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 A Laredo’s Mayor greets Pocahontas, 1998 Eddie Rios/Laredo Morning Times 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, middleclass 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 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 5, 1999
You May Also Like
The Texas Rangers are tasked with investigating corruption and crimes by public officials. Those officials are rarely held accountable.