George Washington probably never chose to celebrate his birthday in Laredo, Texas. Nor was he even alive by the time Laredo threw him his first birthday party on February 22, 1898. A celebration with such deep roots is what attracts locals and visitors to the first U.S. president’s annual birthday party each year in Laredo, which transpires three-and-a-half hours from Austin during a multi-week extravaganza, this year from January 21 through February 27.
Before we unveil the specifics of this birthday bash and why it’s worth a day or weekend trip, it’s important to offer some history: The origin of this event is so convoluted to the modern ear that it just makes sense that the annual celebration, now in its 124th year, takes over a month to unfold. There’s a lot to cover.
It was a symbolic gesture by every measure: The Improved Order of the Red Men Yaqui Tribe #59 (a misleadingly named patriotic fraternity started in 1834 by and for white men who allegedly dressed as natives during the Boston Tea Party and modeled their club after their idea of the natives’ political structure) staged a theatrical battle, an exchange of keys representing the city of Laredo and Pocahontas, and a reenactment of the historic tea dump.
But the local chapter’s Mexican and American Laredoans were looking for a patriotic celebration that everyone could get behind. They learned that Washington’s esteem extended past the Southern border of the United States, and that he, too, had donned a similar disguise to meet undercover and plan with revolutionaries.
The present day celebration is rich with historical costumes, music, and military extravagance. Some of the events, especially the Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball, spark discourse on appropriation, over-celebrating colonialism, and depoliticizing complicated border relations. The Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association is clear and consistent about its intentions: to welcome everyone and show them a good time. Oversimplified or realistic for a population with a complicated history, the ostensibly multicultural events all boil down simply to celebrating America.
“As far as patriotism, the tone is the same,” says Nino Cardenas, PR and marketing manager of the WBCA. “It’s just a love for your country. We celebrate this as anybody would in the United States.”
The WBCA works all year on the birthday celebration, which draws around 400,000 visitors over the course of 38 days. Cardenas says most of the visitors come for the final two weekends, when the biggest events are scheduled, like the Anheuser-Busch Washington’s Birthday Parade through downtown Laredo. The procession draws up to 100,000 spectators with floats, Clydesdales, marching bands, and Shriners (the masonic fraternity members who wear fezzes and drive tiny or antique cars). For the absolute best view, some people set out their seats the night before.
The Jalapeño Festival (a music festival within a birthday party festival) unites regional Mexican and country music over two days, with other themed events mixed in. At the obligatory jalapeño-eating contest, each of the top eaters scarfs down hundreds of jalapeños, unflinching and gulping down drinks. A grito contest ranks long-winded exclamations, not as a reaction to infernal levels of jalapeño consumption, but as part of a patriotic, expressive tradition that sounds like laughing, crying, or cheering.
An airshow, one of the most demanding events the WBCA single-handedly plans, showcases classic air acrobatics by teams and individual pilots. It’s not just about the pilots; two skydiving teams choreograph jumping out like daredevil synchronized swimmers. This year, a team will demonstrate the F-35A Lightning II, the U.S. Air Force’s newest fighter.
Some smaller events specifically reference the history of Washington’s Birthday over many years, including an annual poster unveiling and an opening exchange of abrazos and symbolic gifts between child ambassadors of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
All this planning, and the seemingly impossible execution, is done with the help of volunteers. The WBCA is a nonprofit, so it relies on manpower from people who believe in the community impact and want to experience the festivities from the inside. The association starts reaching out for more volunteers in mid-January and continues accepting applications until the event.
“Our goal is for you to have a great time,” says Cardenas. “Just go have fun. We make sure that experience goes as seamless as possible.”
For more information on the upcoming events, history, volunteering, and recommended travel plans, visit wbcalaredo.org. Some events, including the Jalapeño Festival and the airshow, require tickets for entry, which can be purchased on the website.