At first glance, the Society of Martha Washington’s debutante ball looks like any other: teenage girls in elaborate dresses preparing to make their first appearance before their city’s elite. But just beneath the surface, this massive event is one that captures the contradictions of tradition, duty, class and nationality.
The ball takes place in Laredo, Tex., right on the border with Mexico. The original event, started 75 years ago, was spurred by a group of white elites who wanted to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. They belonged to The Improved Order of Red Men—a secret society that identified with the American Revolution and played Indian, complete with war bonnets, while reenacting the Boston Tea Party. The Order, however, faced a unique racial reality upon arrival in Laredo. The city had already been part of Mexico before being taken by the United States, and had its own landed elite descended from Spanish colonizers.
Today, the Society of Martha Washington remains a haut monde affair that celebrates George and Martha Washington, along with other historical figures, such as Eli Whitney and Pocahontas—people who may or may not have been alive during the American Revolution. But it’s not just the elites. For an entire month each year, the entire city of Laredo participates in various Washington-related celebrations. As a film, “Las Marthas,” produced and directed by Cristina Ibarra and produced by Erin Ploss-Campoamor, illustrates how an economically fluid reality, defined by new money sometimes from just over the border in Nuevo Laredo, Tex., pushes up against a significant—though often imagined—elite past. It also problematizes what being Latina can actually mean, especially on the U.S.-Mexico border.
I caught up with Ibarra, who’s preparing for her documentary to premiere on PBS nationwide next Monday, February 17.
What compelled you to make this film?
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, which is another border town. Whenever I would see any news story about the border, it was always related to a very urgent social issue, but was always negative—it was related to the drug war, immigration and violence. Those stories are all really important, but I asked myself, “What would happen if we pushed those to the background, and then moved to the foreground of the families that live here and have been here for a long time?” It’s interesting to have different perspectives and not always have the one single story about the border.
What questions did you want to ask coming into the project? And were they answered for you?
When I first saw the debutantes advertised all over town, it reminded me of Marie Antoinette—but a Latina version of her. I wondered, “Who are they?” And I found out that they were playing a role; they’re pretending to be Anglo. And I found that really ironic because we’re in a territory that used to be Mexico. And so I thought, “Why is this entire town celebrating George Washington?” My intention was to create a coming-of-age story and to understand what it’s like from the inside out for these girls.
And now, I feel like I understand a little more about why Laredo celebrates George Washington after uncovering some of the history. We’d never expect that this border town that has the largest land port in the United States would close the bridge down for this celebration to honor George Washington. It looked like an assimilationist ritual. And I found that really strange, but compelling. I also saw how meaningful it was for everyone who was participating.
I know that this event was started by a group of white men who were playing Indian—but I was disturbed by the redface that Latinos are still doing there. Can you talk some more about that?
It started out as one event that was a mock battle, where Anglos were dressed up like Indians and dressed up like Mexicans. In that imaginary battle, the Indians win, and the key to the city is given to Pocahontas, and Pocahontas then gives the key to George Washington. These folks never met in real life, of course—it’s all part of the imagination of the festival. That one event has now turned into a month-long series of events, and now there’s even a Pocahontas pageant.
There’s a tension between the old elite and the new money, it seems. Is this indicative of Laredo in general?
That’s a good question, but it’s hard to answer because I’m not an anthropologist. All I’m trying to do is draw a portrait of one part [of] Laredo. It’s pretty clear that the landowners are the same families that settled there, for the most part. Some families did lose their land, but most of the families were able to keep their connection to their land. They’re still the rulers of the land, and they’re the upper class. And it’s mixed, there are Anglo families that came in—but you can see the Spanish root there. And what folks are celebrating, when you unpack that, is their legacy. So I’m not sure how to answer that question, but what I do know that the landowners are still the landowners.
You really highlight the work that workers do—especially the seamstresses who make these elaborate gowns that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Is it important for you, as a filmmaker, to illustrate the work that goes into this event? And if so, why?
It’s definitely a conscious choice to follow them as well. There is this awareness of class throughout the film, and we really notice when we see the seamstresses working, and the people lining up for the parade, when we see the rest of Laredo that’s not part of this aristocratic one percent of Laredo. You really get that sense throughout the film, even though the film focuses on the girls, and the coming of age of the debutantes and the dressmaker’s legacy.