Filmmaker Cristina Ibarra Explores Unique Debutante Ball in Las Marthas

Filmmaker Cristina Ibarra

Filmmaker Cristina Ibarra

Cristina Ibarra’s critically-acclaimed documentary The Last Conquistador had a national broadcast on PBS’s P.O.V., and now she’s returning to PBS with Las Marthas, which premieres on Independent Lens Monday, February 17 at 10 PM (check local listings). The Texas-raised filmmaker went back to her home state to capture a completely unique pageant rich in history and culture: the border city of Laredo’s month-long celebration of Washington’s birthday with inventive reenactments and bicultural celebrations, many of them involving their Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo, and the most preeminent event of them all, 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 gowns representing iconic figures from America’s revolutionary history, to reenact a ball thrown by America’s first First Lady. Las Marthas follows two of the young debutantes — one a prominent member of Laredo society and the other a newcomer from Mexico — as they prepare for this rite of passage.

The film is a recipient of the Tribeca Institute’s Heineken VOCES Documentary Award, as well as funding from LPB, Jerome Foundation, and Humanities Texas. “Las Marthas is so expertly told that by the end of the movie you’re at the edge of your seat,” wrote Enrique Lopetegui in The San Antonio Current. We chatted with Ibarra as she awaited the film’s television premiere.

How did you first hear about this pageant in Laredo and what attracted to you to want to make a film about it?

I had never heard of the celebration while I was growing up in El Paso, Texas. But after one of my cousins married and moved to Laredo, I went to visit her and I noticed all of these local magazines around town with young women on the covers who reminded me of Marie Antoinette — but a Latina version.  I found out that these girls were debutantes and it soon became apparent that they were celebrities in town — everyone knew their names and their family’s names.  But most surprising of all, they were representing characters from the American Revolution at a Colonial Ball that was part of a larger city-wide celebration of George Washington’s birthday.

I found myself wondering, “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?” This question stayed with me for a long time, until finally I got the chance to explore it in this documentary.

 dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez works with Rosario on her gown

Dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez works with Rosario on her gown

Since I grew up along the US/Mexico border, in a city that (like Laredo) is also majority Mexican American, that aspect felt really familiar to me. But I soon realized that Laredo is very different in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Unlike the rest of Texas — where many Mexicans were displaced or even lynched by Anglo migrants who wanted to take control of this territory back in the early 1800’s — in Laredo most of the Mexican landowners were able to keep their property, even after the US/Mexico War ended in 1848. Anglos weren’t as attracted by this border region because the soil seemed too dry and arid for farming.

So even to this day, much of the elite of Laredo continue to be mostly Mexicans who can trace their roots back to the Spanish who colonized the territory in the 1600’s.  I am not used to seeing that kind of Mexican American privilege in other parts of Texas or the United States.

And was it a challenge logistically to go back and forth between Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico?  In the film it seems surprisingly easy for students/teens to live in both worlds.

There have always been really strong family ties between the communities on both sides of the border. It used to be really easy to move back and forth. Sadly, because of the drug war, the border wall being built, and stricter immigration policies, it has become increasingly difficult and time-consuming to do this. But nevertheless, many people still try to keep this binational connection alive. There are many young people from Nuevo Laredo who still cross every single day, so that they can go to school in Laredo.

Laurita and family, in Las Marthas

Laura (“Laurita”) Garza Hovel and family, in Las Marthas

Had you any experience with the world of debutante balls before? What surprised you (or didn’t surprise you) when in the midst of the debutante “season”?

I did not know very much about debutante balls, other than the fact that they happen all over the world: New York, Paris, New Orleans… What surprised and intrigued me when I first learned about the one in Laredo was that it featured mostly Mexican American girls pretending to be Anglos from the American Revolution. That role-playing aspect makes this presentation to Society very unique. Most debutante balls are fairly expensive and exclusive. In this case, the debutantes and their families just happen to be mostly Mexican American.

What are some things you learned or challenges you faced in the process of making this film that you will help you on your next projects — and what wisdom would you impart from that onto new filmmakers?

It was tricky at times conveying our vision of the film. I think some people wanted us to take sides regarding the class issues on display, to be more critical of the society, to call out the inherent irony of Mexicans pretending to be Anglo. It would have been much easier to get that kind of film funded. But it was important for us to stick with our original vision. We wanted to explore the contradictions of this event through the coming-of-age of the young women — and let viewers form their own conclusions.  To make a film from the inside-out and unravel the layers of identity, legacy, and history that makes this event so meaningful to folks.

My advice to filmmakers is to stay true to themselves, and make the film they want to make.

And speaking of which, what projects are you working on, or planning on working on next?

I really hope to return to a project I started developing with my producing partner Erin Ploss-Campoamor, called Love & Monster Trucks. It’s 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.

Find out what the two young women featured in the film are up to today

About Craig Phillips

ITVS/Independent Lens Interactive Editor and film nerd, based in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Behind the FIlms, Independent Lens Season, Interview and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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  • Olga O. Pina

    Too bad that this young, easily impressed writer did not further research the connection between a prominent Laredo family and George Washington. The innocent (perhaps) faux pas is a continued evolution of a socially segregated festival that for decades excluded the Mexican American community of beautiful young women and instead reserved such honor to Anglo surnamed young girls, impervious to the fact. Instead, Mexican American young boys were relegated to portray the Native Americans riding bareback on a horse…another distinct act, slurring the contribution of two great nations of native people.

    This story leaves me with a sense of unrecorded history that for decades has promoted a lie by celebrating a slave owner known as ‘The Father of His Countrymen’…none other than George Washington.

    • teacher

      Olga, is absolutely correct in her observations.

  • LJU3

    I find it jarring how much Ms. Ibarra misuses “Mexican” and “Mexican-American”.

    If a family has, indeed, been in Laredo since the time of the Spanish land grants, then they are not “Mexican” in an appreciable way–their ancestors were Mexicans for a mere 15 years (only about six years longer than their time as citizens of the Republic of Texas, and far shorter than their time as Americans).

    That this sloppiness (when there is a perfectly acceptable word in “Tejano”) is widespread strikes me as a weak excuse.

    • IAN

      You’re splitting hairs, carnal.

      • LJU3

        Perhaps. But to the extent that words have meanings, it seems to me we ought to use the ones which actually reference what we’re describing. This is especially important when dealing with race, ethnicity, and related anthropological or demographic terms.

    • ES Gomez

      What gives you the privilege to judge Ms. Ibarra’s cultural references? Are you Mexican?

      • LJU3

        What gives me the “privilege to judge Ms. Ibarra’s cultural references?” I’m not sure what you mean by that–is it now a privilege to criticize a publicly-exhibited work?

        If what you mean to say is “what gives you the right to question how she uses certain term?”, the simple answer is “I am a human being with critical thinking skills who happens to live in a place which guarantees my God-given right to comment on such matters.” But that’s such a simple notion that I can’t imagine it is the question you were asking.

        As to whether I’m Mexican, I cannot imagine how that’s germane to whether my criticism is apt. Nor is it your business. Still, I’ll humor you–the answer is no. I am American.

        • ES Gomez

          Cultural references makes you uncomfortable…Got it.

  • Pingback: The Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball is a thing. And it is fabulous. | What I read when I'm procrastinating()

  • ES Gomez

    A statement of class and privilege. Organizers are faithful disciples of southern elitism. Film is provocative and will generate much discussion… and Texian discomfort. Laredo/Texas remains class conscious. the girls are beautiful.

    • johnsevier

      $15K per gown ? Maybe the girls could take the same $15K donation and do some volunteer work in the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo community? Try it as an experiment next year: Cancel the whole ” Laredo’s Elite Martha Syndrome”, and in 2015 have all of the debutantes go out into the community with $15K per debutante and show what you can do to improve the quality of life for less fortunate people in 30days with $15,000. per debutante that would have otherwise been spent on “gowns and pagentry”. Help some less fortunate Americans, Mexicans or anyone in the greater Laredo / Nuevo Laredo area ! Give the Martha Syndrome some (purpose)… John Sevier

  • Guest

    A beautiful story….

  • ES Gomez

    I posted Two comments that did not met your approval for posting. I made reference to Class and Privilege and Texians. I suppose those references are beyond your guidelines.How come, LJU3 from Austin is able to post his comments regarding “Mexican”, “Mexican-Americans” and what he considers an “appropriate” use of cultural references? Is he not being “insensitive towards individuals or groups on the basis of gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, or class.?
    I would ask for reconsideration of my comments.

    • Independent Lens

      Hi, comments are not always approved immediately. We appreciate patience when posting comments with this in mind. We sometimes have an awful lot of comments to sort through on both our sites, during the allotted 9-5 M-F time. Thanks again for your patience. :)

    • LJU3

      And the answer to your question “Is he not being “insensitive towards individuals or groups on the basis of gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, or class.?” is a pretty resounding “No.”

  • Mary Alma Fleischer

    Hated it, archaic celebration. There was more emphasis placed on big poufy dresses and the ‘elite” which is by the way, an old concept that is no longer seen as a good thing. These “elite” could have highlighted their philanthropic deeds. This was a lost opportunity to show how long standing Hispanics have blazed through history helping other Hispanics to succeed. This was a lost opportunity for Hispanics.

  • Mary Alma Fleischer

    Why bother asking for comments if your only posting the positive ones…those that approve of this documentary. This is not true journalism if you cant take the heat.

    • Independent Lens

      Thanks for your feedback, and for your patience. We suggest re-reading the commenting guidelines linked above, or here: The relevant one in this case is this:
      “Talkback comments are posted Monday through Friday, excluding holidays. Please be patient, as your comment will not appear instantly.” :)
      Thanks again for your feedback, we welcome all viewpoints here. Cheers.

  • cheriedevee

    Independent Lens is another important reason for the existence of public television. Regardless of historical or sociological “errors,” it is a venue for young artists to show the world their documentaries – a tremendous enrichment of our highly structured information world.


  • Carmela

    I am confused. What did George And Martha have to do with this and the inclusion of Mejicanas in this ball way back in history ,was there actually Mejicanas in the historical celebration? How politically/historically coreect was this all?

    • Independent Lens

      Hi there,

      the original Martha Washington Ball took place in the 18th century Colonial America and was presented by the first First Lady. The Laredo event was created in honor of that historical ball, and first started in the later 19th century. Given Laredo’s heavy Mexican population traditionally, the Martha Washington/”Las Marthas” ball has generally always had a large Latino presence. They have also emphasized that the Laredo event has gone to great lengths to represent the original Colonial era ball as historically accurately as possible, but yes of course that first one did not have the Latino presence. :) Hope this answers your question!