'Las Marthas': Texas Border City Offers Unique President's Day Celebration

It's a huge deal for the otherwise dusty Texas border city, where every year it puts on a regionally known month-long celebration of George Washington's birthday, chock-full of original era pomp and circumstance.

But perhaps the most unique event is the invitation-only "Colonial Ball" hosted by the Society of Martha Washington.

The Society’s daughters, most of them Mexican-American, are invited as debutantes in elaborate colonial gowns representing iconic figures from the country’s revolutionary era.

Welcome to the world of “Las Marthas.”

Their tale is told in the namesake documentary by critically-acclaimed filmmaker Cristina Ibarra, premiering on PBS’s “Independent Lens” Monday night on President's Day.

The documentary follows two young debutantes – one a prominent member of Laredo society and the other a newcomer from Mexico – as they prepare for this rite of passage.

“I had never heard of the celebration while I was growing up in El Paso, Texas,” Ibarra told PBS. “But after one of my cousins married and moved to Laredo, I went to visit her and I noticed all of these local magazines around town with young women on the covers who reminded me of Marie Antoinette – but a Latina version.”

She said what surprised her most was that the debutantes represented American Revolutionary characters for George Washington’s birthday.

“I found myself wondering, ‘Why would these young women play such a prominent role in honoring a symbol of the American conquest in these territories that used to be part of Mexico?’” she continued. “This question stayed with me for a long time, until finally I got the chance to explore it in this documentary.”

The filmmaker said while there are strong ties between Laredo, Texas and its sister city in Mexico – Nuevo Laredo, which participates in the celebrations – the drug war and stricter immigration policies have made it increasingly difficult to keep the binational connection alive. Ibarra said nevertheless they keep trying.

“There are many young people from Nuevo Laredo who still cross every single day, so that they can go to school in Laredo,” she said, adding that it was somewhat difficult to travel between both cities for filming.

Another challenge Ibarra came across while filming was conveying "Las Marthas" story and vision without crumbling to the pressure of some people who wanted them to “call out the inherent irony of Mexicans pretending to be Anglo.” She said it would have much easier to fund that kind of film, but that it was important to stick to their plan.

“We wanted to explore the contradictions of this event through the coming-of-age of the young woman – and let viewers form their own conclusions,” Ibarra said. “To make a film from the inside-out and unravel the layers of identify, legacy and history that makes this event so meaningful to folks.”

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