For the families who take part, the cost of the event—the gown, the myriad parties—is not an issue. Nor is it discussed: "Would you ask me how many acres I own?" is Linda Gutierrez's practiced reply to any ﬁnancial inquiry about the ball, equating it with the ultimate ranching faux pas. Over time, the price of a dress has escalated in direct proportion to the affluence of the ruling families: A beaded, velvet gown from the 1970s looks ornate until you see one from the post-NAFTA years, when the wealth of Laredo—and the inclination to show off that wealth—increased exponentially. Linda, whose stress-induced, Exorcist-like transformation during the event is a source of local legend, knows better than most how the richest people in town love to wear their hearts, their histories, and even their bankbooks, on their sleeves. "I want my daughter to steal the show," is the order one mother gave Linda. In Spanish, of course.
To understand Laredo's Martha Washington pageant, you have to understand the city's past. At best, Laredo is an acquired taste. It is one of those spots where it's best to develop an afﬁnity for the sky because the land isn't much to look at. It is flat and scrubby, unsuitable for hardly anything but grazing, and the climate is hot and dry for most of the year. Laredo's appeal comes not from its topography but from its place on the map, its closeness to Mexico. Here, everyone is bilingual, and everyone switches languages with idiosyncratic abandon. ("I'm hearing about Shelby's party todavía!") A classic, bustling Mexican plaza is bordered by the lovely San Agustin Cathedral and the old La Posada hotel. Laredo's downtown streets smell of diesel exhaust and roasted elotes—ears of corn. Its old-fashioned awnings shield pedestrians in business suits as well as beggars in rags from the heartless sun.
Linda and Jennie's childhood had a freedom many would envy today. The girls spent their youth roaming their neighborhood at will, visiting the family ranch to ride horses, ﬁsh, or hunt, and attending party after party for baptisms, weddings, or graduations among the group of families and close friends who clustered in St. Peter's Plaza. "There were no paved streets," Linda says, and summers were so hot that maids sprayed the sisters' sheets with water before they got into bed at night.