American Studies professor Elaine Peña returned to her Texas home to investigate why two towns along the U.S.-Mexico border hold a Washington’s birthday party.
By John DiConsiglio
As a child growing up in Laredo, Texas, Elaine Peña, associate professor of American studies, had an annual front row seat to the biggest show along the Rio Grande.
Every February since 1898, the residents of Laredo and its sister city across the U.S.- Mexico border, Nuevo Laredo, have thrown a joint birthday party for George Washington. Along with parades and carnivals, the month-long Washington’s Birthday Celebration has at times featured bullfights and a bizarre reenactment of the Boston Tea Party, complete with a 100-foot long wooden boat and actors in Native American garb tossing candy to the crowd. Today, the festival still includes a Pocahontas-themed debutante ball and a closing ceremony where children from each city embrace along the bridge that connects them.
To Dr. Peña, the celebration was as confusing as it was festive. How could she reconcile the images of unity with troubling cultural depictions? “As I grew older, I asked myself whether this was right or wrong, well-intentioned but misguided,” she remembered. “I wanted to figure out why this phenomenon persisted.”
Dr. Peña turned her childhood questions into an academic inquiry. Her new book “¡Viva George! Celebrating Washington’s Birthday at the US-Mexico Border” (University of Texas Press) is the culmination of 11 years of exhaustive research and return trips to her hometown. In an interview with GW Today, she discussed the celebration’s origins, how its cross-cultural dynamics have propelled businesses on both sides of the border and why she describes “¡Viva George!” as an “anti-wall” book.
Q: Let’s start with origins of this birthday celebration. How did Laredo, a city in which George Washington never set foot, become the home of the annual event?
A: It began in the 19th century with a fraternal organization of white colonists called the Improved Order of Red Men. They esteemed George Washington as a semi-deity and incorporated Native American cosmologies into their rituals as a way of venerating him. In Texas, they were also responding to what they thought were overt celebrations of Mexican traditions like Cinco de Mayo. Their “Americanized” celebration initially was a two-day event with a parade, the bridge ceremony and a night of raucous parties. Now it’s bigger than ever. It lasts for more than one month, it draws half a million people and the revenue it brings in on both sides of the border is just incredible—tens of millions of dollars.
Q: What is the relationship between the sister cities, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo?
A: They cannot exist without each other. In terms of business, they are inextricably linked. Laredo is the second busiest port in the United States, and the cities are economically interconnected. They even share a minor league baseball team. They have a history of kinship, family ties and celebrations at the everyday level. I’m not under-emphasizing that the border is real, but, for those with documentation, crossing the border is very much like crossing the street. In fact, during the celebrations from 1957 to 1976, Americans and Mexicans were allowed to freely cross the border without showing documentation. It was called paso libre—the free pass. It ended in the ’70s as the backlash against immigration came to the fore. But it was an approach to border politics that was conducive to the well-being of either country and its residents—especially to their shared economic interests.
Q: It sounds like even the celebration’s centerpiece—the International Bridge Ceremony that brings together children from both cities—is really about their economic co-dependence.
A: Yes, the ceremony is more than a cute photo op. It is a tool for business. The International Bridge is co-owned by the Mexican government and Laredo. Anything that happens over that bridge is both of their problems and both of their victories. So the bridge ceremony is a moment in which people from both cities, mainly the business communities, showcase their easy, friendly communication. It signals investors that they are open for business.
Actors dressed as Mexican independence leader Miguel Hidalgo (left) and George Washington (right) during the 2017 Washington’s Birthday Celebration. (Courtesy of Elaine A. Peña)
Q: You said “¡Viva George!” is an “anti-wall” book. What do you mean by that?
A: It’s an anti-wall book because it shows how a ceremony allows for business people on both sides of the border to solve problems. If there were a wall, not only would this ritual perhaps not take place, but those lines of communication that have been honed year-after-year, generation-after-generation, would be a lost resource. You need communication to solve problems. A pandemic or a hurricane doesn’t respect international boundary lines.
Q: You spent 11 years researching this book. What did that entail?
A: It took me rather a long time to write and research “¡Viva George!” because, like any great tradition, Washington’s Border Celebration is vibrant and dynamic, but it doesn’t necessarily leave a paper trail. So in addition to archival and ethnographic work, I conducted a lot of personal interviews with families invested in the celebration. I looked at their personal papers, their uncatalogued documents, their private correspondences. I attended the festival at least five, six times—during summers, school breaks, sabbatical years.
Q: Were you able to answer the questions that troubled you as a child?
A: I had to step away from my personal connection to the celebration and see it as a researcher. As a teenager, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express how I felt when, for example, my best friend dressed as Pocahontas for the pageant. And my mom, who was a single mother of four children, didn’t have time to listen to me ruminate on its appropriateness. It still opens up difficult questions about racial politics and why we celebrate George Washington in the first place. You can laugh off the border celebration as a curiosity. But behind its whimsical cover and problematic representations of race, it tells a story about history, culture and economics that has enormous relevance for next steps—not only for immigration and border security reform conversations, but also how we think about monuments and historical memory.