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Published: November 2006

Laredo, Texas

Debutante Ball

Once Upon a Time in Laredo

They're having a ball in this South Texas town. But as the border between the U.S. and Mexico tightens, life will never be the same.

By Mimi Swartz
Photograph by Penny De Los Santos

The world of the Texas-Mexico border has always been inscrutable to outsiders. Consider the pageant presented by Laredo's Society of Martha Washington—part of a month-long celebration of George Washington's birthday, held since 1898. The notion of honoring our founding father and his kindly wife a stone's throw from Mexico seems almost comical. It's hard to associate that particular George W. with the dry, dusty scrub of South Texas. Laredo's blocky Civic Center, where local debutantes are presented in an annual and very lavish tribute to Mrs. Washington, is a far cry from the serene repose of Mount Vernon. Yet the ability to take a leap of faith into another world is what the border has always been about. Those who make the place their home know how to live in at least two worlds, accepting both and judging neither.

So on a blustery Friday night in February, a stage has been transformed into a replica of the Washingtons' drawing room, right down to the twinkling crystal sconces and the pale green, period-hued walls. Seventeen local belles make their debuts, teetering across the stage in elaborate gowns while a narrator praises Martha Washington's simple virtues with a solemnity that would satisfy the finickiest member of a First Family of Virginia.

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