between embracing and questioning the ritual.
Rosario, on the other hand, is the first in her family to debut. Raised in Mexico, yet educated in the U.S., Rosario is one of only two “guests” invited to present at this year’s Ball. She represents Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — the other half of “the Two Laredos.” With conflict and crime dominating discourse about the border, Rosario’s inclusion reflects the Society’s desire to stitch together the communities. Yet despite Rosario’s previous success as a beauty queen, she remains a Society outsider.
A year in the making, each girl’s dress can weigh up to one hundred pounds and cost up to $30,000 — nearly the median family income of Laredo. Many of these spectacular creations are made by highly coveted dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, an oil heiress who designs her dresses with “heavenly inspiration from God.”
Las Marthas unravels the origins of the celebration and explores why a town like Laredo, with such deep Mexican roots, feels such affinity for America’s Founding Father, and how against all odds the Washington’s Birthday Celebration has managed to persevere and even flourish, thanks to the Mexican American girls who continue to wear the gilded burden of tradition.