Pocahontas on the Rio Grande

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one Star, John Sayles’ 1996 movie about race and ethnic relations on the Texas-Mexico border, mixed up Anglos, Chicanos, Native Americans, and African Americans in odd situations ranging from murder to incest. Laredo didn’t show up in the film, though, and that’s a shame. If Sayles had taken his cameras there in February, he could have scrapped the brother-sister sex and the sheriff homicide. He could have substituted something even weirder: the city’s George Washington’s Birthday festival.

The annual shindig ran from February 6 to 21 this year, and always brings together locals and hundreds of thousands of out-of-town visitors. Most are content to watch a parade, listen to popular Latino bands, and burn their guts out at a jalapeño-eating contest. A very select few Laredoans, though, lend the festival its true character. Mostly Anglos and light-skinned Mexican Americans, they dress their daughters in clothes that cost as much as a year at a private college. Then they present the girls at debutante pageants, and perch them on parade floats that enchant mostly dark-skinned hoi polloi on the sidewalk.

To imagine the frocks these border belles wear, forget traditional dress like serapes or mantillas. Instead, think like a ten-year-old girl doodling in class. In your mind, draw the fattest, billowiest jellyfish you can and put a valentine heart in the center. Top it off with velvet, taffeta, tulle, brocade, and mink. Finish with pearls, sequins, and bucket upon bucket of beads. Voilà! You’ve got a Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball gown. This is the dress worn annually by one Laredo socialite officially designated as the First President’s First Lady. She leads the pageant, along with a male partner who plays George Washington. In addition, a court of debutantes poses as eighteenth-century European princesses, countesses, and rich American ladies who supposedly were the real Martha’s friends and acquaintances. Unofficially, these girls are known as Marthas, too, and they also wear colonial fantasy gowns.

Then there are the Pocahontases. Think of a new doll: North American Indian Princess Barbie. Glossy, dark hair, perfect makeup. Vegas-plumed headgear, ermine white leather, gossamer silk, fur, pound upon pound of hand-sewn bugle beads, designer moccasins. Just as with Martha Washington, only one Laredo girl each year is chosen to be Pocahontas. But she also has a retinue of Indian sub-princesses in similar costumes that cost thousands of dollars apiece. The Pocahontas debs have their coming-out party at the Laredo Civic center. They take the arms of handsome, strutting young men dressed as Indian chiefs. At a later parade, the whole crew rides gorgeous horses, which are outfitted with breastplates as elaborate as their riders’ costumery.

The Marthas also use the Civic Center, and they pull out all the stops at a black-tie affair, where the stage is a dazzling reproduction of Mount Vernon and the music by Haydn and Mozart. As each Martha is introduced to the audience, she glides regally down a runway, then joins a winsome manservant in colonial breeches and tights. At the climax of the young woman’s promenade, she stops, squats, bends her head to the floor, thrusts out a bit of cleavage, and then, like an ungainly giraffe, recovers her standing position. In deb circles, this maneuver is dubbed “the Texas bow.” Unknown elsewhere in the United States or Europe, it is routinely performed at society balls from Corpus Christi’s Buccaneer Days to San Antonio’s Coronation. But it’s a special feat for the Laredo Marthas, whose gowns weigh up to eighty pounds. They are so wide and unwieldy that to get to the pageant and parade, the girls must be strapped into tractor-trailer rigs.

Newcomers to Laredo often find these rituals bizarre, and wonder where they came from. For years, town leaders responded that the revelry has been going on for ages, and is derived from a natural, civic urge to instill patriotism by honoring our first President. During the past few years, however, a growing group of people — from outsider academics to hometown hijas — has taken a fresh look at Laredo’s peculiar relationship with George Washington. They’ve been digging into the commemoration’s past, examining the backgrounds of its boosters, and mapping how its festivities have changed through time.

In the process, the critics have shed light on more than an isolated city festival. Scratch the surface, they say, and the Washington celebration is about racism in South Texas. And not just oppression of Mexican Americans by Anglos. Investigation of Laredo’s February rites reveals that on the border of yesteryear, both Anglos and Latinos sometimes united in the exercise of extreme prejudice. One group they vented their bigotry on was Native Americans. The other was African Americans. This nasty bit of history lies behind today’s debutante balls and parades, and may be hard to believe — after all, isn’t Pocahontas, herself Native American, a star of the show? Yes she is, but things are seldom simple on the border. That’s why it’s interesting to consider what the Washington’s Birthday critics have to say.

Pale Faces in Red Drag

Newcomer Dion Dennis was one of the first people to ask questions. He came to Laredo in the early nineties to teach at Texas A&M International University, after knocking around the country, spending time in the Rajneesh cult in Oregon, and finally earning a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies in Arizona. These days Dennis is a sociology instructor at U.T.–San Antonio. He says that “to teach, you have to understand how your students perceive the world.” But in Laredo, the world every February was a mystery. So Dennis began researching the George Washington’s Birthday festival history.

He quickly found descriptions of the first event, in 1896. A group of prominent local men got together to honor the first president. To start things off, they dressed up as Indians. Then they staged an elaborate piece of street theater that had the town mayor gathering his police force to confront a fierce group of attacking Yaqui tribesmen. The event quickly became institutionalized, and within a few years, this is how one Laredo newspaper described it:

As if a bolt shot from the sky, from three different directions Indians all painted and bedaubed with tomahawks aloft. … with savage yells, swarmed upon the plaza and charged with a dare devil spirit right into the muzzles of the guns that were in readiness to defend the city and its honor. For fully ten minutes the battle raged … mingling with the yells of the Yaqui Indians which drowned out the shrieks of the wounded.

Curious stuff, but what did it have to do with George Washington? Digging some more, Dennis discovered that Laredo’s town fathers had been members of the Improved Order of the Red Men, a kind of Masonic lodge started in North America in the eighteenth century. A chapter was established a Laredo in the 1890s, when the town’s longtime Tejano population was confronted with an influx of newcomer Anglos. In the early days of the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party rebels had been Red Men — that’s why they masqueraded as Indians when they attacked the British ships. George Washington was also a Red Man. Hence his adoption by the Laredoans, who spent their time in the lodge imitating Indian braves, collecting pouches of wampum, and striving to reach the highest degree of Red Men status: the title of “Sachem.”

Dennis didn’t stop with this information. Investigating the Order of the Red Men, he found that the group reinforced class, racial, and gender divisions in frontier societies. Membership in the Red Men, Dennis learned, was confined to upwardly-mobile white males. No females need apply, much less Asians or Africans — or Native Americans. At a time when this last group was being slaughtered and penned into reservations by white men, white lodge brothers were pushing their own racial superiority and machismo by glorifying phantom images of noble red warriors. White men, in other words, were acting like drag queens. Anthropologists see this cross-dressing all the time. A old example in U.S. culture is the minstrel show, in which Caucasian performers darken their skin to feign blackness, and in so doing humiliate blacks and elevate whiteness. Modern-day powderpuff football is another instance, where men don cheerleader outfits and women wear jerseys, the better to remind each other how much more fitting it is to assume their “proper” traditional roles.

Seen this way, Laredo’s early Washington Birthday fests weren’t simply Anglo attempts to introduce U.S. patriotism to a population more at home with Cinco de Mayo festivities. To Dennis, the celebrations were fundamentally a ritual enactment of white superiority over the darker peoples of the border. In 1997, he published his ideas in C-Theory, a journal that circulates mostly in cyberspace and can be found at www.tao.ca/fire/ctheory/0005.html.

Border Blancos

Around the time Dennis was publishing his analysis, another scholar also was studying the Washington fest. Elliott Young (who now teaches at Lewis and Clark University in Portland) was working on a Ph.D. in history at U.T.–Austin when he started researching how Mexican Americans in Texas created their identity in the nineteenth-century, Anglo-dominated borderlands. As Young delved into old Laredo newspapers and historical accounts of the Red Men activities, he found material supporting Dennis’ theory about racism. Consider, for example, this description of entertainment provided at the enactment of a Red Men battle:

The intermissions between the acts were filled by a coon song sung by Mr. Jerome G’Sell … and the audience was delighted when Mrs. L.S. Andrews in the costume of a negro girl, appeared on the stage and sang “Little Alabama Coon.”

And from an editorial:

Heavens and earth, what are we coming to? When a darkey is permitted to intimate in a crowd of white men that he is their equal…and escape a horsewhipping, it is time for the Caucasian race to resign and let the niggers run the country.

Clearly, Washington’s Birthday in Laredo was at least partly about putting down African Americans, and Young also learned that black people had been the targets of recurring racial violence in the area at the turn of the twentieth century. One such incident happened in 1899, after Laredo policeman José Cuellar arrested and brutally beat a black soldier for “escorting a Mexican woman who had solicited his company.” As this incident shows, it wasn’t only Anglos who demonstrated racist behavior towards African Americans.

However, before the Civil War, Texas slave owners had lived in fear that their property would flee to the borderlands. Slavery had been abolished in Mexico, and Tejanos often helped blacks escape south to freedom. By the late nineteenth century some race roles were reversed, as African-American soldiers were sent to South Texas to suppress Tejano rebellion against Anglo mistreatment. Most African Americans on the border were military men, and Tejanos often deeply resented them — even though Anglos treated poor Mexican Americans no better than they treated black people.

But life was often different for rich Tejanos, as their membership in the Improved Order of the Red Men suggests. The organization was for whites only, yet in Laredo, some Red Men had Spanish surnames. Researching further, Young found that at the turn of the century, Laredo Latinos were considered white if they had enough land, money, and political clout to convince Anglos they were deserving. This was possible because in Laredo, Anglos never completely dispossessed Tejano ranchers and merchants as they did elsewhere in South Texas. For generations, Tejanos and Anglos in Laredo have socialized, spoken to each other in two languages, and intermarried. Like the Red Men, the ritzy Martha Washington Pageant was always dominated by people with Anglo surnames, and still is. But many families are ethnically mixed, and Spanish names also appear on the debutante list.

From all this history, Young has concluded that in South Texas, it’s not enough to see race as a simple conflict between Anglos and Mexican Americans. As he and other scholars are lately discovering, “whiteness” isn’t a fact. It’s an idea — an iffy one at that, and in past generations it was often determined by how much wealth a person had. Rich Tejanos often labeled themselves white, and sometimes united with Anglos in oppressing African and Native Americans.

Dances with Chicanos

All this goes a long way towards explaining the peculiar origins of the George Washington bash in Laredo. But it still doesn’t account for Pocahontas. It’s one thing to parody tomahawk-wielding savages and sing “coon” songs. But it’s quite another to hand an Indian the keys to the city, as Laredo’s mayor traditionally did to Pocahontas after his troops’ unsuccessful battle with the Red Men. And for years the Indian Princess also rode at the head of the parade with Martha. Both Dennis and Young have studied Pocahontas and her history in Laredo. She originally tended to come from a ranching family and was a good horsewoman. She played a leadership role in the George Washington celebration because her beauty supposedly had prompted red and white men to lay down their arms and make peace. The story had little surface logic, though, because Laredo’s Indian princess was almost always Anglo. But Young points out that Pocahontas has always had a deeper meaning for many whites who regretted the genocide wreaked on Native Americans. In American culture, Pocahontas comforts that bad conscience. She is the Indian who married John Rolfe. She represents not conflict between whites and Indians, but unity; not war, but peace and benign healing.

By the seventies in Laredo, the Pocahontas role was being filled by Latinas. This makes at least some cultural sense, given that Mexican Americans have a good deal of Native American ancestry. Latina Pocahontases, however, were no match for the rich Martha Washingtons. The Indian Princess’ getup was a modest buckskin affair; one man recently recalled that when his daughter played the role two decades ago, he spent a mere $50 for her dress and $75 to rent a horse.

That simplicity started changing in the early eighties, when Laredo’s emerging Latino middle class began organizing to transform the populist Indian maiden into a glitzy debutante who could go head to head with the Marthas. By the end of the decade, playing Pocahontas or a member of her court meant confecting elaborate clothing that replaced the earlier, simple buckskin dress. Today, costumes cost $5,000 and up. And they never depict Comanches, Apaches, or other tribes with real ties to Mexican Americans. Instead, the dresses are fantasy knockoffs of the Onondaga, the Tlingit, and similar faraway groups with no historical connection to border life. These days, even the debs’ horses are exotic: many are fine breeds, such as Appaloosas, and the ornamentation they sport adds to the Pocahontas bill. Only a certain class of Laredo Latino families can afford such a potlatch.

Those who can, though, are making a symbolic statement, according to scholars Dennis and Young. By displaying their daughters as Pocahontas and other Indians from distant places, middle-class Mexican Americans are telling Anglos not to fear Latinos’ evolving economic and political power. Recent pageants have featured soothing music, and Pocahontases singing sweetly about the healing qualities of Native American spirituality and medicinal herbs. “Don’t be afraid of us indios mexicanos,” they seem to be murmuring to an edgy Anglo world. “We were in this land before you were, but we won’t hurt you. We’re only here to help.”

Debutante Refuseniks

All this analysis is fascinating, but it’s socked away in obscure journals (such as Western Historical Quarterly, where Young’s article appeare
in the spring of 1998). So few Laredoans ever see it. According to Laredo historian Stan Green, even when his neighbors have complaints about the George Washington festival, almost no one speaks of them openly. But two Laredoans have openly raised doubts about the affair. Both are women, and one, María Eugenia Guerra, is herself a former Martha.

Meg Guerra publishes the independent monthly newspaper LareDos. She regularly runs news and photos of the debs at pre-festival parties and in their pageant regalia. Yet Guerra is nonplused by what she perceives as growing conspicuous consumption and competition among participating families. Moreover, since childhood, she has thought that George Washington and Pocahontas were an odd pair of symbols, especially for a community that is 90 percent Mexican-American. Guerra has registered her dismay via satire. In an article poking fun of her own role as a teenage Martha Washington a generation ago, she calls herself and her sisters debutontas — in a bilingual pun that adds “tonta” or “dummy” to the “debu” prefix. Another of Guerra’s pieces is titled “Colonia Ball.” Using names of Laredo neighborhoods, it invents a deb from each, dressed in a costume representative of real life in the barrios. In a parody of society columnist writing, Guerra oohs and aahs about one imaginary deb’s dress: “Teeney-tiny little Border Patrolmen fashioned of embroidered green polyester peeked from the edges of the Rio Grande’s banks. The costume also featured a tiara of miniatures of government issue heavy earth moving equipment and little Army Corps of Engineer soldaditos and soldaditas.”

Debbie Haber also questions the Marthas and Pocahontases. The daughter of a Jewish father from the Middle East and a Latina mother from Texas, Haber was raised in Laredo but currently is working on a film degree at U.T.–Austin. By the end of this year, she hopes to finish and begin distributing a documentary about her hometown’s George Washington craze. She has titled it Laredo: Border on the Edge, because, she says, “there are many edges there. It’s on the literal edge between two countries, between classes, between races.”

In the video, Dennis and Young present their analyses. But Haber talks with many other people, too. She shows debs having their hair styled, well-heeled matrons reminiscing about their glory days as Marthas, and politicians (such as Ann Richards and George W. Bush) who’ve journeyed to the festival to win support of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and dole out political spoils. Perhaps most disturbingly, Haber shows Laredo’s common people, including its children. None have even the most cursory historical or critical understanding of why they’re spending so much energy venerating George Washington. “Because he has a parade,” explains one little boy. Haber would like to see Laredo develop a festival more representative of its people. She thinks it’s too late to banish Martha Washington and Pocahontas. “But what are all those dark-skinned children thinking when they look up at all these white people on floats? Let the children who are sitting and watching — let them be in the parade!”

Guerra sees inclusiveness coming. She applauds the recent addition to the festival of events such as a golf tournament, which raises scholarship money for local Latino students. But the new populism has been accompanied by a growing commercialism that, ironically, may exacerbate tensions. The Marthas are still mainly Anglos, and the Pocahontases for the most part are Latinas. When they interviewed Laredo deb families a few years ago, Haber and Young found that Indian Princesses were still considered to have lower status than First Ladies. Even so, Pocahontas traditionally rode at the head of the parade.

Not that commercialism is anything new. As historian Stan Green points out, the Washington festivities have for generations been hyped by local merchants and power brokers. Businesses hyped the celebration to fill the shopping hiatus between Christmas and Easter. City fathers hired trains to bring in the entire Texas Legislature, to garner political chips for Laredo in Austin. In the forties, Nelson Rockefeller helped with parade publicity, as part of efforts to promote the World War II-era “Good Neighbor” foreign policy with Mexico.

But these earlier efforts were gentle compared with the ruthlessness of the new marketing. Recently, Anheuser-Busch took over sponsorship of the grand march through town. That brought slick public relations efforts into the picture. Market-research oriented planners concluded that snowbirds and other tourists would be confused by an Indian girl leading a parade for George Washington. So Pocahontas was deposed from her place in the front of the line.

Will she and the Marthas duke it out for top spot? Will Indian chiefs trade blows with the colonial manservants? Will Sojourner Truth’s ghost throw her own punches?

For answers, check the listings for Lone Star, the Sequel. And keep watching Laredo in February.

Debbie Nathan is a reporter at the San Antonio Current, where a version of this story first appeared.

Debbie Nathan is a Texas native and writer who divides her time between New York City and the border. She is author, most recently, of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.