Team Pick: “Las Marthas” Premieres Tonight, Asks Why This Border Town Celebrates George Washington

Yvonne’s Team Pick:

I’ve probably attended about a hundred quinceañeras in my lifetime and even wore a poofy pink dress to mine. So debutante balls or versions of it aren’t a foreign concept to me. What’s really interesting about the documentary “Las Marthas” is it showcases no ordinary debutante ball. It features teenage Latinas wearing elaborate gowns at the Society of Martha Washington’s debutante ball held in the border town of Laredo, TX — an event part of a month-long celebration honoring George and Martha Washington. Say what?

I grew up in a border town almost identical to Laredo, TX, actually my hometown and Laredo share the same area code, so I was really confused on how exactly this primarily Mexican-American town came to celebrate the first president of the United States.

Apparently the director Cristina Ibarra had the same questions:

“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?”…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.”

The ball originated 75 years ago, and dates back even further to 1898.

“After the U.S. defeated Mexico in 1848 in a bitter war for control of Texas, the boundary between the two countries shifted to the Rio Grande, and Laredo joined the Union. Those who wanted to remain Mexican citizens moved across the river to what became Nuevo Laredo—the new town…Community leaders created the first George Washington’s birthday celebration as a way to gin up patriotism along the border during the Spanish-American War in 1898—to prove that Laredo’s loyalty was to the U.S. With the addition of the Martha Washington Society in 1939, the Colonial Pageant and Ball became a way to connect the city’s most eligible belles with its most eligible bachelors, cementing and maintaining dynastic alliances.”

I’m super excited about this documentary because it was directed and produced by two women and explores the intersections of race and class of a complex tradition held in a border town.

“Las Marthas” premieres tonight at 10 p.m. EST on Independent Lens.


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Yvonne S. Marquez is a lesbian journalist and Autostraddle senior editor living in Dallas, TX. She writes about social justice, politics, activism and other things dear to her heart like Selena and tacos. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and has since written and edited lots of gay stuff for the internet. Yvonne calls the borderlands home, strongly identifies with her Scorpio moon sign, and really hopes to crush the patriarchy soon. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

Yvonne has written 187 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I love documentaries and this is totes next on my list. Obscure and local cultural traditions are interesting in particular because politics and history on that sort of individual small-town level are so rarely really explored.

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