Monday, August 06, 2007

Quinceañera books invite us to the party

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Julia Alvarez never had a Quinceañera, the traditional coming of age ceremony for Latina girls. She never donned a voluminous pink dress, held court over 14 damas (girls) and 14 chambeláns (boys), or experienced the moment of transformation when a father takes his daughter's feet in his hands and replaces a pair of flat slippers with high heeled shoes while Julio Iglesias croons "De Nina a Mujer" in the background.

Her new book, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA , tries to explain what she missed and offers a penetrating look at the significance of the ceremony to present-day teens.

Initially, Ms. Alvarez is critical: "The incredible expense; a girl encouraged in the dubious fantasy of being a princess as if the news of feminism had never reached her mami; the marketing of a young lady as attractive, marriageable goods. Why not save the money for education?"

But as she spends more time with girls celebrating their Quince, in particular a 15-year-old Dominican from the same Queens, N.Y., neighborhood where she was reared, it prompts Ms. Alvarez to meditate on her own cultural and intellectual evolution.

A professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, she is the author of 17 books, including the acclaimed 1991 novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, about Dominican immigrants in the 1950s. As the daughter of 1950s Dominican immigrants herself, Ms. Alvarez explains how her evolution into an American intellectual through au upscale education and participation in the women's moment of the '60s and '70s threatened to separate her from her native culture.

In comparison, today's Latinas, many second- and third-generation immigrants, are born "entitled" to the American dream. Where 90 percent of their mothers never had a Quince, they want one to reconnect with their roots.

By the end, Ms. Alvarez is won over by the tradition of the Quinceañera, and she chooses to view it as an exercise in boosting young girl's self-esteem at a vulnerable age.

Sadly, though Ms. Alvarez attends numerous Quinceañera parties in the course of her book, including one in San Antonio besieged by folks fleeing Hurricane Rita, and has skills as a storyteller, this book is primarily anthropological. She leaves the curious reader who may have never been to a Quinceañera party craving more detail.

To satisfy that urge, a reader should turn to Adrianna Lopez's recent anthology Fifteen Candles: 15 Tales of Taffeta, Hairspray, Drunk Uncles and other Quinceañera Stories. Many of these vastly entertaining essays are set in the '70s and '80s, and are modest affairs that contrast with the costly "super-sized" parties, often costing tens of thousands of dollars, that are currently in vogue.

Two of the tales are from Texas: Nanette Guadiano-Campos' "Uprooted" describes how her 71-year-old aunt, decked out in a leopard print bodysuit, stole the show at her Ulvalde Quince, while in the essay that closes the volume, Erasmo Guerra offers a moving homage to his older sister murdered in the Rio Grande Valley at age 18 and whose Quince celebration remains a touchstone for his whole family.

Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer.

Once Upon a Quinceañera

Coming of Age in the USA

Julia Alvarez

(Viking, $23.95)

Fifteen Candles

15 Tales of Taffeta, Hairspray, Drunk Uncles and other Quinceañera Stories

Edited by Adrianna Lopez

(Rayo, $14.95)

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