Community Cinema

Las Marthas: Screening canceled



Catch the film on the PBS series Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, Feb. 17, on WILL-TV.

7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 4
Spurlock Museum
600 S. Gregory St., Urbana
Parking: Lot D-22 next to the museum

Come to our free screening and discussion of issues raised by this documentary about the annual debutante ball in Laredo, Texas, which dates from the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexico War. The film follows two Mexican American girls carrying this gilded tradition on their young shoulders during a time of economic uncertainty and political tension over immigration.

The film Las Marthas enjoys unprecedented access to an exclusive border celebration in honor of George Washington, where Mexican American debutantes dress as American Revolutionaries. Every February, one of the largest celebrations of George Washington’s birthday in the world takes place in the border town of Laredo, Texas. This 116-year-old tradition has evolved into an entire month of inventive reenactments and bicultural celebrations, many of them involving Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, their sister city across the border. The most preeminent event of them all, however, 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 gowns representing iconic figures from America’s revolutionary history. Their goal: to recreate a party hosted by Martha Washington, but this time set on the U.S./Mexico border. 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 extraordinary rite of passage. Laurita, the 13th young woman in her family to make her debut in the Washington’s Birthday Celebration, can trace her lineage back to the original Spanish land grantees; yet, uncomfortable with the rigid class system the debutante ball perpetuates, she constantly wavers between embracing and questioning the ritual.

Rosario, on the other hand, is the first in her family to debut. Raised in Mexico, yet educated in the U.S., Rosario is one of only two “guests” invited to present at this year’s Ball. She represents Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — the other half of a bi-national community nicknamed “Los Dos Laredos” or “the Two Laredos.” At a time when conflict and crime typically dominate all discourse about the border, Rosario’s inclusion reflects the Society’s desire to stitch together a community that the media, politics, and history have tried to divide. Yet despite Rosario’s previous success as a beauty queen, she remains a Society outsider; she yearns to understand the unspoken rules that all of the other girls seem to have so easily inherited along with their legacy.

A year in the making, each girl’s dress can weigh up to one hundred pounds and cost up to $30,000 — nearly the median family income of Laredo. Many of these spectacular creations are made by highly coveted  dressmaker Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez, an oil heiress who designs her dresses with “heavenly inspiration from God.”

Illinois Public Media reporter Sean Powers will moderate a discussion among panelists including:

  • Julie A. Dowling, University of Illinois associate professor of Latina/Latino studies and sociology, an expert in the area of Latino racial identity construction and racial attitudes and  the author of the forthcoming book, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race. She is a native of Texas.
  • Robert M. Morrissey, U of I assistant professor of history, a specialist in the history of colonial America, the American frontier and borderlands.
  • Cele Otnes, U of I professor of business administration, whose area of research interest is ritual-based consumer behavior, such as weddings and gift giving. She is the co-author of the book, Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding.
  • Angharad N. Valdivia, U of I professor of Latina/Latino studies, Latin American and Caribbean studies, media and cinema studies, gender and women’s studies, and Center for Global Studies. Among her areas of research, she focuses on gender and transnational identity issues, particularly those of young Latina women in the U.S. She is the author of numerous book chapters and journal articles.

Visit the Las Marthas companion website, which features information about the film, including an interview with the filmmakers and links and resources pertaining to the film’s subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film, and more.

Las Marthas premieres on the PBS series Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, Feb. 17, on WILL-TV.