In the United States, the perceived significance of federal and state holidays changes with time. For example, over the last fifteen years, the creation of federal and state Civil Rights Days, observed on or near the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., became a zealous political contest. Meanwhile, once significant holidays, such as Armistice Day, have long retreated into an indifferent obscurity.
Once avidly celebrated, Washington’s Birthday has been on a decades-long downward slide across the US Now combined with Lincoln’s Birthday (ten days earlier) as a collective “Presidents’ Day” in mid-February, the holiday is used as a marketing gimmick (for markdowns on linens and winter clothes) by retailers large and small. Except for the commodity hype in the media, the successor to Washington’s Birthday, Presidents’ Day, passes almost unnoticed across the US It’s no Fourth of July.
However, en la frontera, the relative importance of these two holidays is inverted. On this stretch of the Rio Grande, the Fourth of July is greeted with a stiflingly hot and dusty muteness. On other hand, the immensely popular Washington’s Birthday anchors an intensely choreographed ten-day fiesta on this slice of the South Texas-Mexico border. If you want a party anchored by some very peculiar representations of nationalisms and identities in the interzone between languages, cultures, classes, genders and histories, then Laredo, Texas, in mid-February, is probably the place to be.
An intrigued and bewildered recent arrival can easily be astonished by the flurry of festivals, debutante balls, processions, pageants, ceremonial dinners, contests, dances, as well as by the sight of Mexican troops strutting through downtown Laredo on each Washington’s Birthday. At first, this piece of South Texas iconography seems an incomprehensible, contradictory pastiche. But through examining the iconography of two public rituals, The Colonial and Pocahontas Pageants, a set of narrative patterns about the roles of colonizers and the colonized explicitly emerged. Subsequent research into the genealogy of Washington’s Birthday on the Rio Grande confirmed those insights. What follows is a brief but necessary historical contextualization. Subsequent sections discuss how these two current pageants differentially express the historical, material, and semiotic motifs that mirror the logics of power in this Interzone on the Rio Grande.
Historically, South Texas presents striking parallels to the general conditions of late 19th Century Southern Italy and Sicily. In the decades that followed the annexation of the Southwest (after the US-Mexican War of 1848), ethnic, class and power relations took the form of an extragovernmental, plantation-based, patronistic feudalism. In effect, enterprising Eurocentric immigrants became horse, cattle and petroleum patrons while the bulk of indigenous campesinos labored as de facto serfs. Convinced of their racial and ethnic superiority by the Social Darwinistic and eugenic climate of the day, white economic immigrants did not think twice about appropriating and expanding a premodern patron economic and social system, which was itself a legacy of Spanish colonization. As the linguistic, educational, technological and cultural gulf grew between the indigenous population and Eurocentric immigrants, economically successful Eurocentric men often became “men of respect,” who dispensed favors and coerced compliance, often through acts of intimidation and violence exercised within complex kinship networks. By the end of the century, the patron system governed a population that was overwhelming Catholic, collectivist and agrarian. Like Southern Italy, the vast majority speak a Romance language at the geographic and cultural national margins. However, there was one important difference. Because South Texas maintained much of the population, culture, language and sensibility of an adjacent nation, Mexico, the definitional distinction between an American and Mexican identity along the border was (and often still is) extremely precarious and vulnerable. In a world de facto organized by Mexican political, social and cultural logics, predominately expressing itself in the Spanish language, upwardly mobile white male economic immigrants, probably anxious about the permeability of border identities, evidently felt a need to institute a local Americanist identity ritual. The result was the first public Washington’s Day celebration in Laredo on February 21-22, 1898. Almost one hundred years later, the key purposes and specific semiotics that ground the popular holiday in South Texas retain continuities in a century of change. Then (1898) and now (1996), the iconography of Washington’s Birthday in Laredo is dominated by representations of successful and benevolent colonizers (the Founding Fathers) coupled with idealizations of the colonized (representations of northern Native Americans). With the assumption that such representations reveal more about the representers than the represented, the sections below track how these themes have manifested, both then (1898) and now (1996) on the Texas-Mexican border.
Then – Washington’s Birthday as Cultural & Racial Cross-Dressing
Event Scene I (1898): The idea for the Washington’s Birthday celebration came from a then newly chartered chapter (May 1897) of the oldest fraternal order of American national origin, “The Improved Order of Red Men.” Composed of upwardly-mobile white married men, the Order fused a stylization of North American Indian culture into Masonic-like rituals. Like Masons, the Red Men summoned up an imagined mythic past in which risk-taking and male hierarchies were celebrated through secret macho rituals of racial transformations, first from a “paleface” to a “red man,” and then up the hierarchy from a brave to a “sachem” or “a keeper of the wampum.” (Peck 1993) Actual native Americans were excluded from membership. Such racial “cross-dressing” was for white men only (after Brydon 1994). In this form of cultural transvestism, the “Indian” was reinscribed as an icon of a uniquely “American” white male privilege. It is only through apprehending such semiotic codings that apparently absurd scenes, like this piece of street theater from the first Washington’s Birthday event, become understandable:
City Marshal Barthelow drew up the entire police force heavily armed and ready for action. He was joined by Mayor Christen…
Suddenly from three directions, “Indians all painted and daubled, with tomahawks aloft, bows strung, quivers filled, with savage yells, swarmed upon the plaza and charged with a dare-devil spirit right into the muzzles of the guns that were in readiness to defend the city and its honor…”
Minutes later Mayor Christen hoisted a white flag and agreed to an unconditional surrender. Chief A.C. Hamilton received the keys to the gates of the city which he delivered to Pocahontas. (Thompson 1986)
That the mythic “Indian” had become a signifier of the male, white, American was reinforced in another piece of street theater that took place in the evening. In a reenactment of The Boston Tea Party,
William C. Chamberlain, as a captain of the British Navy, surrendered to A.C. Hamilton, disguised as an Indian but [actually the] leader of the Sons of Liberty. (Thompson 1986)
In a very corporeal sense, then, the symbolic identities of patriot and mythic Red Man were conflated in the white and male personage of A.C. Hamilton, on the streets of Laredo in 1898.
Taken as a whole, the rituals of the first Washington’s Birthday Celebration were intended to symbolically masculinize and Americanize the cultural, social and linguistic ambiguity of Laredo (specifically) and South Texas (more generally) while leaving actual Mexicanist colonial forms of governance intact. A pattern of iconic displacements emerges that becomes central to understanding the subsequent cultural, social and political connotations woven into a century of Washington’s Birthday Celebrations.
George Washington as the First Patron
Event Scene II (1940 & 1996): In 1940, Mexican nationalism reached its apex. Under El Presidente Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940), the Mexican government successfully expropriated the foreign-owned railroad and petroleum industries. Often viewed as an indigenous triumph over colonial capitalists, the success of the nationalization program sustained an expressive mood of positive and assertive Mexicanism.
It was in this environment of a confident, even insurgent Mexican nationalism that the elite patron matriarchy founded “the Society of Martha Washington” on the US side of the Texas-Mexico border. Then and now, the society is dedicated to promoting icons of Americanism in the ambiguous Interzone.
However, the Americanist iconography of the society is explicitly classist and elitist. Consider this contemporary description of the vestments worn by debutantes at the Colonial Ball:
Anointed young [elite] women [who are descendants of the founding families and old money of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo] wear dresses that can take a year to construct and are embellished with pearls, rhinestones, ribbons, silver cord, gold sequins, silk flowers, tiers of ruffles, and beads of lace. They cost as much as $20,000. The circumferences of the rigid, heavily beaded skirts are so large that they preclude the debutantes’ traveling to the ball [or pageant] by car, limousine, or van. Instead, they use un-Cinderella-like eighteen-wheel moving vans, and the girls are strapped in three or four to a truck. (Wilson 1995)
These outfits are also part of the hour-plus Colonial Pageant. To the accompaniment of recorded Haydn and Mozart concertos, descendants of Laredo’s elite, on the Civic Center stage, elaborately simulate Washington, his wife Martha, and elite national and international guests as they were announced during the first Inaugural Reception for George Washington. Seen as a whole, the spectacle conflates the subject positions of local elites with the foundational personages of the new American nation. As such, the Colonial Pageant serves as a legitimating Americanist icon for a century of local patron rule.
Had the Society chosen July 4th as its holiday, this task of legitimating and naturalizing the power prerogatives of landed South Texas gentry would have been far more difficult. For the Declaration of Independence is about defiance and revolution. It proclaims the dissolution and not the validation of colonialist political bonds. This is not the message that South Texas landed gentry wished to convey. To promote an interpretation of an Americanist icon that would support, not undermine patronist privilege, Washington’s Birthday was much better suited. Here’s why:
Often termed “the father of his country,” the sign of George Washington was recoded as a South Texas foundational and legitimating signifier for the patronist system. Linguistically, this makes sense insofar as the word father in English, as well as the Spanish nouns of padre and patron are all derived from the Latin term pater, or father. Conveniently and usefully so, Washington was white and a plantation owner whose own legitimacy to govern was unquestioned. Deployed this way, a century of Washington’s Birthday Celebrations has effectively served as an Americanist icon intended to stem the precarious vulnerability of national identity on the border while buttressing an unquestioning alleigance to a colonialist social and economic system.
Pocahontas and the Rise of the Professional Classes Context
Event Scene III (1980): As late as 1960, the Census Bureau reported that Webb County and its seat, Laredo, were the poorest county and municipality in the United States. (Fortunately, this is no longer true, although the aggregate standard of living remains low). Since 1960, now familiar deterritorializing forces – television, routine airplane travel, interstate highway systems, transnational communication networks and the increased mobility of global capital – all began to erode the geographical isolation of South Texas. Increased state and federal presence in the area began to bring middle-class jobs. The Border Industrialization Program, inaugurated in 1965, allowed US manufacturers to permanently move plants from the urban Rust Belt to the northern tier of Mexican states. When goods were reimported into the US, manufacturers paid duties only on “value added labor” and not on the reimportation of raw materials. Laredo’s sister city, Nuevo Laredo, is home to dozens of transnational maquiladoras. Thus was the groundwork laid for the maquiladora boom, which took off with the 1982 peso devaluation. After the initial shocks, Customs brokers prospered with the increased cross-border movement of goods. And almost all of the maquiladoras’ financial and informational infrastructure and managerial personnel were housed exclusively on the US side, free from the wild currency fluctuations and the political instability that has characterized the Mexican scene since the late 1970s. With an influx of Texas education funds, changing demographics, coupled with an escalating militarization of the border and supplemented by the proximity of the maquiladoras, newer streams of money, status and influence emerged. As the first-generation Tejano professional classes grew, notably in the educational, governmental and law-enforcement bureaucracies, an alternative Americanist ritual was added to the Washington’s Birthday Celebration. Meant to reflect the legitimacy logics of the emerging professional class, the new pageant was constructed around the icon of Pocahontas. Historically, the sign of Pocahontas has mirrored a number of enduring and very colonialist racial and gender conundrums.
Event Scene IV (1996): In appropriating the icon of the Indian princess Pocahontas, the emergent professional classes ritualized their mestiza, or mixed-blood, ancestry. As an intertext to the Colonial Pageant and Colonial Debutante Ball, the major connotations of the Tejana sign of Pocahontas are generally consistent with its historical meanings in other times and places:
In the ever-malleable narratives of Pocahontas that have evolved through the… centuries, what has been highlighted is her potential as a figure of racial reconciliation. The story of the so-called Indian princess is cast as a missed opportunity. Rather than waging genocidal wars [the colonialists] might have, through intermarriage, absorbed the native populations into the culture and, indeed, bloodlines of the European invaders. (Blackburn 1996)
At least in part, this seems to be the coded political message to the doyennes of the Colonial Pageant from the professional sector matriarchs at the Pocahontas Pageant Council. Semiotically, the Pageant constructs and displays each year a romanticized, “Orientalized” (in Edward Said’s sense of the term) version of “the American Indian” that is absolutely benign, compassionate and benevolent. In short, the icon of Pocahontas, as a marker for the new mestiza professional class, must first be shown to be absolutely devoid of any danger or peril whatsoever to pre-established privilege. This is a necessary precursor to the desired assimilation into the power structure. And, in various ways over the years, this is the key message of the Pocahontas Pageant. In 1996, it took the form of a ritually choreographed stage production called “Nature: Healer of Mankind: Our Ancestral Heritage” performed by selected teenage offspring of the professional Tejano class on the stage of the Laredo Civic Center. The crop of adolescents chosen to participate in the annual Pageant are collectively known as “Princess Pocahontas and Her Court.” The annual selection of a new Princess Pocahontas and her attendant Court, announced months before the February pageant, has itself become a much anticipated event.
The 1996 production of “Nature” went to great lengths to “produce” homogenized and collective representations of an flawlessly benevolent and non-threatening northern Native American. In the opening excerpts below (transcribed from public access cable TV coverage of the event), the plot is framed in a short, off-stage narration by the voices of two migrant Anglo TV newscasters, a male and female. They unpack the story as a lone “medicine man,” bathed in a red spot light at the corner of the stage, dances to recorded Native American chants:
Anchor A: (male) The American Indian believed that natural medicines were timeless, enduring for generations. They also believed that the prophetic and healing talents were given to only those that had no interest in misusing them…
Anchor B: (female) He [the medicine man] is troubled. He seeks spirit visitations to help him solve the dilemma. He feels his journey in this life is coming to an end… The answer to his prayer lies in the youth of his nation. They must be told of the traditional ways… how nature provides the healing powers… in the plants, herbs and roots…
Anchor A: (male) He prays for Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of his people, to come to the sacred place, so that she may learn the wonders of nature and man’s relation to it (Pocahontas Pageant, 02/22/96).
As blue white smoke fills the stage, a revolving door hidden within a rocky ridge-like set turns and reveals a very stylized representation of Pocahontas. She is elaborately clad, from her white feather headdress to a rich, adorned and tassled costume that looks like an Indianized version of Dale Evans’s cowgirl. Turning to the audience, she begins singing as if the production was a 1950s musical:
(Admist much applause)
Here I am,
It is I.
I have come to serve my people
As I walk
I ask Please be giving,
have needs and loves to give
everywhere need hope and love to live…
(Pocahontas’ opening number, Pocahontas Pageant, 2/22/96).
Subsequent sections of this lyric extol the virtues of natural pharmacology. The medicine man then proceeds to summon up a male companion, “Bear Claw: Chief of Mystic Spirits” to assist Pocahontas. And this followed by the emergence of Pocahontas’ elaborate court (of adolescent males and females in fully “Indianized” costumes). Assembling on the stage to the Chinese-inflected music from Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” each participant represents a different North American tribe. In turn, each female member of Pocahontas’s Court will tell a short tale about a different herb. And each adolescent participant, male and female, is introduced in multiple ways: As portrayed character, as representative of a healing herb (females only), as representative of a particular area high school and finally by their legal name, with the appellation of “son or daughter of Mr. & Mrs. X” all of this admist general applause and some whistling. A good time is clearly had by all.
Compared to the Colonial Pageant, the Pocahontas Pageant is a vigorous, successful, well-attended and enthusiastically received event. Clearly, it is far more inclusive. After all, a fairly significant and successful chunk of the local population is willing and able to participate in this legitimation ritual. However, these representations are, if you will, romanticized white colonial icons, unrepresentative of the actual native roots of this upwardly mobile Tejana population. In effect, the Tejana matriarchs that form the Pocahontas Council have reimagined their ancestral history as one improbably linked to the Algonquin and Inuit. Why? Because the sign of Pocahontas and similar signifiers represent that which the colonial imagination deems absorbable into the South Texas (or is it just Texas?) white power structure. Stripped to its basics, this is the enduring meaning of the sign. The Pocahontas Pageant represents the durability of this very conservative assimilationist desire. As such, it constitutes the racial and cultural boundaries of what is absorbable as “American” on the ambiguous South Texas-Mexico border. Just as Pocahontas was absorbed through baptism and marriage, to be reconstituted as “Lady Rebecca Wolfe.” But what is constituted as outside of those identity boundaries, as too immediate to be benign and as necessarily excluded?
Indigenous South Texas residents do have a native American heritage. The Indian blood that flows through their veins is not Pawnee or Cherokee but Yaqui, Toltec, Aztec or some variant thereof. And while it is not uncommon for California Chicanos to embrace the iconography of pre-Columbian Aztec culture (and other Mexicanist symbols), upwardly mobile professional Tejanos generally (though not without exceptions) distance themselves from such Mexicanist identifications. Having lived and suffered an endemic denigration on the geographical and economic margins of American society, they are not about to abandon an “American Dream” of upward economic and social mobility that they have not, until very recently, experienced. Now that the margins have moved, through the maquiladora phenomenon, NAFTA and the politics of immigration interdiction, it has been possible for a broader slice of the Tejano population to experience something like the imagined life of the middle-class. Expressed in the rapidly developing urban geography of Laredo, this has taken a predictable form. The city has largely split into an Americanized suburban north and an older Mexicanist southtown. Meanwhile, the abject returns, returns and returns. Those that cross the border each day – the maids, nannies, construction workers, hair stylists, mechanics and even the thousands of Mexican border children attending US schools; all of them unintentionally threaten to destabilize the Americanist identity so fervently desired by the new professional class.
Economic, demographic and socio-cultural changes have come hard and fast. The habits and perceptions of the past have not disappeared. They have merely been reconfigured in a changing environment. Colonialist habits of representation, thought and action have deep and complex roots on this slice of the border. The intended, unintended and frequently cumulative and unhappy effects of centuries of colonization, marginalization, racism and personalistic authoritarianism are still palpable. Meanwhile, indigenous South Texas residents may well be rapidly moving from a premodern, land-based feudalism to a postmodern, post-Fordist information and commodity-based feudalism, with no experience of modernity in between. But that’s a subject for another piece.
Blackburn, John. “Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America.” Electronic Document. 1996.
Blackburn, John. “Pocahontas: The Malleability of Race – or the Monster Miscegenation.” Electronic Document. 1996.
Brydon, Diana. “‘Empire bloomers’: Cross-dressings double cross.” Essays on Canadian Writing, 01-01-1994, pp. 23. Electronic Document. 1994.
City of Laredo. “1996 Colonial Pageant – 2/22/96.” Public Access Cable Channel. Videotape. 1996.
City of Laredo. “1996 Pocahontas Pageant – 2/22/96.” Public Access Cable Channel. Videotape. 1996.
Peck, Gunther. “Manly Gambles: The Politics of Risk on the Comstock Lode, 1860-1880.”, Vol. 26, Journal of Social History, 1993.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Thompson, Jerry Don. “Laredo: A Pictoral History.” Norfolk: The Donning Company, 1986.
Wilson, Laura. “Gown on the border.” Texas Monthly, Vol. 23, 03-01-1995. Electronic Document. 1995.