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The Debutante Ball in Laredo

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.

A city with long, proud traditions is Laredo, Texas, where the daughters from the best and oldest families of this South Texas border town are presented to society every year at the annual celebration of George Washington’s birthday. Some months ago, National Geographic magazine dedicated an 18-page spread to the gala Pageant that makes up part of the festival that celebrates the first President in this 94 percent Latino city. The festival lasts a month and draws all strata of society, as well as visitors from all over the world. Mexican and US Senators, Governors, top ranking Generals and Admirals and other high officials mix and enjoy the fiesta season, with its dances, games, competitions and grand parade.

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Official dressmaker Linda Leyendecker checks details on the dress of a debutante - National Geographic Magazine, November 2006

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With fifes and drums, colonial soldiers begin the presentation ceremony on a stage transformed into a replica of a room of Washington's time

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With pages on each side, the doors open and each debutante and her escort are announced and presented

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The 17 "Marthas" and their escorts make a dazzling picture of elegance

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A representation of Martha and George Washington

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A year of practice in etiquette and bearing precede the Ball

It was back in February 1898 during the Spanish-American War that the city leaders decided to make a gesture to demonstrate Laredo’s loyalty to the United States. It wouldn’t do to celebrate Lincoln, with the South still smarting from the brutal aftereffects of the Civil War. But Washington, admired for his courage and honesty, as well as his gentility, was most acceptable. The festival took off, a bicultural event that drew crowds from both sides of the border. In 1939, on a suggestion of the local Monsignor, a ladies’ Society of Martha Washington came into being, and the first 13 debutantes - known as “Marthas” - were presented at the Colonial Pageant and Ball.

Many of 17 debutantes who were presented last year can trace their ancestry back five and six generations to the city’s earliest colonists, who received land grants to settle both sides of the Rio Grande in 1767. The name of each “Martha” is called out as the double French doors on the stage of the Laredo Civic Center are opened and the girl appears with her escort. By the way, they are no longer all Spanish names. Through the years, good families of European extraction came to Laredo and married into these first families. Some of the debutantes and escorts who were sent to Ivy League colleges returned with their Anglo spouses from the East Coast. The debutantes names resonate with these natural changes and assimilations: Along with Treviños, Echavarrías, Velas and de Andas, there are Lyendeckers, Averills, Brunis, and Notzens.

For readers following our section on Organic Society, here you can see an example of the natural formation of a local elite which preserved the notion of dignity proceeding from the traditions and customs of their ancestors. The social hierarchy formed by this organic process is a healthy leadership that maintains social order and favors stability.

“The Marthas”

For the people of Laredo, the centerpiece of the Washington festival is the Martha Washington Pageant and Ball. Everyone waits to see the grandiose costumes of the young ladies, whose dresses can weigh up to 80 pounds. Supported by a lattice of hoops, the elaborate silk, satin and velvet gowns are coated with beading, sequins, lace and ribbons from all over the world. The style is colonial, but by no means would such outfits have appeared in the drawing room of the first White House. To the charm of 18th century America, the dramatic flourish of Spain has been added. The result is a spectacular picture.

What does it mean to be a “Martha”? The debut ritual is a year-long arduous process to prepare the new generation for the social demands of a traditional upper-class lifestyle. The year of her “coming out,” the young lady will receive a whole education in etiquette, bearing and good manners. As part of the rounds of parties and afternoon teas that begin in September, a “Martha” is expected to know how to greet and introduce everyone, and of course, write proper invitations and thank-you notes.

“A girl gets her social education the year she is a debutante,” said Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, a “Martha” who was presented in 1963 and today is the official dressmaker for the annual Pageant. “She learns manners and poise and the old social graces.” Some people may make fun, she notes, but Laredoans takes the rite of passage quite seriously. “I receive calls from parents from the hospital after a daughter is born,” she said, “They say, ‘Put me on the list (for a dress).’” (“’Bellades” of the Ball,’ Texas Monthly, April 2006).

The year of training culminates with the presentation at the grand ball. As each girl is introduced on the arm of her escort, her family history is read: “Meaghan’s family has participated in the society for five generations…” The reader tells whether her father or grandfather ever played George Washington, the family members who were “Marthas,” if she or her escort was ever an “abrazo” child. Every year, several young boys and girls from Laredo give an “abrazo” – or embrace – to counterparts from across the border in Nuevo Laredo on the International Bridge as a gesture of goodwill between the nations.

Then, she makes her formal bow of reverence to the society she will enter, arms elegantly placed, lowering herself inch by inch to her knees and bending forward at the waist until her head is nearly flush with the ground, a feat that demands months of practice in the stiff hoopskirts.

This moment announces the arrival of the young woman into adult society with the utmost of formality and elegance. For the girls, it is a moment never forgotten.

The prestige of tradition

Laredo’s residents like to say that their annual Festival and Martha Washington Pageant and Ball are genteel celebrations of patriotism that stems from love of God and country. It is that, and more. In the towns and cities of Christian Civilization, it was the established families who set the tone of social life. Their wholesome traditions, good customs and manners, as long as they were inspired by Catholic principles, filtered down into the general society, elevating the whole.

Because of the Cultural Revolution, today many of these good customs among the elites have sadly been corrupted. But when we find salutary examples of long-standing traditions and societies that maintain their historical values, they deserve the recognition and admiration of Catholics. They offer us models for the future Catholic society to be built. They also show us the real prestige of authentic traditions.


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