Q&A with Elaine A. Peña on Celebrating Washington’s Birthday at the US-Mexico Border

Since 1898, residents of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, have reached across the US-Mexico border to celebrate this country’s first president George Washington’s birthday. The celebration can last a whole month, with parade goers reveling in American and Mexican symbols; George Washington saluting; and “Pocahontas” riding on horseback. An international bridge ceremony, the heart and soul of the festivities, features children from both sides of the border marching toward each other to link the cities with an embrace.

Elaine A. Peña’s book ¡Viva George! offers an ethnography and a history of this celebration, which emerges as both symbol and substance of cross-border community life. Anthropologist and Laredo native Elaine A. Peña shows how generations of border officials, civil society organizers, and everyday people have used the bridge ritual to protect shared economic and security interests as well as negotiate tensions amid natural disasters, drug-war violence, and immigration debates.

Drawing on previously unknown sources and extensive fieldwork, Peña finds that border enactments like Washington’s birthday are more than goodwill gestures. From the Rio Grande to the 38th Parallel, they do the meaningful political work that partisan polemics cannot.

To celebrate the publication of her book, we asked Dr. Peña some questions about her research.

Please describe the WBC’s International Bridge Ceremony, and what questions you wanted to answer by focusing on this performance?

The ceremony features two children representing the U.S. and two children representing Mexico walking toward each other on the Juárez-Lincoln International Bridge to share a picture-perfect embrace and to exchange national flags. Other actors, mostly political figures and business leaders from both sides of the border, also share embraces and exchange well wishes. The ritual has taken place in some shape or form since the celebration’s inception in 1898

Focusing on the bridge ceremony allowed me to trace shifts in cross-border cooperation across several decades and, more importantly, to see how Mexican actors have supported this ostensibly U.S.-centric celebration. I was interested to see if the balance of the ritual—two sides coming together with tight choreography annually for over a century—carried over to everyday border interactions or had an impact on how port-of-entry actors dealt with shared problems and/or opportunities linked to trade, immigration, and security. I took a specific interest in the history and uses of the international bridge because it is co-owned by the Mexican government and the city of Laredo. I thought, well, there are insurmountable inequities that affect that border in terms of poverty and documentation vulnerabilities, for example, but the international bridge—an exemplar of border infrastructure—is co-owned. Both sides share it and thus manage responsibilities and power. Having that conceptual ground to stand on allowed me to dive into the archives and into ethnographic fieldwork with greater attention to what border actors do—how they find innovative ways to cooperate during times of crisis. Focusing on how border actors have festively repurposed the International Bridge Ceremony not only challenges but also empirically denies popular narratives of border dysfunction.

What were your early experiences of the festival, and how has your impression/consumption/participation of it changed over several decades?

We moved around a lot and lived in different places downtown during my childhood so I was used to seeing and interacting with people gathering for the parade. I would work the parade sometimes, selling cold sodas and water. My favorite parade participants were the Mexican tumblers. They would do amazing tricks! Other than that, we would go to the carnival or to the jalapeño festival if we could afford it that year. This is all to say that I was aware of the celebration, and definitely of the beauty and glamour of the debutantes, but I didn’t wonder about it too much. I had other things on my mind as a kid.

Things changed once I got to high school because a lot of my classmates participated in the festivities as debutantes or as escorts. They worked so hard to get selected and they had so many commitments. It was intense.

I went to the Princess Pocahontas pageant in 1996 because my best friend was Pocahontas. That was a really weird moment for my sixteen-year-old self. It was the first time I had attended a “high-class” event and I was really confused by what I saw and heard about Native American tribes. I didn’t know what “playing Indian” was at the time and I didn’t have the vocabulary to work things out, so I was left with a lot of questions.

I began to attend a wide range of celebration events once I decided to work on the celebration as an academic, about ten years after that moment. I attended as many events as I could between 2006 and 2017, including the International Bridge Ceremony, the Pocahontas and Society of Martha Washington pageants, LULAC’s Noche Mexicana gala, the Caballeros de la República del Río Grande cocktail party, and the Mr. South Texas luncheon. I also attended WBCA events in Nuevo Laredo and celebration events hosted by the municipality of Nuevo Laredo. These upper-echelon gatherings gave me insight into why rituals persist, how they are practiced across generations, and how they benefit border business.

The era of paso libre is, as you say, a puzzle. Would you describe paso libre and the incongruous context in which it existed for twenty years?

Paso libre coincided with the International Bridge Ceremony in February 1957. That year, the ritual doubled as the public inauguration of the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge. Dangerous water levels created by Hurricane Alice had destroyed the existing bridge at the end of July 1954. Paso libre was part of an agreement to make the newly constructed bridge operational, and it extended free bridge crossing privileges during the celebration in either direction. In practice, this meant that Mexican citizens could cross the border into the U.S. without having to show documentation every February between 1957 and 1976. Thousands of people crossed the border peacefully and safely during that time.

It took me quite a long time comparing uncatalogued documents in the archives, but I finally figured out that paso libre was a peace-building/port business–securing gesture initiated by U.S. actors, including the INS and the State Department, to persuade Mexican officials to formally open their side of the international bridge. I spoke with as many people as I could who remembered that time and I was lucky enough to locate photos of paso libre at different moments during the phenomenon. I remember coming across photos from the early 1960s showing families walking hand-in-hand across the bridge as well as Mexican military cadets. Photos of the early 1970s are absolutely spectacular because they feature thousands of people walking across the border as part of the bridge ceremony. By that time, anti-immigrant narratives were not only becoming more widespread in the U.S. but were also being politicized as part of the War on Drugs campaign launched by President Nixon in 1969.

It is just mind-blowing to think that paso libre persisted, with lots of fanfare and without incident, for almost twenty years. It is also incredible that paso libre was covered (negatively) by major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times during that period (early 1970s) but was never questioned by academics or mentioned in the history books. ¡Viva George! is the first study to do so.

What aspect of the ceremony does the cover of your book depict, and what is its historical and also logistical significance?

The cover depicts a transformative moment in the bridge ceremony ritual. The children’s embrace in the middle of the bridge is the culmination of months and months of cross-border collaboration between Mexican and U.S. actors. This coordination is sometimes conducted under extreme duress—political pressure to secure the border, etc.—but still, in that moment, the ritual makes visible and palpable the fact that both sides can work together.

You embedded yourself in both archival and ethnographic research. What kinds of activities and participation did your ethnographic research entail?

In addition to conducting archival research in Waco; San Antonio; Austin; Washington, DC; Mexico City; Laredo; and Nuevo Laredo, I spent a lot of time in the field—during the celebration, of course, but also during summers, academic breaks, and sabbatical years. The celebration unfolds in February, but planning happens year-round. I met with WBCA actors, past and present, individually and in groups on several occasions. I attended the planning meetings of bi-nationally focused organizations like the International Good Neighbor Council–Laredo, the Consejo Internacional de Buena Vecindad–Nuevo Laredo, and LULAC Council #12, but I also attended special committee meetings with city officials focused on border security and celebration logistics. I went to dress fittings and rehearsals with the abrazo children and their families. I traveled to Washington, DC, with WBCA actors headed to the annual Laredo Day event on the Hill in early March.

It was also important for me to participate in the International Bridge Ceremony as often as possible and from several different vantage points. One year I headed out to the bridge at 5:00 a.m. to help set things up and to get an up-close and personal take on how international bridge personnel do not close but “redirect” traffic while the ritual unfolds. Another year, I traveled from Nuevo Laredo with Mexican representatives to the bridge ceremony.

Elaine A. Peña is an associate professor of American Studies at George Washington University and author of Performing Piety: Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her work has been recognized by the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Association of Latina and Latino Anthropologists.