No one honors American presidents like Laredo, Texas

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Laredo, Texas has a grand celebration during President's day.

Rebecka English, left, helps Jamil Jacaman with his costume during practice for the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant celebration in Laredo, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

George Washington today lives in America’s history tales to young children, those yarns of the father of our country with the fictitious tales of chopping down a cherry tree and of throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac.

But to find the consummate dedication to the first president of the United States, you probably have to go as far south in the country as you can and there encounter a series of celebrations honoring American presidents, in particular George Washington, unlike any in America.

You have to go to Laredo, Texas.

For the past three quarters of a century, Hispanics in this Mexican border town mythologized in Hollywood westerns have honored George Washington and the American presidency in a manner befitting the Boston Brahmin blue-blood aristocracy that existed in the young nation at its founding.

The centerpiece of that celebration is an annual debutante ball that blows the minds of visitors for its upper class extravagance, seeming frivolity and sheer wealth on display: Young rich Latina debs wearing lavish jeweled gowns of ruffles, beads, sequins, and laces costing more than $30,000 apiece and sometimes weighing over 80 pounds.

For a moment, if you have just dropped in to the pageantry and splendor, it looks more like pre-French Revolution Versailles than Washington’s Colonial America.

“The dresses didn’t used to be as elaborate,” says a former debutante. “They’ve started to look more Marie Antoinette than Martha Washington.”

In the 21st century, though, who would know the difference, especially in the context of so much opulence.

On to the show.

Up to 17 Laredo debutants make their entry into society in the city’s Civic Center that is transformed each year into a replica of the Washingtons’ drawing room in Philadelphia, including crystal chandeliers, faux fireplace, wainscoting, and pale green, period-hued walls.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Each year two members of Laredo’s aristocracy – and there is no other way to put it, considering the enormous wealth and social prestige of these people, ethnicity notwithstanding – are introduced in period colonial costumes and powdered wigs.

They are that year’s George and Martha, and that evening’s pageant on Presidents Day weekend is reenacted as a tribute to America’s initial First Couple.

And each year, the script reads the same:

“Tonight Martha and George Washington commemorate the president’s last night in office with Martha’s final drawing room reception and farewell celebration to honor George.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Society of Martha Washington presents … the first president of the United States of America, General George Washington!”

Las Marthas

The debutantes and the women of The Society of Martha Washington, formed in 1939 in Laredo, are known locally as “Las Marthas,” a name that for years has evoked respect in many and abhorrence to some who disdain the conspicuous consumption of the city’s upper class – along with preoccupations with lineage and class — in a community where almost one in three live below the poverty line.

Little by little, the story of Las Marthas and Laredo’s George Washington Ball extravaganza has filtered into the American landscape. In 2006, National Geographic and Texas Monthly magazines reported on it. On Monday, PBS will broadcast a documentary, “Las Marthas,” about the pageant.

The actual debutante ball this year won’t be held until Feb. 22, but Laredo is already enraptured by a month-long series of events leading up to it, not to mention an onslaught of parties for each young woman that began last September.

“As children we don’t stop and analyze what’s going on,” says Laredo-born Norma Cantu, an English professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who grew up watching the debutantes on floats at a parade traditionally held the day after the ball.

“When I went back in the 80s I was very aware of the social inequalities. We had a high unemployment rate, lots of poverty, a lack of running water — very serious social and health concerns. That’s when it became ‘what are we doing spending all this money on dresses?’”

Ironic as it may seem, the pageant and ball were originally part of an attempt by Laredo to acculturate and assimilate its Hispanic population, the upper class at least, into local society.

The Washington birthday celebration in Laredo actually dates back to 1898 when it was an Anglo event that began changing four decades later when “Hispanics began taking part because ‘Americanness’ signified progress and upward mobility,” according to Gloria Canseco, a past president of the Society of Martha Washington.

And today, it has become a distinctly Latino affair.

“Culturally, we are Mexicans,” says Cantu. “For people who are not from the area it sounds really strange. It was an attempt early on to Americanize.”

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