Every February a huge celebration takes place in Laredo, Texas in honor of George Washington’s birthday. A month-long fiesta including reenactments and parades, the main event is an exclusive, invite-only colonial ball hosted by the Society of Martha Washington. Wearing elaborate, intricate gowns worth thousands of dollars, Mexican American debutantes dress as figures from the American Revolution and reenact a birthday party hosted by Martha Washington. Yes, you read right. Mexicans dress up like American revolutionaries in a part of the United States that used to be Mexico.
A new documentary, Las Marthas, airing on PBS on President’s Day (February 17) follows these young debutantes during their intense preparations for the ball. While untangling the origins of this very peculiar celebration the director, Cristina Ibarra, somehow makes us realize that it’s really not so strange. Ahead of the film’s national broadcast we caught up with Cristina to talk about her favorite novela, colonial bloomers, and what it was like growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Where are you from? When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I grew up along the border in El Paso, Texas and, ever since I can remember, I always wanted to leave home. Now, all I do is look for ways of going back. Growing up on the border, my cultural identity has been shaped by this unique “third space” that straddles two cultures and yet remains by-and-large outside of both the American and Mexican mainstream. I still think of it as my home even after living in New York for so many years. Through my films I look for ways of exploring my homeland in new ways, from the inside out. This urge started as a first-generation college student where I was first exposed to both media studies and Chicano history simultaneously. I felt a shift in consciousness and the only way to convey these powerful feelings to my family was through making my own videos. From there, I began to have a deeper respect for the medium as an artform and story telling device. I knew this was my way to reach larger audiences, without forgetting my roots.
What’s a movie you are embarrassed to admit you really like?
It isn’t a movie, but the Mexican telenovela Los Ricos Tambien Lloran holds a special place in my childhood memories.
How did the idea of this film come to you? How did you pick your subjects?
One of my cousins married and moved to Laredo many years ago. I went for a visit and noticed all these local magazines with young women on the covers. The girls reminded me of Marie Antoinette – but a Latina version. These debutantes were celebrities in town and it seemed everyone knew their names and their family’s names. When I learned they were presenting characters from the American Revolution as part of the larger city-wide celebration to George Washington, I was surprised. Why would these young women play such a prominent role in honoring a symbol of the American conquest in these territories that used to be part of Mexico? I was eager to find debutantes who could take me behind the scenes. I wanted to uncover their own coming-of-age journey, behind the polished exterior they were presenting to the public. The young women who became my subjects were the ones that accepted this challenge. It was important for them to be themselves in the middle of all this pressure.
If you were picked to be a debutante what would your gown look like?
After the Community Cinema screening at the Chicago Cultural Center there was a “Debut-naut ball” to celebrate inclusivity. Artist Cynthia Main presented gowns made from reclaimed wood and embellished by other local artists. A photo booth was available to pose with the gowns. You can actually see some of these photos on our Facebook page (Facebook.com/LasMarthasMovie). Since I am not a Society daughter, I would probably wear one of those gowns.
The film deals with clashes of culture (American vs Mexican) and class (rich vs poor). Was it difficult to manage these opposing ideas in the editing process?
The celebration, at first glance, might seem like a clashing of opposing ideas. But, in looking at how these events are performed, the film reveals a dressed up history, an amalgamation of cultures that preserves an old class system. Through the editing process we tried to uncover the syncretic layering of identity, reminiscent of the layering of the colonial gown itself. There was a conscious choice to tell this story from the inside out and interweave the history of an invented tradition that is as constructed as the Mexican American border and a hoop skirt.
Any scenes that didn’t make the final cut you wish you could have kept in?
The first year I started following the debutantes, I met a wonderfully talented and down-to-earth young lady named Daniella de Peña. Her family was so gracious and accommodating – they really got the film I was trying to make. I shot enough material with her to create a fundraising sample. I was only able to follow her for one week. I am sad she couldn’t be in the final film.
Any funny or memorable moments from the shoot?
I loved seeing the debutantes walking all over town and school with their colonial bloomers, their names embroidered on their backsides. This always made me chuckle and the ladies also got a kick out of it.
Do you think a documentary about Latinos is more difficult to raise money for?
Perhaps if the film had fit into people’s preconceived notions about what a Latino looks like in the United States, then it might have been easier to make this film. We are used to seeing Latinos play certain roles in the media. This film blows those stereotypes apart. Or, if we had been white men making a film about debutantes, it probably would have been easier to convince people that we were talking about important cultural issues and not just ‘showing make-up tips’. Somehow women filmmakers seem to get judged much more harshly.
What do you hope to achieve with your film?
As soon as I saw a Mexican American debutante dressed as a colonial heroine, I was immediately intrigued. From the outside, this might look like “just pretty girls in pretty dresses,” but when we look at the bicultural ways this event is celebrated we uncover multiple layers of meaning that deepen our views of the Latino experience in the United States. And hopefully the debutantes can teach us a little about what is like to be an American today, where we all juggle multiple identities.
What’s next for you?
My producing partner Erin Ploss-Campoamor and I had to set a fiction script down to finish this documentary. I would love to return to Love & Monster Trucks, a feature length narrative film about a young Chicana artist who is also 4×4 ‘royalty’ in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. It’s also a coming-of-age story set along the border that explores family relations and identity issues in new and surprising ways.