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Marking Washington's Birthday, Texas-Style

Border City of Laredo Unites With Its Mexican Sister for Bicultural Commemoration

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page A03

LAREDO, Tex., Feb. 20 -- There were probably only two places to party this Presidents' Day weekend: Mount Vernon or this bustling border town where George Washington, or Jorge Washington, as he is also called here, is venerated with a vengeance.

The celebration started almost a month ago and spans Laredo and its Mexican neighbor, Nuevo Laredo, fast-growing cities that serve as the gateway for more than 40 percent of U.S.-Mexican trade generated by the North American Free Trade Agreement. But this year, the sister cities are grappling with a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. citizens reported missing or kidnapped along the border, incidents that prompted the State Department recently to issue a precaution to Americans visiting Nuevo Laredo and other Mexican border cities. The State Department said last month that 27 Americans have been abducted over the past six months, and two were killed.

Debutante Helen Hopson and Pete Morales IV celebrate George Washington's birthday at a party in Laredo, Tex. (Photos Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)

Other than a silent demonstration Saturday by missing victims' relatives, who carried placards that said, "Where Are Our Children?" in English and Spanish, the Washington Birthday Celebration carried on as always. It culminated Sunday with a huge barbecue and a fireworks display.

For almost a month there has been a nonstop commemoration that included a comedy jam for George; a red, white and blue day in the public schools; a stars and stripes air show; a Founding Fathers' fun run; and a Society of Martha Washington colonial pageant and ball, as well as a Princess Pocahontas pageant and ball.

The Tex-Mex colonial extravaganza, with a taste of New Orleans thrown in, also featured a bullfight; fundraising events to savor local foods and wines; a day-long Mardi Gras-style street festival; a cabaret night; a carnival; and the annual naming of residents from the two Laradoes as Señor Internacional. The honorary Mr. South Texas this year was a woman: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).

The Washington birthday parade Saturday morning, with 171 entries, included not only a fife and drum corps, but also Mexican folkloric, samba and calypso dance troupes and drum and bugle corps from northern Mexico cities.

"It's reminiscent of local events held 50 years ago when George Washington's birthday was a big deal, when towns had cherry pie-eating contests and a little parade," said James Rees, executive director of Historic Mount Vernon. Visitors there over the weekend were treated to a taste of Washington's favorite breakfast, corncakes swimming in butter.

In Laredo, a city of about 200,000 mostly Mexican American residents, the featured food this weekend was the fiery pickled jalapeno. The Jalapeno Festival is one of the most popular events of the Washington Birthday Celebration, attracting tens of thousands who dance to Tex-Mex bands, eat tacos and participate in a myriad of jalapeno-themed contests. There is a jalapeno-eating contest, a blind jalapeno toss, a blind jalapeno run, a jalapeno spitting contest and a jalapeno egg toss. Saturday night's jalapeno-eating contest winner downed 113 of the hot peppers in 15 minutes -- a feat, but still short of the 1991 record of 131 jalapenos.

George Washington birthday celebrations may have gone the way of dinosaurs in most U.S. cities, but in Laredo, the annual event gets bigger and more diverse every year. It is organized by Washington's Birthday Celebration Association, which staffs an office -- a replica of Mount Vernon, of course -- year-round. The organization's goal, said executive director Lisa Morales, is to put on a "celebration with something for everyone." This weekend was proof positive of that goal.

On Friday night, the young ladies and young men of Laredo society, dressed in extravagant handmade colonial costumes, estimated to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, were presented at the Laredo Civic Center. So elaborate are the dresses that they can weigh almost as much as the debutante. Stephanie Alston, 17, who weighs 110 pounds, suffered bruises on her shoulders from the weight of her 102-pound beaded cherry red velvet dress. But, she said, "it was worth it."

The pageant included a historic reenactment of a dance held by George and Martha Washington at their Mount Vernon estate in spring of 1790. According to the research of the local Society of Martha Washington, the president and first lady held the party to honor participants in the American Revolution.

So what does this have to do with Laredo? The descendants of the 24 characters assumed by the 12 debutantes and their escorts eventually settled in Laredo. One young woman and one young man portrayed their great-great-great grandmother and great-great-great-great grandfather, respectively. They ended the pageant by dancing a minuet for George and Martha -- portrayed this year by local lawyer and businessman Richard E. Haynes and socialite Anita Zuniga Dodier -- to the strains of the Laredo Symphony Orchestra. That done, the group joined Laradoens in black-tie attire at a colonial ball.

Five miles away at the stock show fairgrounds on the outskirts of the city, hundreds of other Laradoens at the Jalapeno Festival, decked out in their western shirts, jeans and cowboy boots, were dancing to the sounds of a Tejano band called the Frijoles Romanticos (Romantic Beans). There, the admission fee was minimal and included a children's entertainment area, an 83-foot-long barbecue pit, two Texas longhorns and a mariachi contest.

"This is for the labor force, basically," said Chris Musset, who was selling souvenir jalapeno-decorated T-shirts and hats. "They don't have to buy a ball dress to attend."

The Washington celebration traces its origin, according to local history, to Feb. 22, 1898, when a fraternal organization called the Improved Order of the Red Men Yaqui Tribe No. 59, held a mock battle and captured city hall. The defeated mayor presented the key to the city to the Great Chief Sachem, who in turn presented it to the Princess Pocahontas. The reenactment mirrored a practice of the Sons of Liberty of the American Revolution who, legend says, disguised themselves as Native Americans and whose leader George Washington posed as "Sachem." And so was born an annual celebration of American patriotism that has evolved into a bicultural commemoration.

The international highlight of the Washington celebration occurred early Saturday morning with the traditional abrazo, or hug, between children and elected officials of the neighboring countries. The Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge was closed temporarily to traffic and the groups walked from their respective sides of the Rio Grande to meet halfway on the bridge, to hug, exchange flags and make bilingual speeches.

Laredo Mayor Elizabeth G. Flores declared the sister cities inextricably intertwined by history, culture and trade. Nuevo Laredo Mayor Daniel Peña Treviño extolled "the brotherhood that has always existed between our cities." And together, they declared the importance of "las fiestas de Jorge Washington."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company