It was not there at the beginning. It usually did not attract huge crowds. And for the first 60 years or so it was handled in a rather nonchalant manner. But the Bridge Ceremony was the grand gesture of the Abrazo Children and came to be not just a welcome but an emblem of what the border is.
In 1898 the Nuevo Laredo officials rode in carriages near the head of the parade, but there was no Bridge Ceremony as such. There was Mexican participation every year, but in the early years it was more of a welcoming than a diplomatic gesture. The Laredo city and military officials with their Nuevo Laredo counterparts would gather at the bridge about 9:00 or 9:30 on the morning of the 22nd. The Americans would invite the Mexicans to come over for the party, and the assembled group would then walk arm in arm to downtown Laredo to witness the Indian at- tack.
In the mid 1920s Matias de Llano asked Jose G. Gonzalez to organize the greeting at the Robert E. Lee Hotel, but Gonzalez — according to his son Jose L. — responded humorously that one “did not meet visitors in the kitchen but at the front door.” Thus it continued at the bridge.
In later years the Abrazo or embrace, acquired a symbolic importance, a visible sign of the mutual embrace of two neighbors, but in the 1930s it appears there were handshakes and bows, not Abrazos. The ceremony was often referred to as “Hands across the Border.” The Laredo Times reported in 1932 that the Mexican members bowed when acknowledging the invitation. After officials of equal rank greeted one another, bands from the two sides of the river joined and led the procession back to downtown center, with the American band playing “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” or” Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here.”
Bridge CeremonyIn the early 1940s the event assumed greater importance, as leaders from both nations sent high ranking officials to show support for the wartime alliance. Expressions of mutual admiration reached a high point in the 1940s. In 1948, after American actor Leo Carrillo told of his great grandfather’s education in Mexican universities, he announced that the two nations were the greatest in the world. Presidential candidate Earl Warren followed. In statesmanlike fashion, he alluded first to the Marshall Plan, stating that “we want to help the stricken people of Europe. … in the restoration of war-tom countries,” and then moved closer to home: “You had your Hidalgo; … we had our George Washington.” Each nation’s band then played the other’s national anthem.
The higher visibility of bridge activities due to WWII did not last, however. In the routine of the 1950s it was usually a brief ceremony with a scattering of officials from each side, and a few reporters mixed in. The center of political and diplomatic action was elsewhere, at City Hall.
The year 1961 marked the marriage of Laredo Air Force Base andVelia Uribe with Abrazo Child the Health Department in an alliance that provided a boost for the Bridge Ceremony. It was put into place by Jose L. Gonzalez who had grown up hearing his dad’s stories about the Bridge Ceremony. So when Gonzalez started working as an engineer at the Health Department in 1956, it was natural that he start work with the WBCA. In 1959 he was assigned to the Mexican Honor Guest Committee, and as he recalled it, his father wrote the letters. “Dad had a great command of the Spanish language, and it made me look good.” His boss, the mayor, gave him as much time off work as necessary, and all Gonzalez had to do was drive around northern Mexico delivering letters. It suited the young bachelor fine since the trips down south offered numerous social opportunities.
For 1961 Honore Ligarde (Association vice president) asked him to handle the Bridge Ceremony. He wanted him to put some regularity into the occasion. Although it was not entirely clear what that meant, Gonzalez had been spending many of his evenings at the officers’ club — he was Executive Officer in the Naval Reserve — and decided to enlist some of his military comrades in the venture. As he recalled it, the Air Force officers, Joe Olvera, Rip Collins, and others, came up with several ideas. They acquired military walkie-talkies, got commitments from some bands and arranged for T-33 jets to make a fly-by. “Let’s have the jets fly by twice, and scare the hell out of them.”
Abrazo CeremonyGonzalez found that Mexican politics complicated his plans. He advised the WBCA board that Msgr. George Gloeckner would offer the invocation, and one of the board members objected because Mexico was officially anticlerical. But it was noted that the podium was traditionally located three feet to the U. S. side — placed at that point in case of anything indelicae in Mexico. And so Msgr. Gloeckner’s prayer was approved.
Thanks to local radio station owner Bill Harrrell, what went on at the Bridge was beamed out through the Voice of America. “How he did it,” said Gonzalez “was to record it here, can it, and then send it by Air Express to Washington D.C. And they then sent it to the South American capitals.” Laredo ham operator Sidney Freidin talked to a friend in Argentina who had just heard the Bridge ceremony over the radio. From 196 1 to 1966 the VOA carried a 15 minute broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese “to all parts of Latin America. In 1975 the Laredo Times stated that the Bridge Ceremony had been on the cover of the State Department newsletter 3 times.Abrazo Ceremony
One addition to the Bridge happenings came by way of the International Good Neighbor Council (IGNC). One day, as Pepe Gonzalez remembered it, he was walking into the Plaza Hotel for an IGNC meeting with Velia Uribe, who was Council president that year. In the course of the conversation on the Bridge Ceremony she asked “Pepe, what do you think of adding an abrazo by children?” Her idea was that the atmosphere at the bridge, where senior citizens pre- dominated, would be livened up if local youngsters got into the act. The notion was taken up by the IGNC and then accepted by the WBCA for the 1969 Bridge Ceremony. In the 1980s, when Uribe was Association president, the Children’s Abrazo was administered by the Association, but in the late 1980s it was taken over again by the IGNC, where it has remained since.
With the changes from the early 1960s and the addition of the childrens’ abrazo, the Bridge Ceremony formula was set. It would continue with these broad outlines to the end of the century. By the inevitable law of ceremonial multiplication, the number of abrazos grew from 9 or 10 in 196 1 to a maximum of 15, but everything had to be done in 45 minutes.
Bridge committee Gonzalez aimed at a seamless performance — a staged ballet over the Rio Grande on a Saturday morning. In the 1960s the two delegations from opposite sides of the bridge advanced at the mark of a red smoke signal, set off in 1962 by ceremony coordinator Major E.C. Nichols, and on another occasion by Laredo native Major Dimitri Pappas.
All of this did not mean that in the 29 years Gonzalez oversaw the bridge meeting, there were not unexpected phenomena. In 1969, during a jet plane fly-by, one of the planes lost a wing-tip tank and it fell into the Rio Grande, as the Laredo Times reported, not far from “all that friendly palaver.” In the middle of the 197 1 ceremony, the official representative of the Mexican President was in the middle of his speech when radio coverage “went dead,” followed by a nationwide alert from Colorado. Amid fears that the country might be under attack, radio technicians “worked frantically to restore the broadcast” — but it tuned out to be a non-war related problem.
The tableau had a supporting company of spotters, translators, and experts — not counting those who worked on electricity and platforms and security. It was a cast swelled by volunteers from the Air Force Base and the Health Department. Colonel Ed Hughes of Laredo Air Force Base stayed in Laredo after the base closed in 1973, and did overall planning as Co-Chair of the Bridge Committee for many years.
From the Health Department Joe Vegara and Joe Sanchez who set up the microphone, platform and electric connections. Sylvia Arellano coordinated correspondence and handled office matters. At the Nuevo Laredo City Hall (Palacio Municipal) escorting Mexican officials to the Bridge was Mario Sanchez, and after he retired. Victor Oliveros. Lowell Woodward did the same at Laredo City Hall.
A principal reason for the exhaustive planning was the need to keep the political hierarchy in its accustomed order. An indispensable document was a protocol list, painstakingly put together in the Abrazo Ceremonyearly 1960s. In the world of dignitaries it was not a matter to be taken lightly. Distinguished visitors did not take kindly to someone of lesser rank given precedence in seating or introductions. And they especially did not like to be matched with an official of unequal status in the abrazo. For example, there was no equivalent to the Webb County Judge. But it was determined that a person of equal distinction, and without counterpart on the American side, was the Director de la Junta Federal de Mejoras Materiales who oversaw the building of streets and bridges — and so they put the two together. The protocol list became a valuable commodity, and was lent for other state occasions.
A crucial figure was Dr. Ismael Villarreal Pena, former mayor of Nuevo Laredo, who helped with protocol equivalents. Arcane bureaucratic knowledge was called for. What was the American equivalent to a juez de la segundu instuncia? Then, on Bridge day, he would act as spotter for Mexican officials who might not show up, or more important yet, might show up late. Others pressed into the role of spotters were County Attorney Bill Allen and U.S. Representative Chick Kazen.
As the Bridge Ceremony became more elaborate in the 1960s, it took its place as generator of political influence. The position of master of ceremonies came to be a political plum, and since those who served had to greet officials coming from Mexico, linguistic accomplishments were desirable. Frequently invited were figures just starting the upward slope of their careers — fairly new in politics, but with a future. Mark White served when he was a relatively unknown Secretary of State, and John Sharp was Bridge Ceremonyanother frequent visitor.
On the other side of the bridge, the Mexicans were learning that the Ceremony presented a political opportunity. Victor Oliveros was on the bus bringing Mexican officials to the Bridge one Saturday morning when colonia residents blocked the bus, asking for land. Governor Americo Villarreal had to get off the bus and talk to the leaders for 10 minutes before they would let the bus through. After that the bus took non-obvious routes.
A corollary to congregating high profile politicians was security. Victor Oliveros recalled that the mix of American and Mexican security men could be unsettling. “They had a pretty tough looking bunch of security men, all young, and all armed to the teeth. That was when we started using a different set of ID buttons. Some did not speak English, and some did. If one of them had pulled a gun, we would have had big problems.”
When the formalities at the bridge were over, the politicians were given graphic evidence that they were still servants of the people. The normal procedure was to open the Bridge for the paso libre — suspension of document checks –just as the speech making was terminating, and the rush of humanity was a sight to behold. John Keck remembered that one year when the crowd was let through, “it looked like Moses had parted the Red Sea to let the people through.” The honor guests had to step lively to get out of the way. In 1997 Father Miguel Hidalgo, Mexico’s George Washington, joined the festivities, and the two embraced at the Bridge Ceremony. A historical meeting of the two leaders was not far-fetched. In 1811 when his revolution against Spain was ebbing, Father Hidalgo fled Mexico, but was apprehended by royalists near Saltillo and then executed. He was bound for the Laredo border area and the United States – – only 12 years after the death of George Washington.
For the first 60 years, the Bridge Ceremony had been only a greeting. But as the celebration itself evolved from a patriotic memorial of a hero’s birthday to a bicultural celebration, the Bridge Ceremony came to stand for the identity of the Texas Mexican border, a place where two cultures embraced.