"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
After George Washington’s Birthday morphed into Presidents Day, the father of our country lost much of his iconic luster. Department stores that once hawked discounted goods in his name every Feb. 22 now celebrate Lincoln, too, and schoolchildren are likely to focus on all U.S. presidents this time of year rather than just the nation’s first.
But in Laredo, Texas, a booming border town of 200,000 residents — 95 percent of whom are Latino — Washington’s Birthday remains a huge holiday. Laredo just wrapped up the finale of the nation’s oldest and largest Washington’s Birthday observances, a 16-day ritual of partying and patriotism, pomp and populism, with events ranging from a popular parade and a jalapeqo-eating contest to a ritzy colonial ball and a straight-laced U.S.-Mexico bridge ceremony.
One highlight of the parade is a series of floats featuring the Martha Washington Society debutantes, wearing handmade colonial velvet and satin gowns that cost from $15,000 to $25,000. The society’s founders were mostly Anglo women, but today’s members and debutantes are mostly wealthy Latinas. Among the Laredo elite, intermarriage has been the rule rather than the exception, and Anglo newcomers still tend to assimilate into a bicultural, bilingual society.
Francisco Canseco, 50, was chosen to represent George Washington at festival events this year. The son of a prominent doctor from Monterrey, Mexico, the successful corporate attorney took the role to heart. “When I told the kids all about George Washington and why he was an American hero, I was speaking to [children named] Juan Garcia and Fernando Lopez. I told them that he held together the emerging United States, which included people of all backgrounds and origins.”
Like other Laredoans, Canseco stresses his city’s “Americaness.” “We’re as American as anywhere else, whether it’s Pasadena, Calif.; Alexandria, Va.; or Bangor, Maine,” he says. He grouses that the rest of America does not understand what is so obvious to him and other Laredoans — that biculturalism is not synonymous with binationalism, and that Latinos can retain their love of Mexican culture while considering themselves fully American.
While artists, academics and CEOs of multinational corporations all have gleefully declared the dawn of the era of transnationalism and the end of borders, Mexican-Americans in the Texas border region reaffirm the presence of the international frontier on a daily basis. While immigration-restriction advocates fear that newcomers are undermining U.S. sovereignty and refusing to assimilate to American life, Mexican-Americans on the border prove otherwise. Laredo, which has had a Hispanic majority since its founding in 1755, also gives us a glimpse of what other rapidly Latinizing regions of the country may look like within a generation.
Laredoans are both economically dependent and culturally defined by the border. Indeed, this is one of the few border cities to benefit from the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it has done so with a vengeance. The unemployment rate, which was a tragic 15.3 percent in 1987 had fallen to 6.8 percent in 1999. The average wage also went up considerably in the 1990s. Last year, Laredo was named the second fastest growing city in the United States after Las Vegas.
Laredo’s George Washington celebration was founded in 1898 by the Society of Red Men, a fraternal order made up largely of Anglo immigrants from the north. Although Laredo became an American city in 1848, in political and economic terms, the town continued to be culturally Mexican. American political and legal practices prevailed, but they were being conducted in Spanish. But in 1881, not one but two railroad lines were completed to connect the border town to the American interior. Consequently, the 1880s and ’90s saw Anglo-American influence in Laredo reach an all-time high. In 1900, Laredo was fully 25 percent Anglo, the highest it has ever been .
By setting up this patriotic festival, the Red Men sought to bring an American-style holiday to a largely Mexican community. But the Washington celebration, which started as a method of acculturation, quickly evolved into something that reflected the unique bicultural blend of the border region.
By the 1920s, Washington’s birthday organizers had instituted a Noche Mexicana, a night of Mexican music and food that quickly became a centerpiece of the celebration. By that time, Laredoans had become particularly proud and protective of their unique bicultural lifestyle. In 1925, an article in the Laredo Times noted that “one thing we may pride ourselves upon … is the Mexican music that springs simultaneously from all sides when we celebrate a fiesta of any sort.”
In fact, there have never been enough Anglos in Laredo to create the dual, competing cultures of towns like McAllen or Brownsville in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. When Anglo and European immigrants arrived in Laredo, they tended to marry Mexicans and became Mexicanized. Their children grew up speaking Spanish. “In Laredo, there has always been the process of Mexicanization and Americanization going on simultaneously,” says Stan Green, a Laredo historian and professor at Laredo’s Texas A&M International University.
Over the years, the celebration has maintained its border biculturalism. Libby Casso, this year’s president of the Martha Washington Society, is an Anglo from Kentucky who came to Laredo by way of her college sweetheart and husband, Alfonso Casso Jr. She considers her three children Julia, Liz and Alfonso to be Hispanic. Her neighbor, Gloria Canseco, a past president of the Martha Washington Society and former head of the Webb County Heritage Foundation (and the wife of this year’s George Washington), is cheerfully chauvinistic about Laredo’s Latino cultural dominance. “We’ve always been among the dominant class. We were secure enough not to feel insulted whenever we visited places like McAllen, where they had signs saying “No Mexicans Allowed.” Back in the 1940s, my mother used to giggle at their stupidity.”
And even as they celebrate their closeness with Mexico, most Latinos along the frontier show wide support for strong border enforcement. Indeed, near the front of the Washington’s Birthday parade last weekend were officers in Border Patrol cruisers strolling down San Bernardo Avenue waving at the crowd. In California, the idea of Border Patrol agents riding in local parades would be unthinkable. But along the frontier here, most Mexican-Americans have made their peace with the contradictions of the border.
In El Paso, for instance, 600 miles up the Rio Grande in West Texas, a predominately Mexican-American electorate sent Silvestre Reyes, a former ranking INS official to Congress in 1996. Reyes had gained recognition as the architect of Operation Hold the Line, the labor-intensive INS strategy to prevent illegal immigration along the El Paso border. In a 1994 El Paso Times poll, 78 percent of local Latino respondents said they were generally in favor of Operation Hold the Line, while 17 percent opposed. No such polls have been taken on the Laredo equivalent of the Hold the Line, Operation Rio Grande, but local observers estimate that the support would be just as lopsided.
Texas Latinos are more likely to be multigeneration Americans and have greater distance from the immigrant experience than do their counterparts in California. Plus, in the past Mexican-Americans here were not able to appeal to a large number of sympathetic white Texans to help them alleviate the severe indignities and discrimination that many experienced before the civil rights era. As Carlos Guerra, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and a founder of the radical Raza Unida Party in the late 1960s puts it: “We never had the liberal escape valve like you did in California. You were not going to guilt Anglo Texans. The Gandhi stuff didn’t work here. That made us more pragmatic.”
The state’s 840-mile border with Mexico also helps shape Latino consciousness here in a way that it does not elsewhere. The starkness of a border puts whatever inherent contradictions there are between its two opposing sides in sharp, dramatic relief.
As Rick Lucio, a Mexican-American Border Patrol agent in El Paso told me last summer as he pointed to a concrete slab in the desert that marked the U.S.-Mexico border: “[The marker] is important because if you’re born on that side of the line, you’re in America, and you have opportunity, and if you are born on the other side, you’ve got nothing. It’s a strange way to do things, but that’s how we do them.”
Facing such a stark contrast, it’s understandable that South Texas Mexicans would be eager to acknowledge the border and which side of it they were born on. In the fall of 1997, Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez hoisted an enormous Mexican flag near the border that was easily visible from most points in El Paso. When asked by the El Paso Times whether their city should respond by hoisting an equally large American flag in downtown El Paso, more Hispanics said yes than did non-Hispanics.
“South Texas culture is sometimes a reaction to the border,” says Thomas Longoria, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Maybe embracing America became a coping mechanism. We’re saying that we’re not any less American than anyone else.”
Thomas Moore Jr., the Latino editor of LareDos magazine agrees that Mexican-American patriotism “grew out of being on the border and wanting to emphasize our Americaness. The burden of proof is on us,” he says.
And yet Mexican-Americans in Laredo and throughout the border region are particularly grateful for what the border provides them culturally. Because they adhere more deeply and organically to Mexican culture and language than do Mexican-Americans further inland, Latinos on the border can be chauvinistic toward their ethnic brethren in Dallas, California and even nearby San Antonio, a city that has successfully marketed itself as the quintessential Mexican-American city.
“San Antonio has an identity crisis,” says Gloria Canseco. “They’re so disconnected from their roots that they’re becoming as plastic as Santa Fe,” she says. “They all see the world through Frida Kahlo and pop-Mexican culture.” LareDos publisher Maria Eugenia Guerra also levies the charge of faux Hispanicity at San Antonio, which is only 150 miles north of Laredo. “They’re Sandra Cisneros Mexicans! Worse yet!” she yells, referring to the popular Chicana novelist.
But academic surveys have shown that while Mexican-American political loyalty to the U.S. may be more pronounced along the border, it is not exclusive to this region. In 1992, the Latino National Political Survey, the largest Hispanic opinion poll of its kind, revealed that Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans registered equally positive attitudes toward the United States. The same survey found that while they generally look fondly on Mexico as a country, few Mexican-Americans follow Mexican political events closely.
As a further sign of Mexican-American political disassociation from the home country, few immigrants have taken advantage of the newly granted option of dual nationality. In April 1998, Mexico began allowing emigrants to retain their Mexican nationality even as they became naturalized American citizens. But after the first nine months of the program, only about 7,000 out of a pool of 4 million eligibles bothered to apply.
Of course, none of this was on the minds of last weekend’s revelers at the Washington celebration in Laredo. Being bicultural and uni-national is a given to people here. Besides, Laredoans were more concerned with having a good time than with making self-conscious appeals to the flag.
Long-time observers comment that the parade was much more overtly patriotic in the 1950s and 1960s. Certainly Laredo, like all of America, is changing. Here, like in other once-isolated regions of the South, consumer behavior is beginning to conform to national norms. Choked by traffic, fast- food joints and suburban sprawl, the city offers fewer and fewer aesthetic reminders of Mexico.
Last weekend the number one requested song on 98.1 FM, Laredo’s most listened-to radio station, was Madonna’s new version of Don Mclean’s “American Pie.” While Tejano music is still popular among kids, the so-called Latin music explosion — featuring Puerto Rican singers Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony — is now drawing more listeners.
Yet, with all the changes Laredo will continue to go through, its Washington’s Birthday celebration is likely to remain a comforting constant. Frank Gonzalez, Jr., 49, the head of the local League of United Latin American Citizens chapter (which sponsors three Washington’s Birthday events), believes that it is precisely Laredoans’ keen ethnic heritage that will keep events alive for future generations. A Vietnam veteran who volunteered for service out of a sense of obligation, Gonzalez sums up his theory in one sentence: “We’re patriotic Americans because we’re Mexican.”
Gregory Rodriguez is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Opinion section and a research scholar at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. He is also a fellow at the New America Foundation.More Gregory Rodriguez.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)