Thursday, February 4, 2016

Highway 83's Laredo Goes All Out to Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday

By Stew Magnuson

“I get that question all the time,” says Veronica Castillon, “What are a bunch of
Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez and some of her creations
Mexicans doing celebrating Washington’s Birthday?”

Indeed, the city of Laredo has made a pretty big deal out of acknowledging the United States’ first president since 1898.
Of course, what Castillon, former president of the association that produces the annual event, meant was “Mexican-Americans.” Laredo was founded by the Spanish in 1755, and later became part of Mexico when it broke free of colonial rule.
Long after it became part of the United States, the residents held onto their traditional Latin festivals and holidays. The city leaders wanted to balance that out, so they settled on a distinctly American holiday, Castillon explained.
Now, there is currently no other city in the America that goes all out for G.W. the way Laredo does. It has been doing so for 119 years.
The celebrations take up several weeks in February each year — when the weather is much milder compared to the summer months.
Washington’s Birthday Celebration events attract nearly 500,000 residents and visitors, and contributes an estimated $14 million every year to the local economy, according to the association website.
This year includes the annual parade, concerts, fireworks, an air show, a car show, and 5 K race, Jalapeno Festival, a 10-day carnival and the highlight: The Society of Martha Washington Ball where 13 young women and their escorts, representing the 13 colonies, attend in resplendent gowns and period costumes.
At the home of Laredo native Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, I had an opportunity of
Gown details
seeing some of these gowns. Gutierrez is one of the city’s best known dressmakers, who can spend months working on one of the pieces.

How much does she charge to produce one of these one-of-a-kind gowns?
That’s confidential, she says. She has never revealed how much one of her clients pays. Once made, they become treasured family heirlooms.
While the ball is a big night, in Gutierrez’s mind, the most important ceremony is the International Bridge Ceremony, where two boys and two girls, each representing both side of the border, meet on a spot over the Rio Grande River and embrace. The big parade begins soon after.
Another reason Washington’s birthday is celebrated here is because of the respect the founding father commands in Latin America as a leader who threw off the yoke of European colonialism.
“Respected as the forerunner of such Latin American liberators as Mexico’s Father Hidalgo and Simon Bolivar, Washington’s esteem is not limited to the United States,” the celebration’s website says.
Bridge ceremony photo courtesy of WBCA.
The Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball where a local woman in a resplendent beaded costume “presides over a spectacular pageant that is as much a part of the Washington’s Birthday Celebration as it is a homage to the Native American culture. The Princess Pocahontas Pageant presents the Native Americans in a setting that is both mystical and natural, “ the official website says
The Society of Martha Washington Ball, where Gutierrez gowns make their public debut, is one of the most famous events in South Texas and was featured in National Geographic.
For a list of George Washington Birthday Celebration events check out the website HERE.
For those who can’t make it to Laredo in February, there is a small Washington's Birthday Celebration museum on the southwest corner of San Augustin Plaza, which has a display of some of the elaborate gowns and costumes.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com.  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com