CHICAGO -- Only in America.
In a new documentary film, Las Marthas, director Cristina Ibarra introduces viewers of PBS's Independent Lens series to the quirky custom of celebrating George Washington's birthday in Laredo, Texas.
The monthlong festival, which generates $21 million a year for the border town, is one of the largest celebrations of Washington's birthday in the world. Throughout its 116-year history, the tradition has evolved from a sort of Anglo musical show to a chance to honor the special relationship between the United States and Mexico, complete with a parade, re-enactments and bicultural ceremonies with sister city Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
But the hottest ticket in town 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-era gowns representing America's revolutionary history. The goal: to recreate a lavish birthday party hosted by Martha Washington for America's first president.
Once you get past the dressmaking divas, the way-way-over-the-top gowns and all the curtsying and promenading, there is quite a story about a culture's winning struggle to survive in the face of conquest.
Josefina Saldana, director of Latino studies at New York University, tells viewers that the celebration of George Washington in Texas started around 1848, shortly after the Mexican-American War.
"Once these territories become part of the U.S., Anglos came wanting to dispossess people of their land ... violently or otherwise," Saldana says. "If you wanted to keep your land, you had to prove that you had eligibility for U.S. citizenship. And in order to be a citizen, you had to establish that you were white.
"But you look down from Washington and you see all of these Mexicans dressing up like George and Martha Washington, you're like, ah, they're OK."
Hilarious. And so true -- appearances are everything, aren't they?
Circling back to the debutantes, they are why Ibarra's one-hour film is no dry history lesson. If you like reality TV shows with heroines, jealousies and a bit of catty glitz, Las Marthas is for you.
The film tells the story of the debutante ball -- and its 100-pound, $30,000 frilly dresses -- through the eyes of two young women. One, Laurita, is a U.S.-born "legacy" who is the 13th girl in her family to debut at the ball. The other, Rosario, was raised and lives in Nuevo Laredo and -- like many others -- commutes to school in the U.S. Despite no history with the Society of Martha Washington, she is invited to debut as a special guest due to her roots and extensive beauty-pageant credentials.
And those are all the gossipy details you'll get from me, because I was more enthralled by what we can come away with after learning about this fantastical, historically inaccurate -- Washington never visited Laredo -- and delightfully bizarre cultural celebration.
"There's a few things," Ibarra told me. "First is to understand the richness and diversity of border towns. I grew up along the border in Augusta, Texas, and I'd see all these stories about the drug war and poverty on the border, a lot of which painted Latinos in a negative light. I wanted to show that those things happened in the background. I wanted to provide the inside perspective of the people who live on the border, with all its contradictions.
"Then there is the aspect of 'Why are these young Latinas dressed like Marie Antoinette pretending to be characters of the American Revolution? Why are people who used to be part of Mexico celebrating conquest (by) the U.S.?' From the outside it looks like an assimilationist ritual, but when you look closely, it's very much celebrating their landowning legacy, the Mexican-Anglo relationship. ... On the surface, it might look like pretty girls in pretty dresses, but we really uncover identity and meaning about the Latino experience, about not choosing one culture over another but living in a third space."
I have an extremely low tolerance for sequins and tiaras but heartily recommend this film to anyone who can appreciate a heaping slice of Americana -- served up Texas style.
Las Marthas premieres on PBS starting today, during George Washington's birthday week. Check local listings for show times.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.