Jezebel‘s Phoenix Tso and Esther Cepeda, writing for The Valley Dispach, give awesomeness its due for “Las Marthas,” the PBS documentary that aired on Independent Lens last night. I couldn’t agree more. In a nutshell,
“the special is about Mexican-American debutantes from Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican town just across the border who spend thousands of dollars making their debuts as Martha Washington look-alikes.”
“The film tells the story of the debutante ball — and its 100-pound, $30,000 frilly dresses — through the eyes of two young women. One, Laurita, is a U.S.-born “legacy” who is the 13th girl in her family to debut at the ball. The other, Rosario, was raised and lives in Nuevo Laredo and — like many others — commutes to school in the U.S. Despite no history with the Society of Martha Washington, she is invited to debut as a special guest due to her roots and extensive beauty-pageant credentials.”
Why Martha Washington? Good question. As it turns out, the city of Loredo, Texas hosts an annual celebration marking the birthday of our nation’s beloved wooden-toothed, cherry-tree-felling, Deleware-River-crossing POTUS. It’s patriotic in a very “everything is bigger in Texas” kind of way. As an aficionado of over-the-top Americana, I’m ashamed to say this is the first I’ve heard of it. Ms. Cepeda breaks it down:
“The monthlong festival, which generates $21 million a year for the border town, is one of the largest celebrations of Washington’s birthday in the world. Throughout its 116-year history, the tradition has evolved from a sort of Anglo musical show to a chance to honor the special relationship between the United States and Mexico, complete with a parade, re-enactments and bicultural ceremonies with sister city Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
But the hottest ticket in town is the invitation-only Colonial Ball hosted by the elite Society of Martha Washington.
Society daughters — most of them Mexican-American — are invited to “debut” in elaborate Colonial-era gowns representing America’s revolutionary history. The goal: to recreate a lavish birthday party hosted by Martha Washington for America’s first president.”
Of course, the film documents more than a simple tale of competitive pageantry. Texas Monthly observes,
“Current events are not overlooked. ‘Las Marthas’ includes snippets of radio news about the drug violence in the region. Yet the film is primarily a chronicle of ordinary teenage girls leading ordinary lives…
“There’s a way of thinking about the border story, and it’s usually set in the kinds of situations that are very urgent and dangerous…I’m really interested in showing the border from the inside out. People live here; people fall in love; people get married; they have quinceañeras; they come of age.”
I’m with Ms. Tso’s final thoughts on the film:
“It’s…interesting to use these debutante balls to explore larger questions of race and gender, like other pieces have done with the cheerleaders and prison wives/girlfriends of Instagram. It’s also nice to have a documentary that explores the Mexican-American border through a different lens than its illegal drug economy.”
Long story short, “Las Marthas” is definitely worth checking out. For me, I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll catch the 69-minute version of this special at the Full Frame Film Festival this spring…