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Washington events in Texas combine cultures

City mixes Latino and US traditions

James Notzon dressed as George Washington and Adrienne Goodman Trevino played Martha at this year's debutante ball. (Eric Gay/associated press)

LAREDO, Texas -- Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez lives and works a few blocks from the Rio Grande and traces her lineage in two branches -- from one of this Spanish colonial city's oldest families and to Revolutionary War orator Patrick Henry.

And she says she has a God-given gift for designing the elaborate hand-beaded gowns for the Colonial ball of the Society of Martha Washington, an event that combines red, white, and blue patriotism with Latin American flair.

A city that is 94 percent Latino presents its aristocracy during an annual tribute to George Washington, whose birthday celebration elsewhere is more associated with department store sales. It could be the nation's biggest Presidents' Day celebration.

The celebration lasts a month and draws from all strata of society. Events include a chili pepper festival, a grand parade, and the debutante ball where the young ladies of Laredo -- and Gutierrez's dresses, some of which were ordered when the debutantes were newborns -- made their entrance into society.

It has become a display of international friendship culminating with the "abrazo," Spanish for hug, when a child from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, embraces a child from Laredo.

Laredo became part of Texas in 1848, when everything north of the Rio Grande became the United States. Mexican loyalists moved south, forming Nuevo Laredo. Those who remained -- including those whose names are still prominent in Laredo today -- saw their daughters marry Anglo men from the East Coast.

"Laredo has always been divided with strong class lines, but not ethnic," said Texas A&M International historian Stanley Green.

In 1896, a men's social group decided the city needed an American-style celebration. They ruled out Abraham Lincoln as a symbol of unity for a Southern city, but thought no one could object to Washington.

Almost from the beginning, Green said, Laredo's innate biculturalism came out, with Mexican soldiers joining the parade and Mexican food and entertainers playing starring roles.

"This had been an intended implantation of American culture," he said. "But within a very short period of time the celebration became what Laredo's always been. A sort of bicultural, binational, city."

The debutante ball was added in 1939, with Gutierrez's grandfather, Thomas Aquinas Leyendecker, playing the first George Washington. Her own coming-out was in 1960.

One year before the ball, two prominent members of Laredo society are chosen to play Martha and George. This year, Martha is Laredo National Bank vice president Adrienne Goodman Trevino and George is James Notzon, sixth great-grandson of Laredo founding father Captain Don Tomás Tadeo Sánchez de la Barreda.

The women's elaborate gowns can be of silks, satins, and velvets, be coated with beads and sequins, and have trains several feet long or layers of ruffling. They take months for Gutierrez, daughter Ana Gutierrez Volpe, and her small staff to make; work starts when the last pageant is over.

Trevino's dress is a 50-pound cascade of embroidered tapestry, silk, and velvet with beaded lace ruffle sleeves. She has spent the last year being the most popular woman in Laredo as Martha Washington.

"When you've had a year of this, you almost expect that when you walk into a restaurant they should applaud," Trevino said.

She and the debutantes undergo transformations for photo shoots, a rehearsal, the ball, and the parade, enduring heavy makeup, and wigs with ringlets held up with jeweled hair ornaments.

Norma Cantu, a Laredo-born English professor at the University of San Antonio, grew up watching the debutantes on parade floats.

"When I went back in the '80s I was very aware of the social inequalities," she said. "We had a high unemployment rate, lots of poverty, a lack of running water -- very serious social and health concerns. That's when it became 'what are we doing spending all this money on dresses?' "