The Historic Streets of Laredo

What do George Washington, the Spanish army, and two political groups called the Botas (boots) and Huaraches (sandals) have in common?

They have each played a role in the history of Laredo, Texas, the border city that dates back to the days when Texas was part of Mexico. An easy drive from Louisiana thanks to interstate highways, Laredo makes the perfect getaway for travelers looking to step back and enjoy the rich history of the Southwest. Historic homes and churches provide a backdrop to bustling commerce where shoppers are tempted to shop 'til they drop.

A NEW CITY

Laredo began as a single city on the north bank of the Rio Grande, which today is the Texas side. This community was founded by an officer of the Spanish army in 1755 and was one of the first settlements in the area.

In the years that followed, Laredo faced many hardships and some residents felt that they received little attention from the government in Mexico City. In 1840, citizens called for the establishment of a new republic to be made up of the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. They named this new nation the Republic of the Rio Grande. Laredo was chosen as its capital city and a stone building off San Agustín Plaza was selected as its Capitol.

The Republic was short-lived, in existence for only 283 days. Tensions remained high, however, and when Laredo became part of Texas many families decided that they wished to remain citizens of Mexico. They headed across the Rio Grande -- the newly drawn border -- and founded the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, literally New Laredo.

Today those tumultuous years are remembered at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, housed in the former Capitol. This museum contains guns, saddles, and household belongings from the Republic period.

The museum stands adjacent to La Posada Hotel, another piece of Laredo history. The hotel is a favorite with shoppers because of its proximity to the border but it is also filled with history. The 19th-Century convent now serves as the convention and meeting center for La Posada hotel, and the old Laredo Telephone Exchange today buzzes with the sound of diners enjoying steaks and Gulf seafood at the hotel's The Tack Room Restaurant.

La Posada, like much of Laredo's historic district, is located on narrow, one-way Zaragoza Street, lined with historic buildings and stately palms. Facing La Posada across the plaza is the San Agustín Church, the oldest landmark in the city. Here visitors come to admire the church's beautiful stained glass windows of the historic structure.

For all its peaceful atmosphere today, the adjacent plaza was the site of one of the Old West's bloodiest shootouts. In 1886 the Botas (boots) and Huaraches (sandals), two rival political groups, battled here, leaving over 80 dead when the smoke cleared.

If you have an interest in the rich background of this historic square and surrounding area, one of the best ways to see the city is aboard a Heritage Tour.

For two hours via a turn-of-the-century trolley, travelers tour some of the city's oldest sites. You'll see the Old Mercado, the Victorian era St. Peter's district, the restoration of Ft. McIntosh, the San Agustín Cathedral, and more. Tours begin and end at the Rio Grande Museum at 1005 Zaragoza on San Agustín Plaza and are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 am and Saturdays at 10 am. For reservations, call the Webb County Heritage Foundation at (956) 727-0977.

HISTORIC FESTIVALS

History also plays a role in Laredo's -- and South Texas's -- largest festival. The George Washington Birthday celebration dates back to 1898 when a Laredo men's organization, the Red Men and the White Men, devised the festival as a way to spread international goodwill. The group held a mock battle representing a fight for possession of the city, one that culminated in an unconditional surrender when the Mayor gave the key to the city to "Great Chief Sachem."

And just where does George Washington fit into this picture? Coincidentally, Washington was code named "Sachem" during his freedom fighting days when the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Indians. Because of this, the Laredo organization picked the first president's birthday as the occasion for this event.

Today George Washington's Birthday includes weeks of February fun with sporting events, a children's carnival, dances, the peppery Jalapeño festival, and parades. For all its fun, food, and fireworks, the event is also noted for its elegant balls. The Princess Pocahontas Pageant and Ball features Laredo debutantes wearing Native American regalia, with some gowns taking as long as two years to research and prepare.

Those extravagant gowns are the centerpiece of the new George Washington's Birthday Celebration Museum, located at San Agustín and Zaragoza streets. Here travelers can view the gowns and costumes of this spectacular event along with historic photos of the long-running festivities. The museum is open daily during the festival and at other times by appointment.

George Washington's Birthday Celebration still highlights the international goodwill between the two cities on each side of the border at the Abrazo ceremony. At the International Bridge Ceremony, two Laredo children embrace two Nuevo Laredo youths as leaders from the two cities follow suit. The event continues with the playing of both national anthems and the remembrance of the friendship between the two nations. The ceremony is followed by a spectacular parade.

The George Washington's Birthday Celebration may be the largest but it is by no means the only long running festival in this community. Whenever you plan a visit, you'll find that a fiesta spirit thrives in Laredo. In March, the city celebrates Border Olympics, an annual event since 1933. The track event showcases the athletes of both Texas and Northern Mexico. March also brings plenty of old-fashioned fun to the region with both the Laredo International Fair and Exhibition and the Zapata County Fair.

In May, Cinco de Mayo marks May 5th, the date when Mexico celebrates its 1862 independence from France. Both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo celebrate the festive day with dances, local foods, and more.

Just 10 days later, Laredo recalls the establishment of the city on Founders Day with dancing and family fun.

Another historic festival takes place on September 16. Deis y Seis de Septiembre is an annual celebration in both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, marking the beginning of the revolution against Spain.

SHOPPING

Consider shopping in Laredo and you may picture the sparkling malls that the city now boasts or the increased trade across the border between the two cities thanks to NAFTA.

But like many other attractions in these cities, shopping has historic roots as well. Since Laredo was divided into two cities, trade between the communities has been non-stop. In Laredo, numerous shops have grown up along the San Agustín and Mercado Historic Districts to serve the needs of Mexican shoppers. You, too, will find good bargains in this area that's been called America's largest urban outlet mall. Near the international bridge, wholesalers along Zaragoza Street entice shoppers with goods ranging from electronics to clothing and shoes to Italian gold jewelry. Linger in perfume shops where you can purchase the world's famous fragrances at prices far lower than you might expect.

For Mexican imports such as pottery and wrought iron furniture, try the markets of the San Bernardo area a few blocks north of Zaragoza. The stores along San Bernardo are a good place to shop for these larger import items if you won't be driving into Mexico.

Since 1938, Vega's Imports at 4002 San Bernardo has offered Mexican home furnishings for every room of the house. Much of the furniture in this well-stocked store is hand carved. Also on San Bernardo, La Casita de Don Quijote is housed in a restored 1920s bungalow. The gallery is filled with Talavera pottery.

One of the state's top fashion stores is also located in Laredo. For four decades, Polly Adams has offered exclusive lines of women's clothing and accessories. The customer-oriented shop, located at 101 Calle del Norte, is frequented by many Mexican movie stars as well as discerning shoppers from around Texas. The shop can even provide meals for shoppers with advanced notice and always has several seamstresses on hand to provide a personalized fit.

But, as enticing as the Laredo stores can be, the charms of its sister city act as a magnet for the dedicated shopper. Nuevo Laredo boasts an amazing procession of shops along its avenues. Here the air fills with the scent of roasted ears of corn sold from steaming carts, the sunlight glints off a jumble of silver-plated necklaces on a vendor's arm, a tablecloth salesman flaunts his wares like a bullfighter's cape.

The main shopping district is along Avenida Guerrero, located just steps across the International Bridge. Along with inexpensive crafts, shoppers also find top-quality merchandise in many longtime Nuevo Laredo shops such as Marti's, sometimes nicknamed "the Neiman Marcus of Mexico." Fine clothing, jewelry, and furniture fill the shop.

The Nuevo Mercado, or the New Market, is the most popular spot in town. The block-long, open-air market fills with shoppers daily as they come to search through the 100-plus small shops that explode with colors and textures. Be prepared to bargain at all the market shops. Negociacion is a friendly game here, and both merchant and shopper usually come away happy.

Save time for a trip deeper into Nuevo Laredo to El Cid, the city's only glassware factory, located at 3861 Avenida Reforma. You'll need to drive or catch a taxi to this store, but the shopping here makes the effort worthwhile. For over 20 years, this factory has produced the blue rimmed glasses that are almost a symbol of border shopping.

Behind the showroom, six to seven men work the 1400-degree ovens to produce bowls and glasses, most edged with color. Minerals such as copper and cobalt produce many of the colors: aquamarine, red, and, the most popular tint, bullet blue. Other colors reflect recycling at its best. Melted beer bottles create amber-tinted rims; Buchanan Scotch Whiskey bottles yield green-rimmed glasses.

Whether you're in search of historic sites, exuberant festivals or non-stop shopping, one thing's for certain: Laredo is the place to make a little history of your own.

If You Go

Crossing the Border: It's an easy stroll across the border at International Bridge Number 1, located at the south end of Convent Street. Bring some change for the bridge toll both coming and going. On the Texas side, you'll find free parking in the public lot just below the bridge at Salinas Avenue and Water Street.

Drivers can use either Bridge 1 or Bridge 2; there is a bridge toll both ways. Upon return, leave plenty of time to reenter the US as lines can be Texas-sized. Drivers need to be property insured; Mexican auto insurance can be obtained from your agent and is also available in Laredo. Even with insurance, be advised that in the case of an accident, you will be taken into custody until liability can be determined.

Currency: You'll find currency exchange houses (cambios) on both sides of the border but you can use US dollars in most Nuevo Laredo stores and restaurants. Most establishments also accept major credit cards.

George Washington's Birthday Celebration: For more information about the George Washington Birthday Celebration, call the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-361-3360 or check out the web site at www.wbcaldo.com.

For More Information: Contact the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-361-3360, Fax 956-795-2185 or write 501 San Agustín, Laredo, Texas 78040. The official website, www.visitlaredo.com, has information on hotels, shopping and dining.

Return to Laredo Index

 

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