This is a dispatch from Laredo, Texas, the last town on Rt. 35 before Stetsons turn to sombreros and Homeland Security no longer has your back. It’s 11:30 at night and I’m writing from a $69 suite in the Rio Grande Plaza, a peeling tower of gold plate and tinted glass built downtown during an optimistic stretch of the ’70s. To my right, beneath the window, Border Patrol crawls along the river in Suburbans with their parking lights on; to the left is a Trinitron as old as the hotel, hue and contrast stuck at full-tilt, and I’m on it, because four hours ago, I placed eighth in the annual La Costea International, the world’s largest hot-pepper eating contest.
“I know I’m in for some pain,” I deadpan to the local NBC affiliate as I tie my bib, “but these are the sacrifices we journalists must make to bring the truth to our readership.” That readership, dear readership, is you. And the reporter nodded, because he’d heard of me, “the writer from Boston” who’d shown up at every city function for the past three days. I’ve never appeared in print before, but the words you’re reading, the Record’s “commissioning” of this article, are part of a devil’s bargain that since Thursday has opened every door and led me to be among the most recognizable faces of the fourth estate in Laredo.
This all began when, channel surfing on a wave of Irish coffee at 3 a.m. after Thanksgiving, I came across the Travel Channel’s 2002 documentary, Ten Best Eating Contests. The images were spellbinding: crab legs sticking out of an obese man’s mouth, the Japanese guy who dips his hot dog buns in water to slick his esophagus, key-lime pie mashed into the beard of an effeminate Hemingway impersonator. Maryland, Coney Island, Key West: each region’s once-quaint food mythology one-upped the next in spectacles of grotesque autoconsumption. Laredo, a city that sounds like a truck model and from which I’d never met a soul, intrigued me most of all, and its contest, to see who could consume the most La Costea-brand jalapeno peppers in 15 minutes without vomiting or fainting, sounded so exotic, so wonderfully ritualistic, that I decided I had to compete. My dad, ever up for kitsch and bonding, was happy to oblige.
The Internet revealed that the Jalapeo Festival, of which the contest is the highlight, is the most plebian component of Laredo’s 107-year-old Washington’s Birthday Celebration, the nation’s largest. The tradition stems from this former capital of the Republic of the Rio Grande’s attempts to overcome its reputation as seat to sentiments of Texan independence. In search of federal pride, they picked the patriotic anniversary closest to a local fraternal lodge’s annual cowboys-and-Indians show and linked them up post hoc. I flipped through the schedule of events: the Comedy Jam for George, the Princess Pocahontas Pageant & Ball, the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant & Ball, the Mr. South Texas Luncheon. Presumably in hopes of a repeat of the Travel Channel coup of 2002, the coolest-sounding events were marked “Invitation or Media Credentials Only.” Emphasis added. Brief affiliations with NPR and the LA Times were invoked to no avail, and so last month, I sent an e-mail to Clinton Dick, editor of this publication, and laid my cards on the table. An article for a press pass. He assented, but I still didn’t think it would work.
Upon our arrival Thursday, the lovely Adriana Arce, press chair for the Washington’s Birthday Celebration Association, passed me my media credentials with a warm and unwary smile. It didn’t make me feel better that within 24 hours, at various VIP events, Laredo’s US Congressman, District Attorney, and Sheriff had wished my readers well, as well as the President of the Celebration, the President of Texas A&M International University, and the kind family of 17-year-old Allison Reyes, Queen of the Washington’s Birthday Parade.
What media coverage the Celebration has received in recent years (a human-interest story in the Houston Chronicle, a breathless think-piece on salon.com) has focused on the impressive cultural syncretism that has occurred over the last 50 years. Here’s how the story goes: as immigration, white flight and intermarriage have installed a Spanish-speaking, decidedly Latino culture in Laredo, the Anglo exclusivity of the traditional institutions has fallen away and the Celebration has grown to be a democratic, egalitarian institution.
Syncretism, yes; egalitarianism… not so much. The first event I attended as the South Texas correspondent for the HLS Record was the “Seor International,” an awards ceremony held by the local chapter of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. After the Texas A&M Classical Guitar Ensemble played “Crazy ’bout You Baby,” local talent Phoebe Mara Viaga sang her song “Cruel.” “I don’t want to break hearts like you,” she crooned in Spanish, smiling to a small cluster of press photographers alone in the middle of the empty dance floor. The ceremony was bilingual all right, and everyone looked Latino, and the honorees had Spanish last names. The problem was that bound up in business attire and illuminated by the fluorescent lights of the local civic center, its soul was that of a 50’s Elks Club banquet.
The culminating official event of the Celebration is the “Abrazo Ceremony,” abrazo meaning “hug” in Spanish; one can only assume that the “Hug Ceremony” sounded a little fey to Texan ears. At 8 this morning, two US Laredan and two Mexican Laredan five-year-olds, dressed up in their nation’s traditional formal wear, walk towards each other on the international bridge, hugging at the border while public figures crowd risers on either side. This was, perhaps, the cutest thing I have ever seen. Then, however, the Texas state rep and his counterpart from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas do the same thing, and then the Catholic bishops, and so on, until I was expecting to be sent across the bridge myself to embrace my Mexican fake-reporter doppelganger, whom I would certainly have slipped some tongue to spice things up a bit. At the end, all the Mexicans went back to Mexico, while we headed north in buses marked “Mayor/Dignitaries,” and the gates closed behind us.
That’s not to say the entire city has become Pleasantville en Espaol. There is a constant and vibrant flow across the bridge from Laredo, Texas, to Laredo, Mexico, and the streets on both sides pulse with Tejano music. At many fast-food outlets, half the menu is covered by a sheet offering up northern-Mexican options sold under the table by the women who make tortillas on the McDonald’s grill and gorditas in the Popeye’s fryer. I just came back from a concert held on the same stage on which I’d seen the Society of Martha Washington Pageant two nights ago, where debutantes had donned 100-pound dresses while tracing a choreographed and chelonian path across the stage, a voiceover cataloguing their ancestors’ history with the Society. Tonight, in contrast, the tickets were printed wrong and the sets weren’t ready, but tears soaked the faces of audience and famous balladeers alike, and the whole auditorium stood to sing clsicos about lost love and new beginnings.
And of course, you can’t get more soulful than the Jalapeo Festival.
There are, for better or for worse, numbers by which the modern male is supposed to measure his worth. Depending on your ambient culture, the most crucial values might come from a Scantron or a scale, a ruler or a balance sheet. I will forever see myself as a “25” kind of guy. That – according to the elderly woman charged with looking over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t squeeze out any pepper juice (“just bite and suck, honey, just bite and suck”) – is how many jalapeo peppers I ate between 6:30 and 6:45 this evening. To my left, as the NBC camera sweeps the crowd, I see the horrified look on my father’s face. He is being reassured by the bearded man who had resisted allowing me to register late for the competition until he saw my press pass. As the camera continues to pan, I watch myself hitting my 4-minute plateau, 19 peppers. I
am smiling, swigging Lone Star beer, and chatting with David, the guy from UT Austin competing next to me. In retrospect, I needn’t have been so friendly; I am two peppers more a man than he. I am 76 peppers less a man than the winner, but only 14 peppers less than the third-place contestant. Most of all, I am completely nauseated.
It’s the follow-up interview now. “I would have liked to bring the trophy home for the North,” I shout boorishly into the camera, “but I’m still pleased with the outcome. I feel I am bringing honor and dignity back with me to Boston.” The television shakes as a train passes the hotel carrying Ford chassis north from the maquiladoras, sending my all-access media pass to the floor. The train is one of the 7500 that cross the border here every year, accompanied by 0 passengers. Out the window, it’s too dark to see past the bend in the river to the tracks, but just below me a red and white Suburban flashes its roof lights into a stand of reeds. In the blue glare, I can see people crouching just inches away.