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Las Marthas

Jordan Kisner
689 Snaps

The dresses take a year to sew, and the girls spend a year learning how to wear them: how to glide, how to float their arms out so they never touch the skirts, how to hold their heads under the weight of the coiffure. The look is Marie Antoinette in her let-them-eat-cake days, and the dresses, like Marie’s dresses, weigh so much—up to one hundred pounds—that they hurt the girl. They leave bruises at the shoulders and hips where the dress bones pull down on girl bones. The dresses, like the gestures, are passed down from mother to daughter.

Each girl needs five dressers, who first lace her into her corset, then affix the “cage” of the hoop skirt to her waist, sneaking a pillow between the cage and her body so her skin isn’t rubbed raw. Then come petticoats, and the dress on top. The dressing occurs over a tarp with a hole cut into its center, and once everything is in place, the women pick up the girl and the tarp together and walk her to the stage so that the dress never touches the ground. If it is raining, they wrap her in plastic too.

When she walks, she takes the smallest steps possible so she appears to be borne along on a current of air. Large steps make the giant hooped skirt slap back and forth, and, anyway, a stately, exhibitive gait is key. Her arms remain at attention, hovering lightly above the hips of the dress, elbows soft, wrists tilted, hands in the Barbie claw. These subtle positions are a staple of the contemporary pageant: the ritual gestures, all bodies made to form the same shapes—back rod-straight in the corset, head erect, smile mannered.

For the girls, the hardest task is the curtsy, learning to sink to the floor gracefully and then rise again as if the monument on their hips were only a trick of light. They teach me to do it in a little group in the salon, all of them laughing in flip-flops and sweatpants with their toenails and lip liner already done. You go slowly onto one knee, they explain, and then, while remaining motionless from the waist up, tuck the other knee underneath for extra support. Slowly, we sit down and back on our heels and bow magisterially over our imaginary skirts, keeping our chins up, up, up until the last moment, when we finally accede to the skirt, turning the right cheek. It looks in this final phase like the girl is cocking one ear to her dress, listening for what’s underneath.

Why? I ask. Why is this the bow?

They shrug. It’s always been this way. That’s how they taught it to us.

*

There are many debutante balls in Texas, and a number of pageants that feature historical costumes, but the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball in Laredo is the most opulently patriotic among them. In the late 1840s, a number of European American settlers from the East were sent to staff a new military base in southwest Texas, a region that had recently been ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War. They found themselves in a place that was tenuously and unenthusiastically American. Feeling perhaps a little forlorn at being so starkly in the minority, these new arrivals established a local chapter of the lamentably named Improved Order of Red Men. (Members of the order dressed as “Indians,” called their officers “chiefs,” and began their meetings, or “powwows,” by banging a tomahawk instead of a gavel.)

The Improved Order of Red Men fashioned itself as a torchbearer for colonial-era American patriotism, and its young Laredo chapter was eager to enshrine that culture down at the border. So it formed the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association (WBCA). For the inaugural celebration, in 1897, they “laid siege” to the Old Laredo City Hall, pretending to be a warring native tribe conquering the city. (The optics here must have been confusing, as the order was made up of white men, while most of the city’s residents were either Mexican by birth or indigenous.) A young woman was appointed to play Pocahontas, and after brokering peace between the tribe and the city, she received the keys to Laredo in appreciation of her efforts.

The siege was done away with long ago, but every February since 1898, the WBCA has thrown a massive festival—America’s largest, most elaborate party for its first president. Lately, the festival includes a Comedy Jam for George, a Founding Fathers’ 5K Fun Run, a Jalapeño Festival, a Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball, an Anheuser-Busch-sponsored citywide parade, and so on. The prestige event of the season is the pageant and debutante ball hosted by the Society of Martha Washington, which was started by WBCA wives in 1940 with the aim of adding glitz to the festival. Their daughters dress up in what is creatively imagined to be Martha-like attire (in fact, the dresses are not much like what Martha Washington would have worn), playacting historical figures who might have known her. Each year, one adult Society member is chosen to play Martha herself, and a man from the WBCA is asked to play George.

The WBCA was started by members of Laredo’s mostly-white upper class, but in the almost one hundred years since the association’s founding, the city has become almost entirely mixed-ethnicity: on the 2010 census, 96 percent of the population identified as Hispanic. Through intermarriage, the upper class of Laredo has come to include not only the Lyndeckers and the Bunns (two original WBCA families still prominent in the Society) but also families named Rodriguez, Gutierrez, Martinez, and Reyes. Today, Martha, George, and the girls are mostly Mexican Americans. Many of them descend from the original WBCA families, but just as many are descended from the people who were categorically oppressed—and, in several instances, massacred—by an American colonialist expansion set in motion by the Founding Fathers they dress up to honor.

In Nahuatl, there’s a word for in-betweenness: nepantla. The Aztecs started using the word in the sixteenth century when they were being colonized by Spain. Nepantla means “in the middle,” which is what they were: between a past they wrote themselves and the future that would be written by their conquerors, in the middle of the river between who they had been and who they were allowed to be now. Twentieth-century theorists have used the word shattered to describe the liminal existence of nepantleras, indicating both brokenness and the possibility of making something radically new. The word has also been used to describe the borderlands experience, the mixed-race experience, the experience of anyone who lives both in and outside their world of origin. As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, nepantleras are “threshold people.”

Two months after hearing a story about the borderlands debutante ball where Mexican American girls dress up in full period costume and pretend to be Martha Washington, I arrived in Laredo from the north. I’d flown into San Antonio, where my grandmother lives, and driven the 150 miles of interstate down to the border. When I checked into my hotel, the front desk attendant warned me not to miss the last exit on the freeway. If you don’t get off at the last exit, she said, there’s no turning around and you’ll wind up across the border in Nuevo Laredo and need a passport to get back. “It’s OK,” I assured her. “I’m from a border city too.”

Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are often described as neighboring cities, but geographically they are one city, the Laredo–Nuevo Laredo Metropolitan Area, bisected by the US-Mexico border and the Rio Grande. It’s a city that’s American on its north side and Mexican on its south side. The river is narrow as a straight pin at this portion of its journey from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, and only fifty yards across. It’s a city of bridges: there is the Juárez-Lincoln International Bridge, the World Trade Bridge, the Colombia Solidarity Bridge, and the Gateway to the Americas Bridge, all roughly a thousand feet long. Thousands of people cross from one place to the other each day, to work or to school or to see family. Laredo’s adopted nickname is “the Gateway City,” though the border is tightly regulated. Of the major ports for trade, trafficking, and immigration between the United States and Mexico, Laredo is among the very busiest, often outranked only by San Diego, where I am from.

In this country, major border towns share some common features. They contain armies of immigration and customs enforcement officers; if you drive down near the border, you’ll see ICE vehicles ferrying migrants between detention centers. Everyone knows people who are undocumented, which lately means that everyone knows someone who has vanished without warning or notice. The radio traffic reports always include estimates for the delays at each of the crossings. And then there’s the fence.

Unlike Laredo, San Diego County remains majority white and segregated in ways designed by city planners and codified by city councils decades ago. Speaking generally, white and affluent people—categories that blur in San Diego—populate the west and north of the county, the parts that have the beaches. While all the beaches in California are public land, people who own beachfront property own the views of the ocean. They own the right to see horizon. With some exceptions, lower-income families, immigrants, and most Mexican Americans live to the south and east, on the sides of the county that face the desert and the border.

I was a teenager when I first went to the beach at Border Field State Park with some friends and we wandered until we ran into the fence. I was startled to see the wooden posts jammed deep into the sand and extending out into the ocean. I’d never known that the border went beyond the water’s edge. This reveals more than I wish it did about the teenager I was and the city I lived in.

But every Easter, we would travel as a family to Mission, Texas, which is a border town an hour southeast of Laredo, farther down into the Valley, as Texans call it. Hidalgo County—which contains Mission, where my great-grandparents lived, where my grandparents were raised, and where my mother spent long periods of her childhood—is consistently ranked among the poorest counties in the United States. My earliest memories of Mission are of my great-grandmother Carmen Garcia, whom everyone called Grandma Carmen; billboards with letters missing; a dusty pickup with its bed full of watermelons.

All the Garcias would gather each Easter at my great-grandparents’ house. There were always so many people that we’d have to go to a park for a proper picnic—aunts and uncles, second and third cousins, in-laws, and dozens of grandchildren. It is a tradition among Mexican families in South Texas to do the Easter egg hunt with cascarones, eggshells that have been hollowed out, filled with paper confetti, and resealed with colorful tissue paper. Once the children had hunted down all the cascarones, there’d be a smashing melee, where everyone ran around and broke the eggs over one another’s heads so the confetti exploded in showers around you, settling into your hair and sandals. At the end, everyone would be in stitches, and inevitably one child would be bawling and the ground in that corner of Mission would look as if a parade had blown through. As a child, I spent a lot of time playing in the colorful, littered dirt of that park, and understood it to be, in some important ways, dirt that belonged to me, and me to it.

Still, I always felt slightly out of place in Mission. My father is a somewhat undetermined WASP mix by way of New Jersey, and when I was young I looked mostly like him. The last time we went to stay with Grandma Carmen, I was a teenager, and I spent the whole time feeling pale and giant. There’s a photo of us standing outside her front door: Grandma Carmen and my brother and me. He’s thirteen and I’m fifteen, and next to us she looks like a child, not even five feet tall, barely ninety pounds. My brother looks plausibly related to her; I look like a guest. We didn’t talk much, but she would grasp me by my arms and peer into my eyes and smile. I remember her in her kitchen, holding my mother’s hands and laughing, saying, “Mi’ja, no sé lo que les gusta comer.” Always, we would get on a plane and fly back to the ocean.

*

I met 2018’s Martha Washington at a strip mall in north Laredo, where we had agreed to have lunch between her nail appointment and her hair appointment. The Martha, a blonde woman in her fifties named Tami Summers, was two days away from concluding her duties.

“Right now I’m kinda nervous because of all the stuff that’s going on,” Tami said, waving vaguely at her stomach. She ordered bone broth and a piece of chicken. “I don’t want to sound silly, but I try to get things organized because I’m a teacher, and I plan. And then everything goes to hell.” After decades of teaching middle and high school, she was teaching a class called Race in America at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, but had gotten her classes covered for the week to handle the appointments, houseguests, and other tasks. The Martha Washington–themed T-shirts she’d ordered hadn’t arrived until eleven o’clock the night before, which delayed the arrangement of the welcome baskets she’d planned for the few dozen family members arriving from out of town to see her in the pageant. “So that’s running late. And then I had a mani, so my nails are done, and I have to be back at the Civic Center at three, because we’re putting on the dresses to see how they work onstage. And then we practice tonight with the dresses on.” She heaved a little sigh and took a sip of coffee.

Tami is gregarious and forceful, a short woman with wide blue eyes, a broad, friendly face, and the demeanor of someone who’s made a career corralling teenagers. Her hair was, for the moment, bright blond, which isn’t how she normally wears it. The stylist who does hair for the pageant wanted her to go platinum for Martha. (Martha’s hair was brown, but that’s not the point.) “I kind of like it,” Tami said, patting her head. “I think I might keep it this way.”

She wore a crisp white button-up embroidered with the blue crest of the Society. Across from her sat her childhood friend Carole, also a member of the Society, and to her right sat her teenage daughter, Bailey, who apologized right away for how much she would be yawning through lunch. She’d flown in from Florence, where she’d just started a semester abroad.

Most women are members of the Society because someone in their family was in it—a mother, an aunt—or because they’ve married into it. Tami’s husband’s aunt was a founding member, his father played George in 1987, and he played George in 2006. Tami, who is a joiner and naturally enthusiastic, was admitted into the group in 1998. Bailey began practicing the elaborate curtsy of the Martha Washington debutantes when she was three years old.

The number of members of the Society of Martha Washington is limited to about 250 at any given time, and openings are always outpaced by demand, so women are encouraged to apply for membership long before their daughters are of debutante age. For their first two years in the group, new members must sell fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of advertisements in the pageant’s annual program, which is the size, shape, style, and layout of a high school yearbook.

I asked the three women how they understood the Society’s role in the community more generally. Tami paused, chewing and thinking. “It’s interesting here because we’re such a Hispanic population. At least 95 percent. It’s really a Hispanic base, which is how the WBCA started. We were so Hispanic and so Mexican and so far away, located on the border—we were saying to America, We are American, and we’re going to celebrate Washington’s birthday! We are dual culture. We embrace our Mexican roots.”

This hadn’t been my understanding of the origins of the association—that it was started by Mexicans hoping to be brought into the feel-goodery of the American body politic—but as I was considering a next question, Carole chimed in, pointing out that, in her view, the crowning event of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration is something called the Abrazo Ceremony, which takes place the morning after the pageant, before the parade. Four children, a boy and a girl each from Laredo and from Nuevo Laredo, cross the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge from their respective sides, dressed in colonial-era costumes and accompanied by the mayors of their cities. When they reach one another in the middle of the bridge, over the waters of the Rio Grande, they hug.

“This whole celebration is about unification and friendship, especially with our neighbors to the south,” said Carole. “I think for you, knowing you,” she said, nodding at Tami, “the number one thing about this celebration is connection and family. I mean, for god’s sake, Bailey is here from Italy.”

Tami agreed. “I just think the connection and the continuation of the thing—”

Carole interrupted: “It’s roots. Not connection.”

“But what does a root do?” Tami asked. “It connects you to the ground. It connects you to the earth. It connects you to other people.”

Bailey nodded, looking at her mom. “It makes you a part of something.”

*

I spent most of the next two days in salons, particularly in the Regis Salon at the Mall del Norte, where Tami and a number of the debutantes were having their hair prepared for the various events of the weekend: the dress rehearsal, the pageant, the parade, the cocktail reception. When I arrived, the salon’s rather stern-looking owner, a woman named Grace, was in the middle of back-combing Tami’s hair sky-high. Blond extensions lay like coiled rope on a metal tray nearby.

Tami grinned as a greeting, careful not to move her head. Her iPhone was in her lap, and she was steadily fielding questions and handling minor crises from the various people needing her attention. She had arranged for her female family members who’d come in from out of town to have their makeup professionally applied for the occasion, but coordinating their schedules was proving complex. Next to Tami, a dark-haired, skinny sixteen-year-old named Sydney was further along—the young stylist working on her was already pinning her extensions into a pompadour. Sydney’s mother was negotiating with a makeup artist about the day’s schedule. I asked her what it was like to have a daughter presented.

She smiled. “It’s been a beautiful experience. She’s loving it: she gets pampered, she shines at the parties.” Sydney’s mom leaned forward to show me a picture of Sydney in her dress for the November father-daughter dance, one event on the slate of social obligations that precede the pageant. It was a long, white satin gown, off the shoulder. “It’s actually a wedding gown,” she said. “You have to buy a wedding dress. And because I have an older daughter, too, I now basically own two wedding dresses.” She laughed.

I asked if the Society paid for these appointments, since she was the Martha.

Tami shook her head and pointed at her chest.

“You pay for it.”

“Yes. The Society pays for—” She paused. “Nothing.”

“Not the dresses?”

“No, no. That’s why you’ll see all levels of dresses. They can get really crazy and be really reasonable just depending on what the person’s budget is. We have to sponsor our float in the parade. We pay for our tickets; we pay for our dress. There are yearly dues.”

“Are there scholarships for members who want their daughters to be presented but don’t have the money to do it?”

“No, no, no. No. No, they just either don’t do it or they borrow a dress. And some people will say, ‘We just can’t do it.’ If it comes down to either you’re gonna get a car or you’re going to college or you’re going to get presented, you don’t do it.”

I asked whether they had to wear a different outfit for every party.

Tami laughed. “Oh, yeah! And shoes.”

Bailey chimed in. “And hair and makeup.”

“And we bought ninety-five seats for friends and family.”

I did the math: that morning, I’d paid Tami two hundred dollars for a spare set of tickets to the pageant, ball, and cocktail party. Seeing the look on my face, she snorted in agreement.

“Head up,” commanded Grace.

I turned to Sydney. “What’s your favorite part of this?”

“Well, I really love the dress,” she said. “I’m really in love with it.”

“And what’s the hardest part?”

She gave a little sigh and said that the hardest part was wearing the dress. “The weight is on my hips and it’s more than sixty pounds,” she said. “It really hurts.”

*

Before I arrived in Laredo, I’d begun researching the local economy. While the city is one of the least white cities in America, a University of Toronto study named Laredo as America’s most economically segregated small city. In 2014, Laredo processed twenty billion dollars in trade with Mexico, but nearly 40 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line. Wealthy Laredoans live in neighborhoods like Plantation, Regency Park, and Lakeside. Poor Laredoans live in neighborhoods like El Rincon del Diablo and El Trompe. The per capita income in Laredo is $16,462, and the median household income is $41,403—which is, if your tastes run opulent, roughly the cost of a new dress for a Martha.

For the month of February, Texas A&M International University in Laredo loaned gallery space to the Society of Martha Washington for a museum of retired dresses. Between salon appointments, I drove over to have a look. The room was on the second floor of the fine arts center and shaped like a fishbowl. Several dozen mannequins stood silently in full regalia.

It was like standing among the discarded, gleaming exoskeletons of eighteen-year-olds as they existed throughout the twentieth century. I could see how short- or long-waisted the woman was, the set of her hips, the approximate fleshiness of her upper arms. One dress, with mint-green satin and aurora crystals, holds the shadow-body of Molly LaMantia, who was eighteen in 2011, and of her four older sisters before her. Another holds the echo of Evelyn Bruni Summers, a distant in-law of Tami’s, who in 1988 had thin wrists and sloping shoulders. An especially beautiful gown made of plum brocade with cap sleeves, held a girl who was uncommonly long-legged and slender.

Viewed up close, the dresses are more beautiful than they need to be. While it is a point of pride to have a dress that has been worn by many generations, mostly because it indicates a long Society lineage, it’s also customary to dramatically redesign an inherited dress for each new girl so it feels uniquely hers. This is a way of making sure a dress keeps up, as the gowns trend more extravagant and splendid each year. One series of photographs showed the transformation of a single gown as it was handed down through a set of five sisters: The oldest sister, Reina Ann LaMantia Cullen, had a pearlescent gown with large pink roses embroidered on the bodice and skirt; the next year, her sister Morgan changed the body of the dress to a sea-foam green and added a wide, tongue-pink ribbon; the third sister added a giant bow and replaced the sleeves; the fourth sister threw out all the pink and added olive-green velvet trim; the final sister tore off all the ribbon, added puff sleeves, and let the beadwork, which had been growing steadily more elaborate, shine for itself.

Each night, back in my hotel room, I turned on the television and was greeted by Say Yes to the Dress, which appeared to have been granted its own 24-7 channel by the state of Texas. Say Yes to the Dress is a reality show, based at a bridal boutique in Manhattan, that follows brides who are in search of “the dream dress.” In this search, they are stewarded primarily by a man named Randy Fenoli, who has an immaculately gelled crew cut. Randy credits his success as both a bridal-wear designer and bride handler to his former life as what was then called a “female impersonator” by the name of Brandi Alexander, who was crowned Miss Gay America in the 1990 pageant. Participating in drag pageantry, Randy once told a journalist, is how he learned to speak to women preparing to be on display.

The camera zooms in and out of fitting rooms, stockrooms, and the grand showroom, where women stand on pedestals in front of small committees of girlfriends or sisters or gay male friends or occasionally a father and almost always a mother. There is invariably one member of the committee deputized to have narrowed eyes and an unpleasant demeanor, and to say things like “I don’t think it’s doing great things for your ass,” or “I think tuck ruffles are whorish.”

The show’s premise is that a wedding marks the most important day of a woman’s life, not because she’s going to marry the person of her dreams but because she is going to wear the dress of her dreams.

I love this show.

I wish I didn’t love this show. Women as creatures in pursuit of a princess fantasy or a supermodel fantasy; gay men as effete handmaidens to and quiet manipulators of straight women’s vanity; weddings as a performance of heteronormative habit and class aspiration and unbridled consumption… What a nightmare. Still, I can’t get enough of it, and part of the reason I love it is because I like to imagine what it might be like to be the woman in that dress. In this show, I see a path not taken, much as I see a path not taken in the pageantry of the debutante. I do not want to be her, and yet I like watching her pick out her gloves.

As a little girl, I was carefully combed and dressed, with bows in my hair that matched my outfits. I went to cotillion with my friends. I learned to fold my hands in my lap. I was enthusiastic about most of this, having been the kind of little girl who liked princesses and sparkly shoes. I enjoyed feeling pretty. I felt fancy eating crumbling grocery store cookies in white cotton gloves.

When I hit adolescence and the rituals of femininity became social requirements rather than play, I chafed against them, and my mother and I began to argue more over my appearance. By and large, women inherit their habits and neuroses about femininity from their mothers, and mine were inherited from my own Texan mother and, by extension, hers. The rituals of female beauty are deep-rooted in Texas, as is pageant culture—the desire to commodify the beauty of young women, and the sense that it is the moral duty of the mother to teach her daughter the rules of tasteful and advantageous self-display.

My mother is not the kind of woman who would enjoy Say Yes to the Dress, being both a self-proclaimed feminist and the person from whom I learned the devastating implications of the word ostentatious. (She also taught me the word gauche.) Her personal style was constructed as a rebuke to the big-hair-and-blue-eye-shadow stereotype of a Texas woman. Still, she is uncommonly beautiful—so much so that it’s often the first quality of hers people remark upon—and she has stewarded that beauty vigilantly, in part because I think she understands appearance as a reflection of both character and aspiration, an occasion to demonstrate not just beauty but intelligence about who you are and where you belong. She has since told me that she wanted to equip me and my brother to move comfortably and inconspicuously through any kind of social space—that’s why we went to cotillion. It was with that in mind that she dressed us as children.

As a teenager, I balked at learning to blow-dry my hair with a round brush, or at being told not to go out without earrings. I argued, citing all the times she’d told me that what mattered most was my mind and character; saying that I shouldn’t have to look pretty if I didn’t want to, that how I looked wasn’t the important thing about me. She argued that I should look “like I cared.”

Still, there was a sliver of time, when I was twelve, when I might have been a debutante. We had moved to Northern California, and in an attempt to make some friends, my mother let someone put her in touch with the local chapter of the National Charity League. My mother was skeptical from the beginning because, she said, societies like this were less about charity than about social climbing—a phrase that, because I was twelve, I needed her to define. Most mothers joined because they wanted to debut their daughters, which, she suggested, was a pretty antiquated and sexist ritual of declaring your daughter to be “on the market” to men. Nevertheless, she went ahead with our application, reasoning that she might be willing to deal with it if it would help us build a social life in this new place.

My mother had a phone interview with the mother in charge of the chapter, whose questions gave her the prickling feeling that having a last name like Garcia might be a stumbling block with the league ladies. Our application was refused.

*

They were breathtaking all together, and blinding, roughly a quarter of a million sequins and crystals catching the light. They looked more like a squadron of ships than of girls. Their traffic patterns were elaborate and cautious. The disembodied voice of the emcee would later declare to the thousand people watching out there in the darkness, to the mayor and his pretty wife, to the Texas senators who had traveled to see them debut, that they were “the best of Laredo.”

The enormous stage of the Jesus Martinez Performing Arts Complex had been arranged with backdrops painted with bursting, fecund cherry trees surrounding a Palladian manor house: Mount Vernon. Three tiers of risers led up to painted double doors, attended by two young pages, both outfitted in breeches and false ponytails clipped into their crew cuts. Before George, Martha, or any of the girls emerged, the bishop of the Diocese of Laredo prayed over the event, and the Junior ROTC band played the national anthem, and all one thousand audience members, dressed in their own best formal wear, rose and placed hands over hearts.

The most common form of pageantry in America is the beauty competition, but this show is a pageant more in the medieval or religious sense of the word. Medieval pageantry was like ritualized communal theater, put on seasonally or to celebrate particular saints’ days. This kind of pageant has plot, elaborate costumes, and a rank assigned to each participant, denoted by her place in the procession. (Historically, the closer you were to the king, the higher your rank; here, it’s about being close to George.) Medieval pageants held in honor of Corpus Christi reenacted the entire history of the world, starting with Genesis 1 and hauling all the way through to the Apocalypse. The 2018 Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant reenacted a fictional dinner party hosted by George and Martha in Mount Vernon with a party theme of, inexplicably, literacy.

The girls arrived one by one, in order of the status of their families within the Society. First came Andrea Victoria Gutierrez, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Gutierrez III. Andrea had been chosen to lead because her ancestral line within the Society is the longest and most distinguished, according to an elaborate and strictly maintained hierarchy: The girls with mothers who are members always come first, and within each group the girls are ranked in order of the length of time the family has been in the Society. Next come the girls whose connection is not through a mother but another female relative, sub-ranked again in order of the date of membership. After them come two or three girls who have been invited as the Society’s “guests” for the year. It’s tradition to invite a girl from a neighboring city in Texas whose family has ties to the Society. It is also customary to invite a girl from Nuevo Laredo to debut with the Society. The non-La-
redoan Americans are presented after the Laredoan girls; the Mexican girl comes last.

This is the order in which their portraits appear in the yearbook-program, the order in which they are presented at the November father-daughter dance, the order of their names in the paper. In the citywide parade, at which each girl has her own corporate-sponsored float, blue-eyed Andrea Gutierrez’s float will drive through first, at 9:30 a.m. Those farther back will wait their turn in the heat until finally Angela Moreno of Nuevo Laredo passes by, sometime after noon.

I don’t know what I had imagined would happen during the pageant. Maybe a little play? Maybe elaborate choreography? Instead, when each girl was announced, as she appeared in silhouette in the plywood double doors and began descending to the stage, hand firmly gripping that of her escort for balance, the emcee read aloud an account of her breeding. Whether she was in boarding school or on the honor roll, where she would be attending college, which tony activities she excelled at. More time and emphasis were devoted to who her mother was, who her father was, who their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles were; what important positions, associations, or distinctions they had enjoyed, as far back as possible. Two girls’ bios made proud mention of genealogical connections to people who were involved in the Revolutionary War. One triumphantly traced her ancestry back to Patrick Henry, information that was received with excitement.

While her social stats were being announced, each girl walked a slow oval around the stage, smiling widely, moving carefully so that she could be admired from every angle. I understood, suddenly, why the girls had been so nervous about falling, wobbling, and tripping. Though their order of appearance identified the innate hierarchy, which was out of their hands, each girl’s promenade was her moment of evaluation before her community, much like the purebred’s turn in the arena at Westminster. This slo-mo one-woman parade was her opportunity to be judged or celebrated for her beauty, grace, breeding, and accomplishments.

All the members of the Society I spoke to were nervous that I would portray this enterprise as elitist. They pointed out that anyone is welcome to apply for a membership, and that in the past several years they’ve welcomed a number of members who had no family ties to the organization. They pointed out as well that any woman, once a member, has the right to present her daughter as a debutante when she is eighteen, and that, conversely, it’s perfectly common and acceptable not to debut your eighteen-year-old.

It was important to them that I know they are mostly working women. Nearly a dozen women I interviewed told me that the membership is full of “judges and doctors and lawyers and professors.” The list was always the same: judges, doctors, lawyers, professors—indicating, I suppose, hardworking careerism and advanced education. Furthermore, they pointed out, the Society spends quite a bit of time and money on local philanthropy. It pays the fees for low-income Laredoan teenagers to go to a weeklong civic-engagement program in Washington, DC, every year. And furthermore, they told me, the pageant contributes millions of dollars to the local economy. Out of their own pockets they pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to hairdressers and seamstresses and caterers, jewelry designers and florists. The pageant effectively spreads their wealth.

Leaving aside the critique of trickle-down economics that notion might invite, it seemed what they were trying to convey was that though they may be wealthy and interested in exclusive memberships based around traditional definitions of “high society” as a group of people with special value (related to but not exactly synonymous with their special wealth), they’re not unkind or unprincipled.

It is true that they were kind. I wrote again and again in my notebook that the women and girls (and orbiting young men) I interviewed were warm. They were skittish about having a reporter around, because they felt they had been betrayed and misunderstood by other journalists, who had painted them as frivolous elitists, but still they were welcoming. They seemed motivated by love of family, love of tradition, and love of country. They spoke over and over again about inclusivity, standing for unity with their “brothers and sisters in Nuevo Laredo.” They mostly didn’t speak the name of the president, but they often declared meaningfully that Laredoans believe in building bridges, not walls.

Neither did they seem to be rude about their wealth, unless you think public celebrations of one’s wealth and status are inherently rude—which, granted, some people do. The children were unfailingly polite and well-spoken. The mothers were anxious but reasonable. In general, they seemed to be a group of people aware of being on view, setting an example. They adhered, perhaps, to an old-fashioned notion of gentility.

It may be true that the millions of dollars spent on the Colonial Pageant and Ball stimulate the local economy, and it may be true that the members of the Society do not intend to place themselves unpleasantly above the people who cannot participate. But it is also true that exclusivity is predicated on someone being excluded. It is also true that when you designate a group of young women to be the “best of Laredo,” you are saying something about all the young women who have not managed to make their way into that glittering formation.

Throughout the pageant, I kept thinking of a moment from earlier in the day in the makeup salon, after Tami left. I was hanging around chatting with a makeup artist while she did another debutante’s makeup, and she told me that years ago, when she was first starting to do makeup for the pageants, the hardest thing for her was remembering that the girls in the Society have different coloring.

“Most people in the Society are lighter?”

“Yes,” she said. “Most are. Or they have European blood in them. And that’s what it is, the pageant. They’re telling you all their lineage, and that’s European blood.” She smiled a little smile. “I call them Martians. Because they look good in greens.”

I asked about the other pageant that happens at this time of year: the Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball. It started around the same time as the Colonial Pageant and Ball, but it carries on by honoring Pocahontas’s original role in the festivities. As it’s described on the WBCA website, this pageant celebrates the “regal Indian maiden” and “presents the Native Americans in a setting that is both mystical and natural.” I wondered aloud whether the girls who played Pocahontas and her court were also Martians.

She shook her head. “No. The Society is . . . the crème de la crème, so to speak. It’s—you’re born into that.”

She told me that this year, Tami had invited her to one of her parties for the Society. “Tami is so down-to-earth, and so nice,” she said. “But are you kidding me? I don’t have anything to wear; I don’t even know what to wear. I shop at Target and Walmart, and there’s just no way I can be there and feel comfortable.” She shook her head, her expression somewhere between amused and  grimacing. “You realize, Oh, wow, there’s a really different world out there. It’s not my world.”

I recalled this as I watched one winsome young woman after another arrive at the top of the stage and float down the stairs to applause. This is your world, their community was telling Andrea Gutierrez and Bianca Martinez and Jordan Puig and Rebeca Peterson and Rebecca Reyes and Lauren Moore and Azul Martinez and Leticia Garcia and Marissa Gonzalez, and all the rest. This whole beautiful world is for you.

When my mother was five years old, my grandmother tried to put her in a pageant. Specifically, my grandmother entered her in a contest to select the Court of Queen Citrianna for the Mission Texas Citrus Fiesta, the pageant that still takes place every year in my great-grandparents’ hometown. Mission is one of the primary producers of citrus in the country, specifically of ruby red grapefruits, and my mother’s grandfather was a foreman for one of the citrus producers. “I didn’t even know what I was doing,” my mom said when she told me about her audition for the littlest citrus girl. “I had to learn to curtsy and all that. It was probably the blonde girls who were selected.” She made a sound between a laugh and a sigh. “My mother came from a really nothing family, right, but she had these aspirations.”

While I was in Laredo, we had been talking on and off about a dynamic at work on the stage at the Jesus Martinez Performing Arts Complex, a dynamic that I’d seen play out before: an equation of Americanness with middle-class “whiteness” that’s exerted so powerfully on brown people that they eventually begin to accede and conform.

After finishing high school in Mission, my grandfather enlisted in the army and spent his career as a helicopter pilot, in part to facilitate getting out of Mission. My grandparents left the Rio Grande Valley and raised their children while traveling between San Antonio and far-flung military bases throughout the US and in Italy and Turkey, where they lived mostly among white people. It seemed important to my grandmother to fit into these spaces, and for her children not to seem too Mexican, too “from the Valley.”

Though Spanish was both of my grandparents’ first language, they only spoke English to their children because they believed that speaking Spanish would do them no favors in Texas. My grandmother would punish my mother if her words ever took on the melodic singsong intonation of Spanglish from the Valley. “Do not speak like that,” my mother says, imitating her mother’s voice, which is itself accented. “You’re going to sound like you’re Mexican. As Mexican Americans, you pretty much wanted to subsume your racial identity. And there was no ‘Mexican-American’ when I was growing up! You didn’t hyphenate. You lost that. You were just American.”

All of my grandmother’s seven children married white people. None of her fourteen grandchildren speak fluent Spanish. It is a source of great pride and patriotism in our family that one of my uncles and several of my cousins and cousins’ husbands followed my grandfather into the armed forces. No family is more American than a military family, the logic goes. Everyone who had an opportunity to change their last name through marriage did, with the exception of my mother. The parts of the family history that included poverty or immigration or the “wrong” kind of Mexicanness or any other perceived stain were dropped from conversation so that my generation would never know them.

But why? I’d always wanted to know. This was all totally antithetical to the kind of pro-multicultural America I was told I lived in as I was growing up. When I asked my mother, who hasn’t typically wanted to talk about this kind of thing, she was quick to point out that in the areas where she grew up, Mexicans and indigenous people were enslaved. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the same thirty years between the founding of the WBCA and my grandparents’ birth, Texas Rangers tortured and executed Mexicans en masse down in the borderlands. A Texas newspaper defended the killings as a reasonable response to “a serious surplus population that needs eliminating.” Prominent Texas politicians were calling for “all those of Mexican descent” to be sent to concentration camps.

When my grandmother was young, there were still teachers who were against speaking Spanish in public school, and so she was punished for speaking her first language on the playground. There were separate drinking fountains. My mother recalls that in Mission, the train tracks really were the dividing line between the white neighborhood and the Mexican neighborhood, and that the roads on the Mexican side went unpaved until the late ’70s.

My grandparents grew up in a geographically and culturally marginal part of the country that was desperately economically depressed. My grandmother in particular was raised in poverty. Neither of them went to college. In the decades between their coming-of-age and mine, American politics has developed a new term for people who fit my grandmother’s description in the moment when she was making decisions about who and how to be. They’re called “vulnerable populations.” What would a refusal or failure to assimilate have cost her?

In the months after I visited Laredo, the news broke that the US government had begun separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border. Between May and June 2018, two thousand children were taken from their families and put into detention centers, and by July news outlets were estimating that nearly twelve thousand immigrant children were in US custody. Several thousand were in a new tent camp in the desert outside El Paso. The youngest children, many of them still infants, some of them taken away from their mothers as they were breastfeeding, were sent to “tender age” shelters in South Texas. Laredo’s detention center, which is about seven miles northeast of the bridge where the Abrazo Ceremony takes place, holds mostly parents, but the press released photos of children being held in cages in McAllen, the city next to Mission, which was widely credited as the epicenter of the family separation policy. “They treated us as though we were animals,” said one woman in a letter to her lawyer. In August, a man massacred
twenty-two people in a Walmart in El Paso minutes after publishing a manifesto online that explained, “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

Writing about the particular ferocity of anti-Mexican racism and violence on the border, historian Greg Grandin suggests that the border is where so-called white Americans have felt marginalized, most vulnerable to becoming the “other” they fear. If borders signify “domination and exploitation,” he writes, “they also announce the panic of power, something that overcomes a political state similar to the way dread comes over an individual with the realization that their psyche isn’t theirs to control alone, that it’s formed in reaction to others.” He quotes Freud: “The phobia is thrown before the anxiety like a fortress on the frontier.”

I’d always had the sense, formed subliminally or even innately, that it was better to erase the past. My grandmother carried and then pushed her children as far as possible from her upbringing toward an imagined ideal of power, affluence, credibility, respectability, and safety. And my mother, in turn, carried and pushed me as far from her own upbringing as she could, clear across the country to California, then to the Ivy League, and then to New York, to the life I lead now.

In ways I don’t like to contemplate, my life as an excellently educated, widely traveled, white-passing American woman was the dream behind that erasure. What could be more ungrateful than to redraw in public what was so carefully and privately elided?

Still, my mother took steps to preserve the parts of herself that her mother wanted gone. She learned Spanish in her youth, and, in the ’80s, began referring to herself as Mexican American. “That’s very much the reason I didn’t change my name when I got married,” she said. After a beat, she added, “Though going to Rosette Kisner would have been the ultimate success, in a way.”

When people inquire after my mother’s ethnicity now, she tells them that she’s “as Mexican as you can get” because her father was a Garcia and her mother is a Martinez, which, she always adds, are like the Smith and Jones of the Mexican world. “Both my parents are Mexican and completely Mexican,” she says.

I’d been sort of puzzled by the emphasis, particularly because it’s not categorically true: the most Mexican you can get, in one sense, is to be from Mexico. This gestures toward a key—if confusing—element of the second- or third-generation experience: your cultural rootedness isn’t always constructed based on your relationship to your family’s actual country of origin. When I asked her about it, she said, “I feel like I have to sort of convince people that I’m Mexican. I don’t feel Mexican enough.” She moves through mostly white social spaces, and it bothers her that her features are ambiguous enough that all her life people have been asking her where she’s from.

This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. My mother is often the yardstick by which I estimate myself, and I had always assumed that I didn’t feel Mexican enough because I was not enough like her. When I was growing up, she used to tell a story about how she and my father moved to Paris shortly after they were married, and when I was born she began to take me to the park near our apartment, in an affluent neighborhood. Most of the women at the park during the day were foreign au pairs tending to the babies of the white women who lived nearby. I was a fair baby with gold hair; my mother was mistaken for my au pair.

I always heard this story as an example of racial bias: my mother, a young, olive-skinned woman, was assumed to be the help rather than the mother. I also noted it as the first time that I was “not Mexican enough” to be recognizable. Subliminally, I understood it as a story about the deepest form of intergenerational betrayal: a daughter who doesn’t resemble her mother. It strikes me now that my mother might not have thought of it that way at all—that she might simply have felt lonely in the park, caught between the mothers and the au pairs.

I hesitate to draw parallels between my life and my mother’s, because they are not the same life—by her design. My mother raised me with the hope that she could be my threshold, that her sacrifices and mistakes, her proximity to oppression, would deliver me to a different life, a life of being inside, where there was no space I wouldn’t occupy comfortably, where the whole beautiful world was for me. But I am nepantla, in my ways, too. I, too, know what it feels like to pass without exactly wanting to.

It does not seem like a coincidence that a pageant devoted to celebrating a Eurocentric story about the American project should involve corsets and false eyelashes and elaborate, perfectly uniform curtsies—given that modern pageantry is a kissing cousin to drag, or given that sites of extreme pressure to conform racially or nationally tend to beget even greater pressure to conform along lines of gender and sex. The pageant girl reflects an ideal that’s being championed: wealth, national pride, a precise if exaggerated performance of traditional femininity, young beauty on the arm of a man. All that is in the dress.

There was a period in my twenties—when I’d begun dating women but hadn’t yet told my mother—when we started arguing more than usual about my clothes. My wardrobe was migrating toward grays and tans, loose shapes, long necklaces, and clunky boots. There were minor tussles whenever I was home and tried to leave the house without earrings. I recall thinking that she looked at my clothing with distrust. I was becoming a different kind of woman than she is, and though I’ve never asked her about it, I think she could sense it from the cut of my shirts.

When I told my mother, finally, that I was in love with a woman, she was shocked and not a little outraged. I had always dated men, she reminded me. I’d been with one man for five whole years. Had I just been lying my way through that?

No, I tried to explain. I was attracted to men and women. I was choosing to be with women. I was in love with this woman.

“Don’t,” she said. “Just don’t.” She couldn’t understand why, if I could be straight, if I could be safely inside the majority, I’d choose to be outside it. Furthermore, she couldn’t understand why, if I wasn’t going to be straight, I couldn’t just go ahead and be gay—why I was insisting that I was some kind of in-between thing.

I was angry about this conversation for a long time. It wasn’t until later that I realized she might have been expressing the kind of fear that comes from experience—it’s not an easy thing to live as not quite one thing and not quite another when it’s not a circumstance you have chosen. But if you are lucky enough to be able to choose—if someone has made you feel safe enough to choose—it can feel like freedom.

Once or twice, I tried to explain to my mother the feeling I had when I was watching the Marthas onstage. Even though I saw the forces of what constrained her and her mother and her mother’s mother, even though I saw the corsets and the money and the bald desire to fit into a jingoistic idea of Americanness that contorts the people it touches—even though I saw all that, it also made my stomach flip. Because there was bilingual Leticia Garcia, “daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hector Garcia,” beaming before a thousand people while the names of her parents and grandparents were read as honorifics. You could say that it was simply because her family had money and that this is just a continuation of the pathological “right kind of Mexican” self-policing, and you’d be right. I’d just never gotten to see a girl named Garcia from South Texas stand in front of a room of the most powerful people in that state’s government and society and be celebrated specifically for her “excellent” lineage. It was like seeing an alternate history. And I was ashamed, but I was moved.

*

The morning after the pageant, I woke up early and drove down to the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge to see the Abrazo Ceremony. George Washington, an affable guy named Tim, had assured me that I could park downtown by the historic San Agustin Plaza and then walk the two blocks to the bridge.

Coming into Laredo near the main border crossing, you see first the mostly abandoned colonial structures of the old city: a tiled plaza rimmed with stylish Spanish stucco buildings that now sit mostly empty. The library was abandoned and emptied decades ago, and aside from a boutique hotel fashioned out of one of the renovated colonial buildings and the San Agustin Cathedral, which still holds Mass in Spanish, the historic downtown has a derelict quiet about it.

The streets downtown were empty. I parked near an abandoned office building and walked the couple blocks of uneven pavement to the bridge entrance, only to find it, too, empty except for three ICE officers hanging around near their booths. Juarez-Lincoln isn’t a pedestrian bridge; it’s a five-lane highway, so I hopped a little gate and walked across the quiet pavement toward the officers.

“I’m trying to see the Abrazo,” I said.

The young man squinted at me. “Who are you? Are you with the mayor’s office?”

When I explained, he shook his head. “The Abrazo Ceremony isn’t open to the public.”

I’d believed, based on the way that everyone from the Society had talked about the Abrazo, that it was a moment of mutual public celebration. I’d foolishly imagined that the Laredoans would walk onto the bridge from the north side and the Nuevo Laredoans would walk out from the south side, and they would meet in the middle. I’d pictured the two cities behaving as one city, the bridge open, cheers and music as the children hugged.

But there was nothing to see from the American side except the implacable faces of the ICE officers, and nothing to hear at all. Of course, the bridge is never left wide open in Laredo to whoever wants to cross, not even on this day. The children are escorted out by the mayors and city officials, their parents, ICE officers, and military from both sides. A dais is set up in the middle of the bridge, garlanded in red, white, and blue, and the children are called forth by a dignitary. They approach one another, the four of them alone on the road. The little girl from Laredo is dressed like a mini Martha, the little boy like George. The children from Nuevo Laredo are dressed as was fashionable during the Spanish colonial period, with the girl in a mantilla and the boy in a sombrero, and each girl hugs the boy across from her.

I listened to it on the radio in my rental car. Driving back north, the city still seemed to be sleeping.

By the time I arrived near the parade grounds, it had awoken. It’s hard to explain the mood of a town on the morning of an event like this: Every elevator held a man carrying a ruffled shirt in a garment bag. There were squads of kids in dance costumes camped out on the floor of my hotel lobby. Outside, ball-capped fathers had staked out positions on the bleachers with umbrellas and thick coolers full of beer and snacks.

The Anheuser-Busch Washington’s Birthday Parade is for the whole city, and everyone—from the local children’s dance studio to H-E-B supermarket employees riding on a fourteen-foot-tall grocery cart—participates. In between them all, paced every five floats or so, are the dresses on display, each with a girl inside it, each dress and its girl on its own corporate-sponsored parade float.

It is customary for the girls to have attendants ride with them on their floats and throw little gifts to the crowd. It is also customary for the people standing on the sidelines, catching the trinkets, to shout for the girls to lift up their heavy skirts and show their shoes. “Muéstranos tus zapatos!” This seems like an almost philosophical response to spectacle: an audience looking at young women in a state of exquisite display, corseted and contoured, fake hair piled high, and demanding to see what they’re hiding.

Up come the manteau, the petticoats, the hoop, and when everyone sees what’s underneath, they cheer.

This is the moment that former debs talk about as their fondest memory, the part when the whole city gets to see and admire their dresses. For most of them, it will be the only time in their lives that this many people will look at them all at once and applaud.

In Say Yes to the Dress, the moment always comes when, after trying on and discarding dozens of gowns, the woman approaches the mirror in The One. This is the denouement of the episode, and it’s always the same. She steps up onto the pedestal in the showroom, sees her reflection, and is bewitched, thrilled, her own dream of herself coming true. Her mother, who perhaps has had reservations about some of the other options, immediately weeps.

“Are you saying yes to this dress?” Randy asks.

“Yes,” the woman whispers, or shouts, or sobs. “Yes!” Everyone cheers, even the bitchy sister. This, in the logic of the show, is the happy ending. (The wedding, if they show it in the closing credits, is simply the occasion where she displays this achievement.)

So American, this show. You just go to the store and choose yourself off a rack at your preferred price point. As a metaphor—only as a metaphor—the Marthas’ dresses are much more realistic: your mother or your sister or an aunt hands you a hundred-pound corseted structure and says, “Walk in that,” and then you make a lot of decisions about what parts of the gown you want to keep, whether you’ll change its color, cut off the weird embellishments the last wearer put on, or strip it to its bones, which cannot change.

I stayed at the parade for a while, weaving between the children jumping for beads and the fathers in lawn chairs who’d rise and angrily tap the shoulder of any passerby who paused and blocked their view. Marching bands and baton twirlers sandwiched the local Catholic bishop, who was riding on the back of a convertible like a teenager. Princess Pocahontas and her court, dressed in giant feathered headdresses and ornately beaded suede, rode skittering horses to great applause. ICE had a large formation of armored vehicles.

The last girl I saw that day was Sydney, the sixteen-year-old from the hair salon, who, despite the pain the dress was causing her, was beaming and waving. She wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. You could hardly tell she was sitting on a stool until the crowd yelled for her to show them her shoes. She smiled obligingly, gathered her skirts in each hand, heaved them upward, and kicked. There was a swirl of color: the peach and lavender of her dress reared back, revealing petticoats and then a splash of sequins. She was wearing six-inch platform go-go boots with another five inches of heel, covered toe-to-knee in sequins. Custom-made and star-spangled, red, white, and blue.

An appreciative roar went through the crowd. When Sydney saw me, I gave her a wave, and then turned and began the walk back to my hotel, kicking the confetti in the dirt.

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