'Las Marthas' Premieres February 17th on PBS - Q&A with Producer/Director Cristina Ibarra

Directed and produced by Cristina Ibarra, and produced by Erin Ploss-Campoamor, Las Marthas follows a group of Mexican American debutantes as they prepare to participate in an annual debutante ball in honor of George Washington. Taking place in Laredo, Texas, this 116 year old tradition has evolved into an entire month of inventive reenactments and bicultural celebrations, many of them involving Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, their sister city across the border. This George Washington Celebration has managed to persevere and even flourish, thanks in large part to the Mexican American girls who carry this tradition on their young shoulders. Las Marthas unravels the origins of this unique celebration and explores why a town like Laredo, with such deep Mexican roots, feels such affinity for America’s Founding Father.

LPB caught up with Texas-raised filmmaker Cristina Ibarra to talk about the making of her captivating film, and the little-known legacy of the Society of Martha Washington and its Society daughters. Las Marthas Premieres Monday, February 17th at 10pm on Independent Lens.

How did you come across the story the Colonial Ball hosted by the elite Society of Martha Washington?

I had never heard of the celebration while I was growing up in El Paso, Texas. But after one of my cousins married and moved to Laredo, I went to visit her and I noticed all of these local magazines around town with young women on the covers who reminded me of Marie Antoinette – but a Latina version.  I found out that these girls were debutantes and it soon became apparent that they were celebrities in town — everyone knew their names and their family’s names.  But most surprising of all, they were representing characters from the American Revolution at a Colonial Ball that was part of at larger city-wide celebration of George Washington’s birthday. I found myself wondering, ‘Why would these young women play such a prominent role in honoring a symbol of the American conquest in these territories that used to be part of Mexico?’ This question stayed with me for a long time, until finally I got the chance to explore it in this documentary film.

There are several debutantes participating, why did you choose to specifically profile Laura and Rosario?

The debutante year is a vulnerable time for these young women.  They are facing pressures as high school seniors and also as representatives of the Society.  The entire year is filled with practices, social events and fittings where they learn many unspoken rules about how to move around in the society and how to speak to the media.  They become very practiced at speaking to the public.  But I was more interested in the girls as individuals.  It was important to me to find someone who was willing to leave that polished exterior behind and open up to me in a really honest and meaningful way.  I am basically asking them to do the exact opposite of what their mentors and elders are expecting of them.  So I like to say that Laurita and Rosario chose me. They were the ones who were brave enough to accept the challenge that I offered them, and I’m really grateful to them for doing this. I will say that it ended up working out really nicely that they happen to come from such different perspectives – since Laurita is a legacy daughter and Rosario is the first in her family to debut.

What role do you believe these young Latina women play in keeping a tradition that is so fundamental to American history?

There are two biographies that are announced before the debutante is presented on stage.  One is the historical role she is portraying.  The other is the family legacy of the young women which often dates back to the original Spanish colonizers of Laredo.  So while on the surface it may look like we’re honoring the Founding Fathers of the United Sates, it quickly becomes apparent that we are also honoring the Founding Fathers of Laredo, who happen to have Mexican heritage.  There is a quote from the Society of Martha Washington’s 25th anniversary program that reminds me of the debutante’s role in the entire celebration. “If we could select our memories… we could string them and wear them as amulets against the pressures of the present and the uncertainties of the future.”  The debutantes, to me, are the amulets that keep this legacy alive amidst any social turmoil.  It is almost as if the stronger the social pressures, the more important the celebration becomes.

What do you feel this celebration communicates about cultural identity in this small town in Texas?

At first glance this might look like a purely patriotic, assimilationist ritual, since these mostly Mexican American girls are pretending to be Anglo historical figures and celebrating George Washington’s birthday. But if you pay attention to what the Colonial Ball is doing, you can see that we are also honoring the debutantes’ strong Mexican roots in the territory. The bicultural ways this event is celebrated deepens our views of the Latino experience in the entire United States, not just Laredo.  This is a syncretic celebration — an amalgamation of cultures and ideas that might seem to oppose each other, but here they co-exist. The fabrics of the debutantes’ colonial gowns are layered upon each other, similar to the way these young women carry multiple identities, without ever having to choose one over another.

The film touches on the drug violence in Laredo’s sister city Nuevo Laredo. What impact did you feel this has had on the Laredo community and on the ball?

There have always been really strong family ties between the communities on both sides of the border. It used to be really easy to move back and forth. Sadly, because of the drug war, it had become increasingly difficult and time-consuming to do this. But nevertheless, many people still do it. One of the things I love about the Washington’s Birthday celebration is that they continue to make it a priority to include Nuevo Laredo in as many festivities as possible.

It was important to mention the drug violence in the film, because it is part of the reality of life along the border. But at the same time, I wanted to see what would happen if we just kept it in the background and brought other things to the forefront – like the Colonial Ball. Having grown up along the border, I was tired of the drug war being the “single story” about border life. While it is an important and urgent issue, I think it is also important to acknowledge that other things happen along the border: people fall in love, get married, come of age. I wanted to expand the dialogue, and provide a fresh perspective on the borderlands.

Is the class separation depicted in the film the reality in Laredo?  Do you think the film will change this?

Many coming-of-age celebrations in places like New England or the South are also quite expensive.  In this case, we just happen to be on the US/Mexico border.  There is no price tag on cultural symbols.  I believe the film is an accurate representation of class distinctions. Like any other city around the world — whether it’s New York or Paris or London — there is a wealthy elite in Laredo. What we are not used to seeing is that the elite here happens to be Mexican American. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

How did the Society of Martha Washington react to the film?

The film was shared with some of the Society board members without our knowledge. It is too bad, because we would have liked to have been involved in that screening. Unfortunately, we learned about it after the fact. But we were told that they did not like it. Apparently, they think it will open them up to criticism.  Like any closed Society, they are concerned about how they could be misunderstood by outsiders.  It saddens me because I think this film is an accurate and fair portrayal of the coming-of-age journey of some of these debutantes.  The film’s approach allows viewers to make up their own minds about the way class, identity and legacy are on display.

Have Rosario and Laura seen the film? How did they feel after seeing themselves in the story?

As soon as we finished the film, my producing partner, Erin, and I flew to Texas and showed it to Rosario and Laurita. I think the girls were both really struck by how beautiful the gowns looked on the big screen.  Rosario kept saying, “Que hermoso.” (“How beautiful.”)  Laurita was nervous that she may have come across as a little too outspoken.  Seeing the film, Laurita says that now she feels older and a little more grown up than she was back then.  But she still cherishes her experience.

Dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez somewhat comes off as the oppositional character of the story. Was this your intention or did it just truly portray her personality?

It was important to us to let our characters speak for themselves in this film.  They all recognized and appreciated that. We also screened the film privately for Linda as soon as it was done, and she was very anxious going into the screening. She didn’t think she was going to like it. But when it was done, she said that it was a true and accurate representation: “That’s how I am.” Since then, she has attended two public screenings of the film, and she fully supports it.

With the wave of reality pageantry and teen shows, one might suggest that creating a reality show on the Society of Martha Washington wouldn’t be so far-fetched. We have to ask, are you team Rosario or team Laura?

We wanted to create something nuanced and layered, that never really takes sides, but simply presents reality with all of its many complications. This is a different approach from reality television that heightens conflict and drama and creates a competition.  We love both Rosario and Laura and are proud of their decision to be themselves in a situation full of pressures, both internal and external.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

I hope that viewers experience a new way of looking at Mexican American identity that allows them to think twice about stereotypes and preconceived ideas.  We all have them.  Besides being aware that we all perpetuate the ‘single story’ in other ways, I also hope that this film reminds us of the hybrid nature of identity.  Hopefully the debutantes can teach all of us a little about how to be an American today in this country, where we all juggle multiple identities.


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