las marthas

Las Marthas: the Mexican-American Debutantes in South Texas

By Stephanie Palos, Laredo Native

Mexican-American women from Laredo dressed up as Martha Washington? Yes, it happens every year in Laredo. The Society of Martha Washington hosts an annual debutante ball in Laredo, Texas during the annual celebration of George Washington’s birthday. The Colonial Pageant and Ball is one of the most well-known events in South Texas that is employed as a societal debut; the first ball was held in 1939.

The ball, hosted by The Society of Martha Washington, is by invitation-only to the daughters of the elite members of Mexican-American families in Laredo, Texas who were former “Marthas.” If the legacies decide to decline the invitation, it gives people, who would not have been able to be presented, the opportunity to be apart of the Colonial Pageant and Ball.

The debuting part of the pageant is like a real-life obstacle course for these young women. The girls have to wear a dress that weighs about 100 pounds, cuts off their circulation, all while having to walk down a flight of stairs, take a deep bow, and twirl. They seem to do all of that while required to wear the smile of a doll. From the outside looking in, it seems like it’s just a bunch of pretty girls wearing beautiful, intricate gowns.

Las Marthas’ Colonial Pageant and Ball is an event that demonstrates the bicultural identities that Latinos who live in the United States experience. The event uncovers multiple layers that deepen our views of the Latino experience in the United States. As Latinos who live in the United States, we may face conflict assimilating into both cultures or finding a balance between both when we try to embrace two cultures at once. In turn, Latino individuals have difficulties balancing their identities within themselves due to the influence of both of their cultures.

At the beginning of 2014, a documentary called Las Marthas, by Cristina Ibarrafollows two debutantes whom portray colonial heroines at an annual colonial pageant throughout George Washington’s Birthday celebration in Laredo.

One debutante is a prominent member of society and the other is a newcomer from Mexico. According to PBS, “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 against 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.”

The Austin Film Society is hosting a screening of Las Marthas at The Marchesa Hall & Theater on Wednesday, October 8th at 7:30 PM. The General Admission tickets are $8 a person. After the film, there will be a Q&A session with the director of the film, Cristina Ibarra. Click here for more info.

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