By Erika Pribanic-Smith
For her article “The Mediated Jorge Washington: Father of Our Countries” in the Summer 2018 issue of Journalism History, Melita Garza (Texas Christian University) examined how the bilingual Laredo (TX) Times covered a massive annual George Washington celebration from 1929-1934. I recently spoke with her about the research for this article and her overall research agenda.
Garza said she came across the article idea while conducting research for her book “They Came to Toil.” Going through San Antonio newspapers, she kept seeing ads for train fares to go to Washington’s birthday celebration in Laredo. She also came across an editorial discussing the celebration and noted the paradox of a city nowhere near the original 13 colonies, in a state that didn’t exist during George Washington’s lifetime, becoming one of the most fervent boosters of the first U.S. president.
“I saw this as a prime example of a term I love to use: Americanhood,” Garza said.
Americanhood in Laredo, Texas
Garza explained that the term Americanhood, which she borrowed from Michael Schudson, reflects on what it means to be American. Laredo’s bilingual, binational, and bicultural celebration is far removed from Boston Common, Mount Vernon, and other locations that typify Americanhood, but, Garza said, “It’s more American than anything could possibly be.”
Specifically, Garza explored the role of the local newspaper in developing the idea of Americanhood, focusing particularly on the worst period of the Depression.
“It was all the more dramatic that there was this push on people spending what little money they had to go to this celebration in Laredo, and how was this celebration being funded at a time when people were jobless and hungry?” Garza said.
Furthermore, much like today, Mexicans and Mexican immigrants were being expelled at an alarming rate.
“You have this anti-Mexican sentiment, but at the same time this tremendous, incredibly enduring celebration that’s now in its 122nd year,” Garza said.
Established as a two-day festival in 1898, Washington’s Birthday Celebration now lasts a month and features events such as a jalapeno competition, performances, parades, and a debutante ball hosted by the Society of Martha Washington. The latter is the subject of a 2014 documentary called “Las Marthas.”
Though Garza said she never has been to the festival, she visited Laredo as part of her research to peruse the archives, and she saw some of the costumes at the local historical museum.
“It’s culturally very interesting,” she said.
New Perspectives on Journalism History
The “Jorge Washington” article is part of a research program that aims to bring a different perspective to journalism history. Garza quoted historian Arthur Schlesinger as positing, “History is to a nation as memory is to a person.” She argued that people can’t have a memory of something that’s never been documented.
“If the canon is missing something, then no one is going to remember it,” Garza said. “Certain eras, certain motifs, certain genres are in vogue and replicated over and over again, while others are ignored.”
Garza said her primary interest is on how the media frames or helps us define who is and who is not American. She noted that a lot of her research compares English- and Spanish-language news and how they cover the same ideas. Furthermore, a large part of her research has been about immigrants and immigration.
That will continue to be a thread in Garza’s research agenda, but it isn’t the only one. Garza said she is exploring a different view of Americanhood in a project she’s currently working on, looking at midwestern newspapers during the Civil War.
“I’m primarily interested in looking at how people in the Midwest were thinking about how to integrate the traitors back into the country,” Garza said. “What should they do about the South? Should they be viewed as fully American and how?”
The same questions applied to the former slave population and, to some extent, immigrants. Garza argued that in general, the war was about who we are as Americans and what we stand for.
The article about Laredo’s George Washington celebration enabled Garza to tackle similar themes from a transnational perspective. She said the newspaper as an agent of transnational identity was different from what she has researched before.
Building a Bridge Across Cultures
Garza said the Laredo Times was all about promoting a common culture in English and Spanish in a time and a place when the border was contested, and it was very successful at doing so.
“On its nameplate it has a picture of a bridge, describing themselves as a bridge between these two countries,” she said. “They really focused on this idea, if you want to have a war about this border thing, we know who our community of readers are and where we circulate. It doesn’t stop at where you’ve drawn a line and said, ‘You can’t cross.’”
Garza noted that the Laredo Times’s publisher received Mexico’s Order of the Aztec Eagle—the country’s most important honor for foreigners—because of the newspaper’s role in promoting cooperation between Mexico and the United States.
“It’s just a testament to how the media can play a role in fostering transnational understanding,” Garza said.
The Laredo Times also is notable as the first newspaper in the United States to have a Spanish-language section and hire a Spanish-language editor. Garza said the Spanish used in the newspaper created a challenge for her because it was very formal and archaic. Though Garza speaks Spanish fluently, she said 1930s Spanish is different.
“I found that in several instances I would be typing it over into a Word document in Spanish so I could look at it and think through what they were really saying,” she said. “I had my dictionaries.”
Ultimately, Garza discovered that the newspaper took time to understand the culture—or rather the multiple cultures—of the community.
“When they talked about the George Washington celebration, they were careful not to frame it as Anglo Americans telling about liberty,” Garza said.
Instead, the newspaper developed a sort of Mount Rushmore of liberty which included George Washington along with Mexican and Latin American heroes such as Benito Juarez, Father Hidalgo, and Simón Bolivar.
Garza was surprised how important George Washington was to Laredo, permeating the news pages even beyond discussion of the annual celebration. She found his name in crossword puzzles and comics as well as in the news stories and editorials.
“There was a huge political incident, and they had a front-page editorial asking, ‘Why can’t this man be more like George Washington?’” Garza said. “He was a huge reference point. What would George do?”
She noticed a striking difference between the Depression era and now, when we have a President’s Day that conflates everything into an opportunity for stores to have sales.
“I feel like we’ve lost something by not having more awareness of George Washington,” Garza said. “I think we could really use that right now.”
Garza identified themes in her research that remain relevant today. She asserted that we continue to see questions about who is American and who is not.
“All too often these questions seem to revolve around color of skin, language spoken, whether their name ends in a vowel,” she said.
Though many ethnic groups have been ostracized and labeled “not American” at different points of American history, Garza argued that the people of Mexican or Latin American descent constantly are being othered. Because of that, she believes many people would be surprised to know this extensive bicultural celebration of George Washington has endured for 122 years.