Published: November 2006
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

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.

But because this is the border, the first First Lady is extolled bilingually:

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.

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.

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.

In many ways, Laredo's upper class has changed little in more than 300 years: It is still dominated by preoccupations with lineage and class. Jennie Reed reminded me more than once that her family dates back to the 18th century. The city was founded in 1755 by a Spanish rancher who named Laredo after a town in Spain. Land on both sides of the Rio Grande was subsequently granted to people who were then citizens of New Spain, now Mexico. This world was socially stratified, with immigrants of Spanish descent at the top, and mestizos, mulattoes, and Indians below. Members of the lower classes were expected to address their betters as don and doña, partly out of respect and partly because they were beholden to them—the patrons were the only employers in town. They grew rich from ranching, running their small fiefdoms as they pleased.

After the U.S. defeated Mexico in 1848 in a bitter war for control of Texas, the boundary between the two countries shifted to the Rio Grande, and Laredo joined the Union. Those who wanted to remain Mexican citizens moved across the river to what became Nuevo Laredo—the new town. As commerce between the U.S. and Mexico increased, Laredo grew, drawing immigrants from Europe and other parts of the U.S. The area became even richer when oil and gas were discovered in the 1920s, and when the Mexican Revolution sent many from the wealthy, educated class scurrying for shelter on the U.S. side of the border. Laredo was a natural destination because, unlike in other Texas border cities, the early Spanish families had held on to their land and remained in power. They elected the officials, controlled the banks and businesses, and set the social tone. Anglo immigrants, if they wanted to advance, became "Mexicanized." "Josephs" became "Pepes," learned Spanish, and, if they were lucky, married into the Mexican gentry.

Community leaders created the first George Washington's birthday celebration as a way to gin up patriotism along the border during the Spanish-American War in 1898—to prove that Laredo's loyalty was to the U.S. With the addition of the Martha Washington Society in 1939, the Colonial Pageant and Ball became a way to connect the city's most eligible belles with its most eligible bachelors, cementing and maintaining dynastic alliances.

The result is a melting pot of Mexicans and Europeans. "We were a UN before there was a UN," Jennie Reed says. In a place like Manhattan or Boston, a debutante from a minority group is an anomaly. Here the girls' names resonate with the region's history: Treviño, Echa-varría, Vela, and de Anda, as well as Leyendecker, Averill, and Bruni. The oldest Mexican and Anglo families intermarried so long ago that no one in their right minds would attempt to make ethnic distinctions. Laredo is a modern case study for those who worry that the constant influx of Mexican immigrants threatens to divide the country into two cultures, two peoples, two languages. If this city's history is any guide, assimilation is a given, especially among those fortunate enough to rise to the top.

Meanwhile the social stratification continues: The rich have stayed rich, and the poor—owing to a cheap and plentiful supply of labor across the border—have stayed poor. Today the poverty level of Webb County, where the city is situated, is 31 percent, double the statewide average. Per capita income in Laredo is only $11,000. It is for this reason that many find the extravagance of the Martha celebration disturbing, as it puts on display a kind of wealth that has preserved itself for centuries on the backs of the poor. "Does the oligarchy think about the plight of the immigrants?" asks María Eugenia Guerra, a former debutante who publishes an alternative newspaper called LareDOS. "Only when it inconveniences them." Not surprisingly, Jennie Reed disagrees: "Of course we are aware of the poor here. People in the society probably give away more money to charity than anybody. But if people who've worked hard want to spend their money this way, why not let them do it?"

Backstage on the night of the ball, the debutantes look like dolls too fine and pretty to take down from a shelf. They wear their hair piled in curls atop their heads, with tiaras that match their gowns, their billowing skirts surrounding them like moats. The beads on their gowns sparkle under the lights, but the girls themselves barely move or speak, attended to by determined mothers and efficient makeup artists and hair stylists. They look beautiful but anxious, the way young women do when they are about to claim their places in society, even if the road was paved for them generations ago.

When Alyssa Cigarroa finally crossed the stage for her debut, in a lavender gown encrusted with beads and sequins she'd helped design, the crowd whooped, perhaps because they sensed she represented a change in the order of things. You wouldn't think the Cigarroa name would be an obstacle to becoming a Martha. To be a Cigarroa in South Texas is to be something like a Kennedy, only without the tragic curse. At the turn of the 20th century, the family had substantial wealth in Mexico, but that wealth—in mining—was seized during the revolution. After that, Alyssa's great-grandfather, Joaquin G. Cigarroa, Sr., worked his way through medical school, became an accomplished physician, and in 1937 settled with his wife in Laredo. The Cigarroas exhibit the values that have long contributed to the success of Mexico's most honorable families: Loyalty, service, and education take precedence over wealth for its own sake. Alyssa's grandmother, Barbara Cigarroa, still presides over lunches with her ten children, all of whom attended Ivy League schools (mostly Harvard) and became professionals (mostly doctors).

But even though Alyssa's father, Ricardo Cigarroa, a cardiologist, is perhaps the most important physician in town, Alyssa's desire to be a Martha was problematic. The story is convoluted, the truth impossible to discern. Whether it had to do with vague accusations of jealousy toward the family, a business feud among local doctors, or simply the Marthas' tradition of giving preference to members' daughters first (her mother, Lisa, was still on the waiting list), Alyssa's participation in the pageant was far from certain. That she was exemplary—as the Martha rules require—was not in question; it was just that the Marthas already had selected their debs for the year. It took a palace coup, engineered by a few members of the society, to get her chosen. After much politicking and a special vote, in the end the Marthas made room for Alyssa. "It was a revolution," is the way one member put it.

A revolution, of course, had already arrived—it had only taken old-line Laredo this long to notice. In the past, the city's wealthy Mexican-American residents had to create their own world because they weren't so welcome everywhere else. Though they traveled back and forth across the border to Mexico, no one visited Manhattan or Europe with the frequency they do now. It wasn't long ago that, even just a few miles up the road in San Antonio, people with Spanish surnames endured varying degrees of discrimination. The best law firms, the best hospitals, the San Antonio city council and mayor's office were all controlled by Anglo men. To succeed and prosper, it was best to stay home.

Those limitations have fallen away. The irony of Alyssa's deep desire to become a Martha is that a modern girl like her doesn't need the status anymore. Yes, weeks after the ball, her gown was still displayed on a mannequin in the Cigarroa family living room. And she enjoyed the parties given over the past year, at least five honoring each girl. These included a fete devoted to designer purses, one to designer shoes (Manolos were in evidence), a disco party, a Hollywood party, and, Alyssa's favorite, the one her grandmother gave her, in which the decor—tables, bows, lace—was a study in pink.

But, like the other debs, Alyssa has been raised to be a member of a much larger world. She attended Manhattan's Parsons School of Design and spent a summer studying art in Paris. These young women have résumés to rival students at Andover and Exeter. One pursued independent study at Cambridge University, and another participated in an MIT engineering program. One young woman plans to major in genetics, another to become a radiologist, another to work at ESPN. What these girls want, in becoming Marthas, is not to cement their places in Laredo, but to carry a bit of Laredo with them into futures that will be much more complicated than that of their mothers and grandmothers.

Laredo itself has become a much more complicated place in their lifetimes, as a bloody drug war across the border threatens to spread north. The easy, open world of their childhoods is disappearing before their eyes. Where once the Marthas celebrated across the river after their debuts, the party this year was held in Laredo. "We don't go over there anymore" is a phrase heard frequently, and with good reason: Nuevo Laredo's annual homicide toll reached 46 shortly after the pageant. For Laredo residents, the possibility of getting caught in the cross fire is very real, as is the risk that their children could be kidnapped. "Three more die in N.L." was the headline in the Laredo Morning Times a few days before the ball.

Also in the headlines was a call to seal off the borders to keep out illegal immigrants, maybe even build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a move that would forever change Laredo. This is, after all, a town where the economy depends on immigrants who come to work and shop. "This place is so far removed from reality," says María Guerra. "If their housekeeper couldn't come, they would throw fits at what it would cost" to pay standard rather than border wages, she says. "But they bury their heads in the sand" when it comes to the current debate on immigration.

Sealing the border doesn't seem like such a bad idea to some, especially now that their daughters, as moneyed and well educated as any New England WASPs, no longer look to Mex-ico as their wider world but can move freely about the globe, with more opportunities than they could possibly explore in their lifetimes.

The usual parade honoring George Washington's birthday took place the day after the ball. The weather was bleak and cold, but the old families had set up shop in parking lots, barbecuing on flatbed trucks as they always did, while the hoi polloi sat on lawn chairs below, snacking on elotes and Domino's pizzas. It was a classic border scene, with the differences between rich and poor both obvious and ignored, as everyone begged for candy and plastic beads from the floats with the pretty girls in their jeweled gowns. But change was in the air, from both sides of the border, and these girls knew it, snuggling deep into their furs to ward off the chill.