by John S. Marshall
HOUSTON, Feb. 24 (Xinhua) -- As the political battle over building a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico continues to rage, a "hugging ceremony" was held at a bridge connecting the two countries.
Just a few miles away, a diverse and festive crowd lined the streets of Laredo, Texas, on Saturday to watch the annual Washington's Birthday Parade.
Now in its 122nd year, the parade is the oldest one in the United States to honor the nation's first president, George Washington, according to the Washington's Birthday Celebration Association, the organizer of the event.
Dating back to 1898, besides the parade on Saturday, the celebration includes a series of events that kicked off in late January: a carnival, a lavish pageant, an air show and a fireworks display.
Thousands of people on Saturday gathered on sidewalks and in bleachers erected along Laredo's downtown streets as colorful floats, energetic marching bands, dancing cheerleaders and others made their way along the parade route.
"This celebration is an important cultural event for our city and represents all that is good about our wonderful and diverse community," Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said in a statement ahead of the event.
In the early minutes of the nearly three-hour long parade, as the procession took a pause, Saenz presented a key of the city to Princess Pocahontas, a traditional presentation that dates back to Laredo's inaugural celebration. Now portrayed by a local high school student, the original princess is credited with acting as a peacemaker between local Indian tribes and earlier city residents back in 1898, according to celebration organizers.
"This is where we highlight Laredo," the smiling mayor said to local television cameras as he handed over the key to the princess.
Earlier in the day, Saenz, a staunch supporter of promoting international trade through Laredo, attended the International Bridge Ceremony, along with speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Also attending was U.S. Rep, Henry Cuellar, a fellow Democrat who represents Laredo and the surrounding area, and Texas Secretary of State David Whitley.
Witnessed by politicians and visitors, two children from the United States and two from Mexico dressing in traditional costumes walked to the center of the bridge where the border lies, hugging and exchanging national flags. The touching moment draw applauses and cheers from the crowd.
The massive span where the ceremony took place is one of several bridges that crosses over the Rio Grande River, connecting Laredo and its sprawling population of about 250,000 residents, and Mexico.
In all, more than 2.5 million trucks passed between Laredo and Mexico in 2017, according to the Laredo Economic Development Corporation. And overall, 557 billion U.S. dollars worth of imports and exports were transported through Laredo, making the Port of Laredo the No. 1 inland port along the southern border, and the second busiest port overall in the United States, trailing only Long Beach, California.
With Mexico being just on the other side of the Rio Grande, as expected, the nation is Laredo's leading trading partner. China ranks number two.
The mayor of Laredo noted the region's patriotic fervor, along with its Hispanic roots.
"It symbolizes our patriotism and given that we're primarily a Hispanic or Mexican Americans, we've developed a tradition of celebrating George Washington, the first president of the United States, and do it in such a glorious way," Saenz told Xinhua.
Robert Carranco, a local resident who was born and grew up in Laredo, told Xinhua that the Washington's Birthday Celebration is very important for the people of Laredo.
"It's very important. And it's something that brings everyone in Laredo out together," he said.