After George Washington's Birthday morphed into
Presidents Day, the father of our country lost much of his iconic
luster. Department stores that once hawked discounted goods
in his name every Feb. 22 now celebrate Lincoln, too, and schoolchildren
are likely to focus on all U.S. presidents this time of year
rather than just the nation's first.
But in Laredo, Texas, a booming border town of 200,000 residents --
95 percent of whom are Latino -- Washington's Birthday remains
a huge holiday. Laredo just wrapped up the finale of the nation's
oldest and largest Washington's Birthday observances, a 16-day
ritual of partying and patriotism, pomp and populism, with events
ranging from a popular parade and a jalapeño-eating contest
to a ritzy colonial ball and a straight-laced U.S.-Mexico bridge
One highlight of the parade is a series of floats featuring the Martha
Washington Society debutantes, wearing handmade colonial velvet
and satin gowns that cost from $15,000 to $25,000. The society's
founders were mostly Anglo women, but today's members and debutantes
are mostly wealthy Latinas. Among the Laredo elite, intermarriage
has been the rule rather than the exception, and Anglo newcomers
still tend to assimilate into a bicultural, bilingual society.
Francisco Canseco, 50, was chosen to represent George Washington at
festival events this year. The son of a prominent doctor from
Monterrey, Mexico, the successful corporate attorney took the
role to heart. "When I told the kids all about George Washington
and why he was an American hero, I was speaking to [children
named] Juan Garcia and Fernando Lopez. I told them that he held
together the emerging United States, which included people of
all backgrounds and origins."
Like other Laredoans, Canseco stresses his city's "Americaness."
"We're as American as anywhere else, whether it's Pasadena,
Calif.; Alexandria, Va.; or Bangor, Maine," he says. He
grouses that the rest of America does not understand what is
so obvious to him and other Laredoans -- that biculturalism
is not synonymous with binationalism, and that Latinos can retain
their love of Mexican culture while considering themselves fully
While artists, academics and CEOs of multinational corporations all
have gleefully declared the dawn of the era of transnationalism
and the end of borders, Mexican-Americans in the Texas border
region reaffirm the presence of the international frontier on
a daily basis. While immigration-restriction advocates fear
that newcomers are undermining U.S. sovereignty and refusing
to assimilate to American life, Mexican-Americans on the border
prove otherwise. Laredo, which has had a Hispanic majority since
its founding in 1755, also gives us a glimpse of what other
rapidly Latinizing regions of the country may look like within
Laredoans are both economically dependent and culturally defined by
the border. Indeed, this is one of the few border cities to
benefit from the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it
has done so with a vengeance. The unemployment rate, which was
a tragic 15.3 percent in 1987 had fallen to 6.8 percent in 1999.
The average wage also went up considerably in the 1990s. Last
year, Laredo was named the second fastest growing city in the
United States after Las Vegas.
Laredo's George Washington celebration was founded in 1898
by the Society of Red Men, a fraternal order made up largely
of Anglo immigrants from the north. Although Laredo became an
American city in 1848, in political and economic terms, the
town continued to be culturally Mexican. American political
and legal practices prevailed, but they were being conducted
in Spanish. But in 1881, not one but two railroad lines were
completed to connect the border town to the American interior.
Consequently, the 1880s and '90s saw Anglo-American influence
in Laredo reach an all-time high. In 1900, Laredo was fully
25 percent Anglo, the highest it has ever been.
By setting up this patriotic festival, the Red Men sought to bring
an American-style holiday to a largely Mexican community. But
the Washington celebration, which started as a method of acculturation,
quickly evolved into something that reflected the unique bicultural
blend of the border region.
By the 1920s, Washington's birthday organizers had instituted a Noche
Mexicana, a night of Mexican music and food that quickly became
a centerpiece of the celebration. By that time, Laredoans had
become particularly proud and protective of their unique bicultural
lifestyle. In 1925, an article in the Laredo Times noted that
"one thing we may pride ourselves upon ... is the Mexican
music that springs simultaneously from all sides when we celebrate
a fiesta of any sort."
In fact, there have never been enough Anglos in Laredo to create the
dual, competing cultures of towns like McAllen or Brownsville
in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. When Anglo and European immigrants
arrived in Laredo, they tended to marry Mexicans and became
Mexicanized. Their children grew up speaking Spanish. "In
Laredo, there has always been the process of Mexicanization
and Americanization going on simultaneously," says Stan
Green, a Laredo historian and professor at Laredo's Texas A&M
Over the years, the celebration has maintained its border biculturalism.
Libby Casso, this year's president of the Martha Washington
Society, is an Anglo from Kentucky who came to Laredo by way
of her college sweetheart and husband, Alfonso Casso Jr. She
considers her three children Julia, Liz and Alfonso to be Hispanic.
Her neighbor, Gloria Canseco, a past president of the Martha
Washington Society and former head of the Webb County Heritage
Foundation (and the wife of this year's George Washington),
is cheerfully chauvinistic about Laredo's Latino cultural dominance.
"We've always been among the dominant class. We were secure
enough not to feel insulted whenever we visited places like
McAllen, where they had signs saying "No Mexicans Allowed."
Back in the 1940s, my mother used to giggle at their stupidity."
And even as they celebrate their closeness with Mexico, most Latinos
along the frontier show wide support for strong border enforcement.
Indeed, near the front of the Washington's Birthday parade last
weekend were officers in Border Patrol cruisers strolling down
San Bernardo Avenue waving at the crowd. In California, the
idea of Border Patrol agents riding in local parades would be
unthinkable. But along the frontier here, most Mexican-Americans
have made their peace with the contradictions of the border.
In El Paso, for instance, 600 miles up the Rio Grande in West Texas,
a predominately Mexican-American electorate sent Silvestre Reyes,
a former ranking INS official to Congress in 1996. Reyes had
gained recognition as the architect of Operation Hold the Line,
the labor-intensive INS strategy to prevent illegal immigration
along the El Paso border. In a 1994 El Paso Times poll, 78 percent
of local Latino respondents said they were generally in favor
of Operation Hold the Line, while 17 percent opposed. No such
polls have been taken on the Laredo equivalent of the Hold the
Line, Operation Rio Grande, but local observers estimate that
the support would be just as lopsided.
Texas Latinos are more likely to be multigeneration Americans
and have greater distance from the immigrant experience than
do their counterparts in California. Plus, in the past Mexican-Americans
here were not able to appeal to a large number of sympathetic
white Texans to help them alleviate the severe indignities and
discrimination that many experienced before the civil rights
era. As Carlos Guerra, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News
and a founder of the radical Raza Unida Party in the late 1960s
puts it: "We never had the liberal escape valve like you
did in California. You were not going to guilt Anglo Texans.
The Gandhi stuff didn't work here. That made us more pragmatic."
The state's 840-mile border with Mexico also helps shape Latino
consciousness here in a way that it does not elsewhere. The
starkness of a border puts whatever inherent contradictions
there are between its two opposing sides in sharp, dramatic
As Rick Lucio, a Mexican-American Border Patrol agent in El
Paso told me last summer as he pointed to a concrete slab in
the desert that marked the U.S.-Mexico border: "[The marker]
is important because if you're born on that side of the line,
you're in America, and you have opportunity, and if you are
born on the other side, you've got nothing. It's a strange way
to do things, but that's how we do them."
Facing such a stark contrast, it's understandable that South
Texas Mexicans would be eager to acknowledge the border and
which side of it they were born on. In the fall of 1997, Mexico's
Ciudad Juarez hoisted an enormous Mexican flag near the border
that was easily visible from most points in El Paso. When asked
by the El Paso Times whether their city should respond by hoisting
an equally large American flag in downtown El Paso, more Hispanics
said yes than did non-Hispanics.
"South Texas culture is sometimes a reaction to the border,"
says Thomas Longoria, a political scientist at the University
of Texas at El Paso. "Maybe embracing America became a
coping mechanism. We're saying that we're not any less American
than anyone else."
Thomas Moore Jr., the Latino editor of LareDos magazine agrees
that Mexican-American patriotism "grew out of being on
the border and wanting to emphasize our Americaness. The burden
of proof is on us," he says.
And yet Mexican-Americans in Laredo and throughout the border
region are particularly grateful for what the border provides
them culturally. Because they adhere more deeply and organically
to Mexican culture and language than do Mexican-Americans further
inland, Latinos on the border can be chauvinistic toward their
ethnic brethren in Dallas, California and even nearby San Antonio,
a city that has successfully marketed itself as the quintessential
"San Antonio has an identity crisis," says Gloria
Canseco. "They're so disconnected from their roots that
they're becoming as plastic as Santa Fe," she says. "They
all see the world through Frida Kahlo and pop-Mexican culture."
LareDos publisher Maria Eugenia Guerra also levies the charge
of faux Hispanicity at San Antonio, which is only 150 miles
north of Laredo. "They're Sandra Cisneros Mexicans! Worse
yet!" she yells, referring to the popular Chicana novelist.
But academic surveys have shown that while Mexican-American
political loyalty to the U.S. may be more pronounced along the
border, it is not exclusive to this region. In 1992, the Latino
National Political Survey, the largest Hispanic opinion poll
of its kind, revealed that Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans
registered equally positive attitudes toward the United States.
The same survey found that while they generally look fondly
on Mexico as a country, few Mexican-Americans follow Mexican
political events closely.
As a further sign of Mexican-American political disassociation
from the home country, few immigrants have taken advantage of
the newly granted option of dual nationality. In April 1998,
Mexico began allowing emigrants to retain their Mexican nationality
even as they became naturalized American citizens. But after
the first nine months of the program, only about 7,000 out of
a pool of 4 million eligibles bothered to apply.
Of course, none of this was on the minds of last weekend's
revelers at the Washington celebration in Laredo. Being bicultural
and uni-national is a given to people here. Besides, Laredoans
were more concerned with having a good time than with making
self-conscious appeals to the flag.
Long-time observers comment that the parade was much more overtly
patriotic in the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly Laredo, like all
of America, is changing. Here, like in other once-isolated regions
of the South, consumer behavior is beginning to conform to national
norms. Choked by traffic, fast- food joints and suburban sprawl,
the city offers fewer and fewer aesthetic reminders of Mexico.
Last weekend the number one requested song on 98.1 FM, Laredo's
most listened-to radio station, was Madonna's new version of
Don Maclean's "American Pie." While Tejano music is
still popular among kids, the so-called Latin music explosion
-- featuring Puerto Rican singers Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez
and Marc Anthony -- is now drawing more listeners.
Yet, with all the changes Laredo will continue to go through,
its Washington's Birthday celebration is likely to remain a
comforting constant. Frank Gonzalez,Jr., 49, the head of the
local League of United Latin American Citizens chapter (which
sponsors three Washington's Birthday events), believes that
it is precisely Laredoans' keen ethnic heritage that will keep
events alive for future generations. A Vietnam veteran who volunteered
for service out of a sense of obligation, Gonzalez sums up his
theory in one sentence: "We're patriotic Americans because