Published: November 2006
Penny De Los Santos

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

This assignment started out as a photo development project. I kept returning to National Geographic with pictures the editors liked, so they kept sending me back to South Texas, telling me that my coverage was great, but to think about this, and think about that. They really helped me develop and understand the story. The whole experience was amazing. I'm from South Texas, so this is a personal story for me that took me along a personal journey.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

The Society of Martha Washington is a private organization of wealthy Laredo residents that presents young women to society in an annual ball. The event mimics the elaborate reception Martha Washington gave in honor of President George Washington's last night in office. Society members don't let just anyone in. And after being burned by an article in another publication recently, they had reinstated a no-interviews policy. So I had to submit to a formal interview to gain access.

Once I was allowed in, I had to jump through hoops to get people to realize that I wasn't there to exploit them. It didn't matter what I did on any given day; they knew exactly where I was. I think they must have been calling each other. It was hard to gain their trust and assure them that I wasn't going to make fun of them for having a lot of money and such rich traditions. If anything, I wanted the magazine's readers to see how special—although controversial—this tradition has been for so many generations of Laredo's elite ever since it started more than a hundred years ago.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

I was in D.C. to show this body of work to my editors. I was nervous the night before, so I went out with some friends. During the course of the night, I met a woman who asked me where I was from. Just for fun, I asked, "Where do you think I'm from?" And she said, "Well, you look like you're maybe Mediterranean or maybe Italian or something." And then she said, "Wait a minute! You're Hispanic." I asked her, "What country do you think I'm from?" She named a couple of countries that were wrong, and when I finally told her that I'm Mexican-American, she said, "Whoa! I never would have figured that! You don't look like you would take out the trash!"

That was a horrible thing to say, but I wasn't offended. Instead, I was surprised. I realized that this woman had such a gap in her perception of what Mexican-Americans are and who they are and how they're represented. That's when I knew how important this story is. I wanted to change her view.