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Alyssa Cigarroa had always dreamed of becoming a Martha. At 17, she is a beautiful young woman with shimmery brown hair, dancing eyes, and a wide, dazzling smile. She began reading the annual Sunday supplement featuring the debutantes when she was five. At seven her grandmother, Barbara Flores Cigarroa, took her to her first pageant. But wanting to be a Martha and actually becoming one are two very different things. None of the women on the Cigarroa side of the family had ever participated in the pageant, and in the rules governing this societal ritual, precedent can be a formidable obstacle.

Though the Martha Society's past president, Veronica Castillón, makes joining the organization sound as easy as sending in an application—"It's not complicated," she says blithely—women can spend up to eight years on the society's waiting list so their daughters can be selected as debutantes by longtime members. Some women are never picked at all. The ones who are come mostly from a small, elite group of old families. People like Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez and her sister, Jennie Reed—heirs to an oil-and-gas fortune bounteous even by Texas standards. Their grandfather played George Washington in 1905; both women are married to the men who were their pageant escorts; and their daughters made their debuts a few decades later.

Like many of the close-knit Laredo clans, the two sisters grew up in St. Peter's Plaza, a tree-lined neighborhood of genteel homes—big but not McMansions, 19th, not the 20th century. Greeting me on a generous, sun-dappled porch are two women who could not appear more different. Linda is as dramatic as Jennie is reserved. Linda speaks forcefully, wears her hair loose, favors flashy jewelry and a low cut T-shirt, while Jennie, the elder, waits her turn to speak and wears her hair in a tight bun. Both women have devoted their lives to the Martha Washington Society. Jennie is the organization's publicist and unofficial historian, while Linda, for the past 30 years, has designed the lavish gowns that are the highlight of the celebration. "The girls are born, and the mothers call me from the hospital," Linda says, speaking in speedy, lightly accented English. To a small group of very rich people, she is argu-ably the most important woman in town.

At her atelier in one of the four homes she owns in St. Peter's, Linda has covered the walls with color photos of girls in their gowns. A dress hangs on a mannequin in a downstairs workroom. It glitters in the sun streaming through the windows, Laredo's version of the crown jewels displayed at the Tower of London. Like wedding dresses that stay in families for generations, some Laredo debs even recycle, or, rather, upgrade, gowns that once belonged to their mothers or grandmothers, a cost-cutting measure that is only applauded when it includes the copious application of still more ruffles, beads, sequins, and laces. The understated ways of old money do not apply here. Greenwich, Connecticut, this is not.

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