In Laredo, Texas, a bicultural President's Day

/ Source: The Associated Press

Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez lives and works a few blocks from the Rio Grande and traces her lineage in two branches — from one of this Spanish colonial city's oldest families and to Revolutionary War orator Patrick Henry.

And she says she has a God-given gift for designing the elaborate hand-beaded gowns for the annual Society of Martha Washington colonial ball, which combines red, white and blue patriotism with Latin American flair.

It could be America's biggest President's Day celebration.

A city that is 94 percent Latino and can sound, feel, and smell more Mexican than American presents its aristocracy during an annual tribute to a president whose birthday elsewhere is more associated with department store sales.

The celebration lasts a full month and draws all strata of society. Events include a chili pepper festival, a grand parade and the debutante ball where the young ladies of Laredo — and Gutierrez's dresses, some of which were ordered when the debs were newborns — "come out" into society.

It has become a display of international friendship culminating with the "abrazo," Spanish for hug, when a child from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, embraces a child from Laredo.

The dresses designed by Gutierrez and others weigh up to 80 pounds, supported by a lattice of hoops, and may have flourishes of beading and lace from all over the world.

"They think it's 'comical,'" Gutierrez said of outsiders. "It's a beautiful pageant and the whole celebration's incredibly good for Laredo."

Class, not ethnic, divisions
Laredo became part of Texas in 1848, when everything north of the Rio Grande became the United States. Mexican loyalists moved south, forming Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Those who remained — including those whose names are still prominent in Laredo today — saw their daughters marry Anglo men from the East Coast.

"Laredo has always been divided with strong class lines, but not ethnic," said Texas A&M International historian Stanley Green.

In 1896, a men's social group decided the city needed an American-style celebration. They ruled out Abraham Lincoln as a symbol of unity for a Southern city, but figured no one could object to George Washington.

Almost from the beginning, Green said, Laredo's innate biculturalism came out, with Mexican soldiers joining the parade and Mexican food and entertainers playing starring roles.

"This had been an intended implantation of American culture," he said. "But within a very short period of time the celebration became what Laredo's always been. A sort of bicultural, binational, city."

The debutante ball was added in 1939, with Gutierrez's grandfather, Thomas Aquinas Leyendecker, playing the first George Washington. Her own coming-out was in 1960.

One year before the ball, two prominent members of Laredo society are chosen to play Martha and George. This year, Martha is Laredo National Bank vice president Adrienne Goodman Trevino and George is James Notzon, sixth great-grandson of Laredo founding father Capt. Don Tomas Tadeo Sanchez de la Barreda.

Months of preparations
The women's elaborate gowns can be of silks, satins, and velvets, be coated with beads and sequins, have trains several feet long or layers of ruffling. They take months for Gutierrez, daughter Ana Gutierrez Volpe, and her small staff to make; work starts when the last pageant is over.

"You don't see this any more," Gutierrez said, exhibiting a wash of beading on one of the gowns in her atelier. "This is hand-done. Each bead is done one by one."

Trevino's dress is a 50-pound cascade of embroidered tapestry, silk, and velvet with beaded lace ruffle sleeves.

Gutierrez gets indignant when asked how much the dresses cost, but estimates have ranged from $12,000 to $30,000.

"I would never divulge the confidence of my clients," she says.

Trevino has spent the last year being the most popular woman in Laredo as Martha Washington.

"When you've had a year of this, you almost expect that when you walk into a restaurant they should applaud," Trevino said as heavy makeup was applied for a Feb. 2 photo shoot.

"I'll get stopped at the grocery store — 'Is Martha doing her chores? Her own chores?'"

No detail left out
She and the debutantes undergo transformations for photo shoots, a dress rehearsal, the ball and the parade, enduring heavy makeup, wigs with long ringlets held up with jeweled hair ornaments.

Then there are bloomers and corsets and hoops, followed by the weighty dress. If Trevino or the debutantes wants to sit down while they're in costume, an assistant must crawl under the dress and place a stool.

Norma Cantu, a Laredo-born English professor at the University of San Antonio, grew up watching the debutantes on parade floats.

"As children we don't stop and analyze what's going on," she said. "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?'"

But she said the standard of living has gotten better in Laredo and she now has a scholarly appreciation of the event.

"Culturally, we are Mexicans," she said. "For people who are not from the area it sounds really strange. It was an attempt early on to Americanize."