George Washington was never in Laredo, and certainly he did not have a birthday there. But the largest Washington birthday celebration in the United States is hosted by the South Texan city, on the northern bank of the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico. Laredo typically brings in $21 million over the month of festivities, which culminate in a colonial ball, a magnificent “reenactment” of the party that never was thrown for the president by the country’s first first lady. The Society of Martha Washington invites elite adolescent girls to debut at the event in lofty wigs and period gowns like glittering pendulums. Most of the debutantes are “legacy daughters”—the daughters and granddaughters of Society members, some of whom can trace their roots to the original settlers of the area. Most are of Mexican descent.

The proceedings also involve Laredo’s Mexican sister town, Nuevo Laredo; together, the cities are commonly referred to as “los dos Laredos,” and historically, families—wealthy families, especially—have moved fluidly between the two. “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” says one of the debutantes in the documentary Las Marthas, which premiered on PBS’s Independent Lens in February and was directed and co-produced by Chicana filmmaker Cristina Ibarra. The film follows two debutantes in the lead-up to the ball: Laurita, thirteenth in a line of Society debs, and Rosario, an invited “guest” from Nuevo Laredo who is the first of her family to debut and could not have imagined the requirements of the ritual. In one scene, Rosario tugs fearfully at her white crinoline petticoat; in another, she weeps from the pressure. But Rosario was a high-school beauty queen and comes from, Laurita says, “new money.” As a bloody drug war threatens, increasingly, to pull the Laredos apart, George Washington’s birthday party continues to bind the cities along class lines.

“I guess you would call it a moment of coming to class consciousness,” says Josefina Saldaña, director of Latino studies at NYU and a voice in the doc, of discovering which of her classmates were going to debut. “They went to our Catholic high school, we played on the same sports teams, we cheated off of each others’ exams. We’d been with them in school for years, and all of a sudden, it was like they came out.” While the girls practice bowing in hand-stitched dresses that choke their torsos, lowering their chins to the hulking cages beneath their skirts, they discover that they have far more in common with each other than with their erstwhile friends. The average colonial gown costs $15,000, and certain debs spend double that. The median income in Laredo is $40,000.

Cristina Ibarra was born in the border town of El Paso, Texas, and she draws her inspiration as a filmmaker, she says, from the “contradictions of border life.” Such contradiction is at the heart of Las Marthas. Why has Laredo’s Mexican-majority population been celebrating the ancestors of its onetime Anglo oppressors for close to 120 years? The question of whose history, exactly, the town is portraying and attempting to preserve hangs particularly heavy.

Ibarra has received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and CPB/PBS Producer’s Academy, among others, and Las Marthas is up for an audience award through Independent Lens. Her critically acclaimed 2008 documentary The Last Conquistador was also broadcast on PBS, as was her short film Dirty Laundry: A Homemade Telenovela, about an adolescent Chicana who discovers her sexuality on a quaking washing machine just before her cousin’s quinceñera. Ibarra’s interest, as she details in the following interview, is in coming-of-age stories, in people working to affirm their identities and navigating borders more permeable than they seem. She speaks of her home and herself in these terms, as being in-between, and that is the space that her films occupy. “I feel like after all these years of trying to escape where I came from, all I do in my work is try and go back there.”

Hillary Brenhouse for Guernica

Guernica: How did you come to filmmaking?

Cristina Ibarra: I am the first born of immigrant parents from Mexico. I grew up along the border in El Paso, Texas. I was the first one to go away to college, and I was really anxious to do it—I just wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible. Once I got to Austin, the state school there, I knew I wanted to study law only because as the child of immigrant parents, you either are a doctor or a lawyer [laughs]. I loved some of the electives that I took, which were media studies courses. And then I also was really delving into Chicana history courses—I consider myself Chicana. The two kind of came together in my mind. I decided to study filmmaking, and I started making all these videos to discuss things that I thought were important. And I was also trying to convince my family of different arguments. I got into this just from trying to talk to my family through this medium.

I’m always studying the border from what I’m hoping are new angles, and trying to talk to people who are close to me—family and friends—but also to a national audience, a layered audience.

On the cover of all the local magazines were these young debutantes. They reminded me of Marie Antoinette—but the Latina version of her.

Guernica: And how did you decide to make a documentary about Laredo’s Martha Washington Society ball?

Cristina Ibarra: Growing up in El Paso I didn’t know about any of these exclusive events, but one day my cousin married someone from Laredo, and I went to go visit her. On the cover of all the local magazines were these young debutantes. They reminded me of Marie Antoinette—but the Latina version of her. I would ask who these girls were, and it was amazing, because everyone knew their names, everyone knew who their families were, who their grandparents were. I was thinking, When else do you see young girls like this, as citywide role models? They’re celebrities. I found it fascinating because I’m really interested in the contradictions of border life, and here was this very visceral example. The gowns, the curls, and the big hair. I thought, There’s definitely something here to explore identity-wise.

Guernica: Was it difficult to enter the world of the debutantes, as a filmmaker?

Cristina Ibarra: It was actually one of the hardest things, as an outsider. I mean, I’m from the border, which really helped, but I was still an outsider. They didn’t know what to expect because it’s such a closed society. They really worried about protecting their image, and I had to prove myself and we had to build a relationship together. Ultimately I was able to gain unprecedented access—they’ve never really allowed a filmmaker to be this close to these young women before.

I always knew I wanted to do a coming-of-age story, and that I wanted to follow girls in the Society of Martha Washington, but I didn’t know who I would be following. I had to find the story through whomever was going to let me into their lives. I was very interested in doing something that was more intimate than what the girls were used to. They’re used to speaking to the camera and representing the Society. I wanted girls who would be individuals.

Being a debutante—it’s such a vulnerable time for these young women. They’re facing a lot of pressure, as seniors, as representatives of the Society. The entire year is filled with practices, social events, fittings, and there’s all these unspoken rules about how they should speak to the media. A lot of them have become very practiced at speaking to the public. Not all of them were really taking up the challenge of this total stranger coming to them and saying, “Just be yourself. Tell me how you really feel.” So I feel like the two girls [I follow in the film] chose me in that sense. They were the ones who agreed to be a part of this and start a relationship with me. It worked out really nicely: they just happened to come from two different perspectives.

Guernica: Were you immediately aware of the class divisions involved in the celebration?

Cristina Ibarra: Yes, because I would never be able to be a debutante. I’m not a Society daughter. My mother would have to be a member of the Society, or I would have to be invited. To be invited is very tricky and there are a lot of politics behind it. There’s a structure in place on how to admit invited guests. That’s one way you can go about it. You can also get sponsored: you have to get letters and a certain number of sponsors and a certain amount of votes. So it was always very clear that this was for a certain class of women.

There’s this ritual called the quinceñera that is very popular along the border, and it’s for a girl’s fifteenth birthday. Anyone can have a quinceñera. You have one within your means, or if you can’t afford one at all, you can ask for people to help you out. Usually they’re quite large and expensive, but anyone can participate. This debutante ritual in Laredo, it’s very different. It’s very exclusive. Part of the procedure of being involved is to prove your lineage. And if you really look at the lineages, many of these girls can trace their families back to the original landowners who came to found the city. Before this was Mexico, before it was Texas, before it was the United States. They go way back, to the King of Spain even. Some of them can trace it back to the Anglo fraternity members who introduced this celebration in the first place.

Guernica: What is the relationship typically like between legacy daughters and invited guests from across the border?

Cristina Ibarra: The legacy daughters, when they were young, they were going to all of these events, and their mothers or grandmothers would say, “That’s going to be you one day.” That’s not the case with the invited guests. The legacy daughters understand the legacy they’re carrying. It can be a burden for some of them, and they may have a complicated relationship to this ritual, but they understand that it’s important to their family. The invited guests might be somehow related—cousins or granddaughters or nieces—but they don’t know when they’re young girls that they’re going to be involved. It’s something that’s brand new.

Here is a celebration that tries to maintain family ties across borders, whereas everywhere else, our national policy is trying to tear that down.

The two debs in the film, maybe they weren’t friends before. That’s true in many cases. But it’s not always the case. If you’re an invited guest, you’re a part of this elite class, and maybe some members of the class have different feelings about your membership in that class than other members, but there isn’t any conflict that’s apparent. It’s just the ruling class. The legacy daughters and the invited guests have more in common with each other than they have with someone who is not part of the ruling class. This celebration is strengthening those class stratifications. The ball is definitely the event of the season. It’s the one that’s the most well known, the one that everyone wants to get a ticket to, but not everyone can because not everyone can afford the fifty-dollar ticket.

Most of the girls, from both sides of the border, attend the same private high school, this Catholic high school in Laredo. It is interesting to think about when class becomes part of your consciousness. In Laredo, it often happens when certain girls are going to be debuted and certain girls are not. And then, if you’re a debutante, you’re on a whole different track—you don’t have time anymore to hang out with friends who are not part of that group. These girls are so busy, they have events every weekend for nine months. They start getting their gowns ready a year beforehand.

This border wall is being erected right now, and there’s all this dialogue around immigration reform and there’s this way of looking at the border. One of the beautiful things about the celebration is that it really strives to keep the border together. It’s always been los dos Laredos, the two Laredos—it’s always been identified as one region. And so here is a celebration that tries to maintain family ties across borders, whereas everywhere else, our national policy is trying to tear that down. I really appreciate that aspect of it. Here’s a community trying to maintain family ties. Sure, they’re aristocratic family ties, but they’re still family ties.

Still from Las Marthas

Guernica: It seems that most wealthy families in Nuevo Laredo send their children across the border to schools in Laredo. Is it the same way in other border towns?

Cristina Ibarra: When I was growing up in El Paso, the same thing was happening. It’s always been that way. It’s so easy for a certain type of family to move back and forth across the border. Maybe not as easy now after the drug war. But there’s always been this fluidity since the national boundary was established between Mexico and the US, all across Texas. You don’t need to relocate, you can just go across the border and get your education and come back. It’s a very back-and-forth type of lifestyle that is sadly disappearing because of the wall and the drug violence. But this celebration is an attempt to keep it alive.

I don’t know the exact rule, but to get a visa to be able to go back and forth, you have to be able to prove your income level. My family is middle class, but we have other family members who can’t come across because they don’t have the means. They’re just not allowed. They can’t get the border-crossing card.

Guernica: Why do you think the Martha Washington ritual has persisted?

Cristina Ibarra: If you think about what was happening back then, when the celebration started, it was after the US-Mexico war. And after the war, and even before the war, Mexican families were already getting displaced from their land. Texas was one of the places that had the most lynching. There was so much violence and racial tension all over the state, especially in the northern part. In Laredo, families were able to maintain their land a lot more than in the northern parts of Texas. I’m not saying families didn’t lose their land in Laredo, just not to the same extent as elsewhere. The Anglos just didn’t know what to do with this land—it was too dry. So for many years the people in Laredo were left alone. The two Laredos have such an independent spirit: they didn’t want to be a part of Mexico, they didn’t want to be a part of the US, they weren’t part of Texas for a little bit. There’s just a very independent spirit there that comes from having to survive this very tough terrain.

This ritual is a way of saying, “Leave us alone, we’re part of this American narrative now.”

The role-playing aspect of the ritual was introduced by the Anglo society [The Order of Red Men] that first started the celebration. They came in and put on red face and brown face and pretended to have this battle for city hall as a way of reclaiming the US against the British Empire. They wanted to be seen as authentic Americans. When the celebration became so popular that the fraternity couldn’t really organize it anymore, that’s when the elite Mexican families stepped in and started this month-long Washington birthday celebration. They twisted the role-playing and adapted it into this other story. It’s been updated and appropriated. So now these families are pretending to be white, pretending to be George Washington and the revolutionaries.

When Anglos started to arrive, the people there, seeing what had happened in other parts of Texas, began looking for ways to protect themselves. I don’t see a better way of doing it than this ritual. It’s a way to show who you are, a way of keeping these violent tendencies away. It’s a way of saying, “Leave us alone, we’re part of this American narrative now.” The people affirmed their right to the land this way.

What’s interesting is that they were dressing up and playing the American founding fathers, when in fact they were the founding fathers of Laredo. So it is a founding father narrative; it’s just a little bit twisted. And so many of the debutantes can trace their lineage all the way to when the land was first settled, before there were these borders, and I think that’s part of why it has survived.

Guernica: What do you think the debutante ball means to these families now that they have no reason to stake their claim to the land?

Cristina Ibarra: There’s this saying I found in a twenty-fifth anniversary program of the celebration: “If we could select our memories, we could string them and wear them as amulets against the pressures of the present and the uncertainty of the future.” These young women really are like amulets—they’re serving as amulets to protect their families against the vicissitudes of life on the border. There is the idea that they’re displaying who they are, who their families are, onstage. They’re protecting their family’s power against all of these social ills. The stronger the problems of border life, the stronger the celebration becomes. The more social issues the families are struggling with, the stronger the symbolism of the ball. That’s another thing that helps the pageant survive.

The girls are carrying a lot of weight and a lot of responsibility. The dress really becomes this metaphor, all the layering and all that fabric. The girls are literally carrying the weight of their legacies on their shoulders. It’s a very visceral example of how they’re weighed down by this legacy. The dress can weigh up to one hundred pounds. Some of these girls probably weigh one hundred pounds!

These are girls who are going to college. It’s an aristocracy. It just happens to be a little browner.

Guernica: What did you make of the extravagance of the gowns, most of which are designed by the coveted dressmaker and oil heiress Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez? Are these families prepared for the costs of debuting their daughters?

Cristina Ibarra: My producing partner likes to tell the story about the gowns to people who don’t know border life very well. People always ask, “Do the families starve? What are they sacrificing?” because we’re used to seeing this singular narrative about the border. The poverty, the drug war, the lack of education. There’s this instant image of what the border looks like. So we think there’s going to be this amazing sacrifice that’s going to be made for these gowns. But in fact these families have known that their daughters were going to be part of this event from the time the girls were born. They’re families of means, it’s part of the plan from the beginning. Sure, there might be someone not able to afford it, but that’s not typical. They always find a way. Rarely have I seen it be a sacrifice. No one really goes without in order to attend. These are girls who are going to college. It’s an aristocracy. It just happens to be a little browner.

Guernica: Do you see the film as bucking stereotypes of Mexican-American women in addition to moving beyond this singular narrative about border life?

Cristina Ibarra: When I think about the Mexican-American women I’ve seen onscreen, I’m always reminded of the maid—that’s who I think about first. Or the Latin-lover type of woman, the seductress. I feel like this is definitely something that falls outside of that dichotomy. The women in Las Marthas have full control of their destiny. You have women in power within this world. It’s a complicated type of power—we can celebrate and critique at the same time. And this is a complicated, three-dimensional way of looking at Mexican-American women along the border as opposed to the singular story that the border represents in a lot of narratives.

Guernica: At one point in the film, Linda the dressmaker mentions that she and her two sisters married the men who escorted them the year they debuted. She says that the ritual has sometimes been referred to as a “mating game.” Is that still the case? Does the ball also function as a way of introducing young women to young men of their same class?

Cristina Ibarra: The event did start out as a way to introduce women to society, just like the quinceñera. “My daughter is now a woman”—there was that element to it. But we’re living in a different age now. The role of women is shifting. And so the ritual is intact, but I think that now it’s less about introducing women to their potential partners as it might have been during Linda’s time. It’s more about introducing the family line, saying this is who we are, having someone come out as a spokesperson, being polished, and moving on to a different stage of life. It’s a coming-of-age ritual. It’s more complicated now. I think the girls participating aren’t just thinking of themselves as pretty girls in pretty dresses. They’re seeing themselves as leaders in their community, the next philanthropists.

That Rosario had done quite a lot of community service, for instance, was really important to the Martha Washington Society because of their own philanthropy efforts. I didn’t explore that in the film, because it didn’t fit the timeline, but when they’re not preparing the ball, they’re raising money for scholarships. When it comes to picking the debs, they basically choose daughters. But if the daughters happen to be philanthropists, then half of their work is done.

Guernica: Is Laredo your typical border town? Are the class divisions present there replicated in other such cities?

Cristina Ibarra: I think Laredo is a very special case. Growing up in El Paso, you could see that the wealthier class tended to be Anglo. Laredo was very surprising to me because it was the first place where I went that if you’re Anglo, you have to assimilate to being Mexican to be taken seriously. If you want to do business there, you have to understand the culture, you have to speak Spanish. You just need to know Mexican life. The upper class is very mixed. It’s fascinating. I can’t think of another place where I’ve seen that so prevalently. It made me think about what the landowners had to compromise to keep that, if anything. In Laredo, the main families who founded the town are still the main families that rule the town. That’s very unique. At least among the conquered lands.

How can you have a place that used to be Mexico, that was colonized by the US, and where you’re celebrating George Washington, who represents the country that took over this part of Mexico? To me the answer is: look at who owns the land. Look at the landowners. And I don’t think that’s true in Austin or New York. It’s true in Laredo.

You have these amalgamations of cultures and ideas that may tend to oppose each other, but they’ll coexist in one girl.

The lighter-skinned debutantes are sometimes Anglo, sometimes they’re not. But if you ask people, they don’t really claim identity the same way as in other parts of the United States. It’s a very layered identity. There’s a little bit of everything. It’s a little syncretic. You have these amalgamations of cultures and ideas that may tend to oppose each other, but they’ll coexist in one girl. These Anglo fraternity members and the Mexican landowners, they just made it work. The way that identity works in Laredo is very different from El Paso and other places I’ve seen. It’s hard to tell there: you might have someone who’s blond, and they’re talking to you in Spanish.

Guernica: How have things changed for the girls you followed in the film?

Cristina Ibarra: Rosario ended up going to school at Trinity University, in San Antonio, and she’s studying business and international relations. Laurita, she comes from a family with a single mom, as you see in the film, so for them it wasn’t as easy to be a part of the celebration. Since then, she applied for the Gates Millennium Scholarship, and she won. She is now a pre-med at Texas A&M University, and she’s getting it paid for through the scholarship. And Linda, the dressmaker, is hanging out with [fashion designer] Christian Siriano all the time in New York.

I feel like these girls just stay on their track. Most of them have the intention of going to college, and they do. And a lot of the girls come back home. Most of the daughters come home after graduating. It’s such a different life in this town that when you go out into the interior of the US, I can imagine that certain girls are comforted by the fact that they know where they come from and that they want to go back home to that. And to have their daughters become debutantes one day. The cycle continues, definitely.

Guernica: Your film The Last Conquistador also explored issues of class. Are you particularly attracted to these kinds of narratives?

Cristina Ibarra: I’m drawn to projects that explore identity in a new way, border identity. The border seems to be my muse. Growing up along the border, I always had questions about why there were these inconsistencies. I had family on both sides, and as a child it was hard to understand these questions of privilege. It was confusing to me why, on one side of the border, I didn’t have to show a passport to cross and go visit my family, but when my family on the other side came to visit us, they had to show their passports. Those questions still kind of linger even though I do understand as an adult the way that policy works and bureaucracy and governments have to work. There’s still this emotional confusion that nags at me. The border exaggerates these contradictions, the questions we might have no matter where we grow up about privilege and class and the role of women… It’s a place that’s full of powerful examples and it inspires me.

In The Last Conquistador, there is this monument representing this Spanish colonizer, Juan de Oñate, who was considered the father of Hispanic culture in the Southwest on the one hand, and on the other, considered a butcher of Indian people, someone who attempted genocide on Native Americans. So the Chicano are caught in the middle. I’m both Spanish and Indian—how do you choose? And class is rolled into that question of identity. I can’t escape it. I don’t see how any of us can.

Hillary Brenhouse

Hillary Brenhouse is an editor-at-large at Guernica and a Montreal-born writer focused on women’s health and broken capitalism. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker online, TIME, the Daily Beast, the New York Times, the International Herald TribuneThe Oxford AmericanSlate, and on PRI’s “The World,” among others.

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