Washington’s Birthday Celebration is an annual, city-wide, four-week celebration of George Washington’s birthday in Laredo, Texas. The festival is sponsored by the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association, chartered in 1923, and consists of various events and participating organizations. The first annual celebration was held in 1898 as a way to encourage American patriotism on the Texas-Mexico border. Until 1898 the major holidays celebrated in Laredo were Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis de Septiembre. The Washington’s Birthday Celebration was originally sponsored by the local chapter (Yaqui Tribe No. 59) of the Improved Order of Red Men (IORM)—a national fraternal organization of upwardly mobile, white married men. The IORM employed the use of North American Indian symbolism and ritual. In Laredo, though a majority of IORM founders were Anglos, “prominent men…of both American and Mexican ancestry” were members of Yaqui Tribe No. 59. The celebration committee, however, was led by Anglo professionals, with only one of the ten men having a Spanish surname, and chaired by Joseph Netzer, a former soldier in the U.S. Army in the Indian campaigns. The first Washington’s Birthday Celebration began on February 22, 1898.
In early celebrations, members of Yaqui Tribe No. 59 staged an “attack” on city hall against its defenders: the mayor, the city council, the police force, and citizens. The men dressed up as Native Americans, painted their faces, and wore Native American costumes for this inverted conquest where “Indians” attacked innocent Anglo and Mexican settlers. When the “Indians” finally defeated the settlers, the mayor turned over the key of the city to the Great Chief Sachem (state leader of the IORM) in surrender. Following a parade, a pageant and a burlesque show were held in which the “Red Men” played the part of women, Indians, and African Americans in satiric fashion at the Market Hall. Washington’s Birthday Celebration lasted for two days and ended with the reenactment of the “Boston Tea Party.”
The event quickly grew in popularity and by 1905 drew thousands of visitors from across Texas and northern Mexico to watch the spectacle of the “mock battle” between the “Indians” and the Anglo and Mexican defenders of city hall. The celebration of Washington's Birthday gradually adapted to the times. By 1909 the celebration had expanded to five days, and the Indian “attack” was replaced by a non-confrontational handing of the city key to “Pocahontas” from the mayor.
The Martha Washington Society was added in 1939 and hosted the Colonial Pageant and Ball which featured thirteen young girls, one for each original American colony, from Laredo. By 1997 the pageant girls, or “debutantes,” were spending upwards of $20,000 on their elaborate gowns, a sharp contrast with the city’s per capita income of less than $15,000. While the pageant reflects the past, when the event served as a way of connecting the city’s prominent bachelors and bachelorettes and participation in organizing groups such as the Washington Birthday Celebration Association were reserved to the higher classes of the Laredo society, in the last forty years there has been an increasing emphasis on diversity. The International Bridge Ceremony has become a major event of the celebration in which officials from Mexico and the United States exchange abrazos in a welcoming ceremony “symbolizing the amity and understanding between two neighboring nations.” Other additions include the Mexican Village (1979), the Princess Pocahontas Council (1980), and the Jalapeño Festival Association (1983).
That the Improved Order of Red Men worked for American cultural hegemony under a patriotic banner was of special significance in South Texas, due to its proximity with Mexico and Mexican culture. Until then, Laredo had not been “culturally incorporated” into the U.S. The continued existence of a Mexican-Texan elite that considered itself “white” prevented outright Anglo domination of the region. However, through collaboration, Anglo and Mexican elites could work together to maintain both the social order and their privileged position among a racially mixed and transnational population. The image of harmony and peacefulness represented by the Washington’s Birthday celebrations, following a half century of antagonism between the two, served as economic enticement to potential outside investors. Despite pleas to commemorate Mexican Independence with the same celebratory fervor, the Mexican Independence celebration in Laredo has never become of equal stature with the Washington’s Birthday Celebration.
In the 2010s the celebration, which was heralded as the “oldest celebration in the United States honoring…George Washington,” attracted more than 400,000 annual attendees and consisted of more than twenty-eight events, including the parade, pageants, Jalapeno Festival, Founding Fathers’ 5K Fun Run and Health Fair, a carnival, an air show, a car show, fireworks display, and more. The Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association also published the event’s official magazine—By George. Title sponsors included area banks, beer distributors, restaurants, as well as H-E-B and the city of Laredo. Washington’s Birthday Celebration continues to be a good source of revenue for the city.