Monday, August 06, 2007

Julia Alvarez's 'Once Upon a Quinceañera' and Adrianna Lopez's 'Fifteen Candles'

La Quinceañera, American style: Two new books examine the shifting fortunes of a Latino tradition

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A heavy velvet curtain parts and a 15-year-old Latina, festooned in a voluminous pink taffeta dress, is revealed. She sits on a throne and is holding a doll dressed much like herself. Her hair is piled high, topped by a glittering tiara. She smiles broadly as Julio Iglesias croons "De Nina a Mujer" over the sound system, while another 28 teens, 14 damas (girls) and 14 chambeláns (boys), artfully arrange at her side. Soon thereafter, the girl's father comes up, takes his daughter's feet in his hands and replaces her flat slippers with high-heeled shoes. 50 Cent's "In Da Club" starts thumping through the room: "It's your birthday/We gon' party like it's yo birthday ... "

No, you're not witnessing an over-the-top bat mitzvah, or a Sweet 16 run amok. This is a typical quinceañera.

A coming-of-age celebration for young Latinas that dates back to the Aztecs, "it's really a quasi beauty pageant crossed with a mini-wedding," writes Julia Alvarez in "Once Upon a Quinceañera," a meditation on the meaning of the popular ritual in America today.

"At first, I was a real doubting-Thomas gringa about the quinceañera," Alvarez says from her home in Vermont, where she teaches at Middlebury College. "Then I saw it was not merely about Latinos assimilating American consumer culture, but it was also a symptom of Latino culture itself coming of age in America."

Born in 1950 in the Dominican Republic, Alvarez immigrated to New York City at age 10. A prolific writer, she is best known for her lighthearted first novel, 1991's "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," about wealthy Dominicans integrating into American society in the 1950s.

Here, Alvarez frames her examination of the "Quince" culture by documenting the preparations for a quinceañera party for the pseudonymous Monica, a Dominican girl who lives near Alvarez's childhood home in Queens. She tracks Monica through the day of her $5,000 Disney-themed quince, from the rushing around to collect various guests to the final moments when she cuts her cake and passes around the party favor of small Cinderella dolls.

A dutiful journalist, Alvarez also travels the country to interview the party planners, hairdressers, magazine editors and others who have helped make the quinceañera a multimillion-dollar business. "I wondered how these girls and their families, many of them poor, could spend so much money on a party," she says. "I always tried to slip in the suggestion that the money might better have been saved to spend on their education."

In San Antonio, she attends a "Quinceañera Expo" and observes "the femaleness of the next generation of Latinas is being manufactured, displayed and sold." She listens to stories of outrageous extravagance, such as the Miami father who threw a "Phantom of the Opera"-themed party for his daughter that cost $125,000. She also looks at the other side, such as Houstonian Gwen Zepeda's "Poor Girl's Quinceañera Project," an effort to host a party for girls who are too poor to have their own.

Despite its anthropological trappings, at its heart "Once Upon a Quinceañera" is a personal story about Alvarez's struggle to come to terms with the conflict between her Latina identity and her feminism, as well as the "entitlement" she fears will corrupt this generation of Latina girls.

When Alvarez was 15, she was a sophomore at the posh Abbott Academy and discovered her education "put me in conflict with my parents and mi cultura," she writes. "What models were there of Hispanic women doing this?" she wonders. Instead of celebrating her culture via a quinceañera, she struggled to find role models beyond the Chiquita Banana and Ricky Ricardo — the only Hispanics (and both, to her mind, embarrassments) she saw on television.

Today, Alvarez acknowledges, things are different for Latinos. "When a family comes to this country, the first generation is struggling," she says. "They want to be accepted and successful, so they assimilate. Now that the girls are second generation, they are totally Americanized, and yet yearn for something this country cannot give them: roots."

The trend has been dubbed "retroculturalization." Alvarez points out that 90 percent of the mothers she spoke to for the book didn't have their own "quince," while the trend now is so pervasive it's "even spreading to non-Latino girls."

Ultimately, Alvarez remains divided between the intellectual feminist who rejects the quinceañera as merely another indulgence of a patriarchal, materialistic society, and the romantic seduced by the idea that the ritual reconnects these vulnerable girls with their culture and reinforces their commitment to their families.

Another party perspective

Adriana Lopez's anthology "Fifteen Candles" is less cerebral and far more entertaining. Instead of musing over the meaning of the quince, this collection dwells on offbeat reminiscences of teenage years, such as Felicia Luna Lemus's essay about being a Goth who fantasized about wearing Dracula fangs to her quince, but declined a party to go see a Cure concert at Dodger Stadium – with her mom.

These stories are mostly set in the 1970s and 1980s (the title riffs on the 1984 film "Sixteen Candles"), when Latino culture was still viewed as alien by mainstream America. It offers a kind of bridge between Alvarez's youth in the '60s and Monica's today.

Two stories by Texans are standouts. The first, set in Uvalde, describes Nanette Guadiano-Campos' humiliation when her septuagenarian aunt arrived at her quinceañera in a skintight leopard print bodysuit. Then, in the story that closes the book, Erasmo Guerra pays homage to his older sister, murdered in the Rio Grande Valley at age 18, whose quinceañera provided lasting memories for his family.

Ultimately, while both books might be skeptical of the tradition, they manage to convey the good intentions of the quinceañera.

"Life is tough enough," says Alvarez at the end of our interview. "These 15-year-old girls face all kinds of problems, from the environment to economic struggle. So to see a whole room stand up and cheer for a tender, young girl, it's got to raise their self-esteem. I do love it. And I always cry."

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