Martha was "la primera dama de nuestra nación," who "put her country and the General above herself." And, also because this is the border, there is something just a bit zany about the celebration. When you combine the psyche of wealthy Mexico with that of wealthy Texas, more is always going to be more. Debs in New York might display their well-practiced curtsies in spare white gowns and gloves, but these girls make their bows in dresses of gleaming satin and thick velvet, so encrusted with ruffles, beads, and lace that they elicit gasps from the audience. Two notable Laredoans have been chosen to portray George and Martha, and on this, supposedly the President's last night in ofﬁce, the First Couple's life is reenacted, with the debutantes and their escorts all playing roles. As each young woman is introduced, violins or the U.S. Army ﬁfe and drum corps playing, it is noted whether her mother or grandmother or great-aunt made her debut as "a Martha," whether her father or grandfather or great-uncle ever played George Washington, and whether she or her escort—from an equally ﬁne old family—was ever an "abrazo" child: Every year a boy and a girl from Laredo embrace their counterparts from across the border in Nuevo Laredo on the International Bridge before a huge, cheering crowd, epitomizing the love that people on both sides have for each other.
And so life has gone for more than a century here, where the cultures have not so much collided as colluded to form one region, separate and apart from both home countries. The two Laredos, it has been said, beat "with one heart." This particular stretch of border is both baroque and byzantine, the most stratiﬁed and status-conscious of border towns, part Texan, part Mexican, and somewhat American, with rules, rituals, and folkways that have grown as complex and vibrant as the bougainvillea that blooms along columns and rooftops in so many local yards.
It would be easy to make fun of Laredo and its pageant. In these days of war, famine, global warming, and the ever growing divide between rich and poor, an elaborate tribute to Martha Washington by debs wearing gowns that weigh 85 pounds and cost in the neighborhood of $30,000 is something of an easy target. Recently, however, change has come to the region—in the form of drug violence across the border and, emanating from Washington, battles over immigration—threatening a way of life that has persisted here since the ﬁrst Spanish settlers arrived in the 1700s. This year, despite the jeweled gowns and effusive abrazos at the celebration, it was natural to wonder whether Laredo's oldest families were honoring the past or clinging to it. And that didn't seem funny at all.