For those of you looking for something patriotic to do to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, you might want to consider traveling down to my hometown of Laredo, Texas, on the weekend of February 22.
Laredo, a city along the Texas-Mexican border has the biggest George Washington birthday celebration in the nation. What’s special about the celebration is that it represents a perfect confluence of Mexican and American cultures. After all, how many celebrations of America’s Founding Fathers are going to have a festival featuring Mexican music, dancing, and food?
It is impossible to describe to anyone who has never visited the border how different the culture is on the border compared to the rest of the United States. I am simply rendering a guess but I’d estimate that about 95 percent of Laredo is Hispanic-surnamed. On a trip back to Laredo a few years ago, I did an informal survey of a local restaurant by walking around the various tables to see how many people were speaking English. Most all of them were speaking Spanish. In fact, I would estimate that while most of the Hispanic population is bilingual, at least 20 percent of the population cannot speak English despite the fact that most of them were born in the United States and were forced to participate in the government’s education system.
None of this is a shocking thing to Laredoans. No one ruminates on the fact that there is a large number of Americans who can’t speak English. No one paces the floors over the fact that the city is predominantly Hispanic. No one complains that local stores feature signs in both English and Spanish. No one says anything when greeters at stores instinctively shift from “Good morning” to “Buenos Dias” according to the skin color of the person who is entering the store. No one lobbies to change the names of streets from Juarez and Mier, who are Mexican heroes, to Jefferson and Madison.
Everyone simply understands that Laredo was once part of Mexico — that is, until the United States stole the northern half of Mexico through the Mexican War. Why should it shock Laredoans that much of the culture, language, food, and relationships are closely intertwined with Mexico even after some 150 years since the theft took place?
While there were Americans who opposed how the U.S. government concocted the reasons for starting the war (e.g., Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau), everyone quickly became accustomed to the fact that the United States was willingly absorbing a large portion of Mexico, a country that was steeped in Indian, Mexican, Spanish, and French culture, language, religion, food, history, and custom. That is, there wasn’t a bunch of hand-wringing among our American ancestors about how the acquisition of this land and its people was going to adversely affect the culture of the United States.
There are, of course, Anglos living in Laredo, some of whom can’t speak a lick of Spanish. While knowing Spanish would greatly benefit them, it never occurs to anyone to mandate that the Anglos learn Spanish for their own good. The decision is left entirely up to them. Most Anglos do very well in the business world without ever learning how to communicate in Spanish. If an Anglo doesn’t like the atmosphere, he quickly recognizes the futility of trying to “Anglify” Laredo and accepts that his choice is simply to stay and enjoy life as it is or simply move away to, say, Iowa.
Laredo’s George Washington Birthday celebration includes a great big downtown parade with beautiful floats that feature the local debutantes. The girl who is chosen to be Pocahontas leads the parade on her horse. When I was a kid, the border would be completely open, enabling people from Mexico to freely cross over to enjoy the parade. I doubt if that is the case today given the U.S. government’s “war on terrorism.”
I have three pieces of advice in case you do decide to make the celebration.
First, fly into San Antonio, one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, and stay a night there. That city, which I’d estimate has a balance of 50 percent Hispanic and 50 percent Anglo, is one of the finest confluences of Mexican and Anglo cultures anywhere in the world. Be sure to spend your evening along the River Walk, where you’ll be able to sample an array of restaurants featuring both Mexican and American food. You might also want to visit the Alamo, where courageous Mexican patriots, including both Anglos and Hispanics, took up arms against their own government for violating the nation’s constitution.
Second, don’t make plans to visit Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. That used to be a favorite destination spot for tourists — and rightfully so because it was once so much fun to visit. Not anymore though because of the federal government’s 30-year-old failed war on drugs. It has made things very dangerous and very nasty for everyone in Nuevo Laredo.
Third, be sure to take your papers with you to Laredo, even if you do not plan to cross into Mexico. Everyone leaving Laredo to go northward, either on the highways or airport, is required to show his papers to federal officials. Carrying your papers with you is especially important if your skin is dark because while Anglos are usually quickly waved through the checkpoints, without having to show their papers, darker-skinned people, especially poor ones, can expect to have to show their papers before being permitted to travel north. No papers, no travel.
If you want to get a taste of the fun that people have on the border during the George Washington celebration, and the absence of angst about the predominantly Hispanic population and Mexican language, culture, and custom in Laredo, here’s a video of the Taste of Laredo Festival, including the annual Jalapeno Eating Contest, that is part of the George Washington Birthday Celebration. Also, here are some pictures of the downtown parade. By the way, a cousin of mine just emailed me to tell me that famous Mexican rock singer Gloria Trevi (the Madonna of Mexico) will be performing at this year’s festival.