Independent Lens - Las Marthas

Updated Mon, Jan 27, 2014 3:19 pm

Monday, February 17 • 10 p.m.

The film Las Marthas enjoys unprecedented access to an exclusive border celebration in honor of George Washington, where Mexican American debutantes dress as American Revolutionaries. Every February, one of the largest celebrations of George Washington’s birthday in the world takes place in the border town of Laredo, Texas. This 116-year-old tradition has evolved into an entire month of inventive reenactments and bicultural celebrations, many of them involving Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, their sister city across the border. The most preeminent event of them all, however, is the invitation-only Colonial Ball hosted by the elite Society of Martha Washington.

Society daughters, most of them Mexican American, are invited to debut in elaborate Colonial gowns representing iconic figures from America’s revolutionary history. Their goal: to recreate a party hosted by Martha Washington, but this time set on the US/Mexico border. Las Marthas follows two of the young debutantes, one a prominent member of Laredo society and the other a newcomer from Mexico, as they prepare for this extraordinary rite of passage.

Laurita, the 13th young woman in her family to make her debut in the Washington’s Birthday Celebration, reminds us that South Texas used to be part of Mexico: “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.” Like many landowners in Laredo, she can trace her lineage back to the original Spanish land grantees; yet, uncomfortable with the rigid class system the debutante ball perpetuates, she constantly wavers between embracing and questioning the ritual.

Rosario, on the other hand, is the first in her family to debut. Raised in Mexico, yet educated in the U.S., Rosario is one of only two “guests” invited to present at this year’s Ball. She represents Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the other half of a bi-national community nicknamed “Los Dos Laredos” or “the Two Laredos.” At a time when conflict and crime typically dominate all discourse about the border, Rosario’s inclusion reflects the Society’s desire to stitch together a community that the media, politics, and history have tried to divide. Yet despite Rosario’s previous success as a beauty queen, she remains a Society outsider; she yearns to understand the unspoken rules that all of the other girls seem to have so easily inherited along with their legacy.

A year in the making, each girl’s dress can weigh up to one hundred pounds and cost up to $30,000 nearly the median family income of Laredo. Many of these spectacular creations are made by highly coveted dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, an oil heiress who designs her dresses with “heavenly inspiration from God.”

A fascinating look at a world barely known outside of Texas, Las Marthas unravels the origins of the celebration and explores why a town like Laredo, with such deep Mexican roots, feels such affinity for America’s Founding Father, and how despite all odds the Washington’s Birthday Celebration has managed to persevere and even flourish, thanks to the Mexican American girls who continue to wear the gilded burden of tradition.