Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Once Upon A...

"Once Upon a Quinceañera" sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? But that's how you might describe a Quinceañera. The Quinceañera, or Quince Años, is a coming-of-age celebration gaining popularity among Latina girls celebrating their 15th birthday in the U.S. The tiara, the prom dress, the court of honor, the symbolic doll...perhaps all that's missing from the fairy tale is the magic wand.

Here’s how Julia Alvarez describes the fairy tale in her forthcoming book Once Upon a Quinceañera:

You are dressed in a long, pale pink gown, not sleek and diva-ish, but princessy, with a puffy skirt of tulle and lace that makes you look like you’re floating on air when you appear at the top of the stairs. Your court of fourteen couples has preceded you, and now they line up on the dance flour, forming a walkway through which you will pass to sit on a swing with garlanded ropes, cradling your last doll in your arms…

What's wrong with this picture? Unfortunately, the Quinceañera fairy tale isn't made to last. As Julia Alvarez explains in this wonderful new book, coming of age in the U.S. is no fairy tale for most Latina girls. And there’s a dark side to the Quinceañera tradition: the sexist stereotypes it enforces, the thousands of dollars families spend on the lavish parties (before they file for bankruptcy), the “supersize” materialism (instead of more legitimate values or morals) it enforces.

When I heard that Julia Alvarez, the author of the lovely novel Before We Were Free (along with many other books), was writing a book on Quinceañeras, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. A year after having my own non-traditional Quinceañera, I’m still fascinated by the fairy-tale mentality traditional Quinceañeras represent. When an advance copy arrived at New Moon for us to review (the book won’t hit the shelves until next month), I started reading right away.

The book’s advance praise is telling: Mary Pipher, author of the landmark Reviving Ophelia, calls it “a thorough, thoughtful, and important book,” while pioneering journalist María Hinojosa states, “[This] is not just a book for Latinas. It is for all of us.” Author Vendela Vida agrees: “Once Upon a Quinceañera is a book for anyone who is a teenager…or, for that matter, anyone who was once a teenager themselves.”

My own verdict? It’s a definite must-read. Julia Alvarez does a fantastic job of portraying a bicultural custom steeped in both old world nostalgia and American values (hence the “supersizing” of the Quinceañera tradition). While she never actually makes up her mind herself about whether the Quinceañera does more harm than good, she paints a fascinating picture of a very unique custom. She explains, “this book has been an attempt to [educate ourselves] through the lens of one tradition, the Quinceañera: to review and understand this evolving ritual with all its contradictions, demystifying its ideology, dusting off the glitter that is sprayed over the ritual in order to be sold back to us by an aggressive consumer market as the genuine article, handing it down in as clear and conscionable a form as possible.”

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the tradition is its contradictions. Juxtaposed with the Latina experience of coming of age in the U.S., the Quinceañera, a rite many girls have mistakenly termed their “right of passage,” is full of contradictions. While it might promise a “happily ever after” story, life for many Latina teens is anything but. Latina girls face higher rates of teen pregnancy, suicide attempts, and substance abuse than any other group, according to the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations. There is so much beyond the “pink fantasy” of the Quinceañera: poverty and class pressures, family struggles, gangs, sex, drugs.

Meanwhile, 2004 Census data revealed that 22% of Latinas lived below the poverty line, yet Quince Girl magazine found that the average Quinceañera event cost $5,000. And if you think that’s a lot of money, Alvarez mentions that some Quinceañeras become Broadway productions at $180,000 a pop.

Julia Alvarez explores the Quinceañera from so many angles and so many lenses, although she focuses on the culture and economics of the Quinceañera. She attends several Quinceañeras, but interestingly enough, chooses to feature a Queens Quinceañera that she describes as a “headache”—it seems that anything that could go wrong with the event, goes wrong.

In illustrating the national trend of the Quinceañera, she talks to people involved in many aspects of the Quinceañera event (the priest, the parents, the photographer, the caterer, the event planner). She even interviews people like Isabella Martínez Wall, creator of the website http://www.bellaquinceañera.com/, who believes every American girl (not just Latinas!) should have a Quinceañera because of the community-building and support network it gives girls. She also explores the tradition’s interesting (if ambiguous) roots: the Aztec and Maya indigenous roots that have only recently become hip; the real Eurocentric foundations of the tradition (if you were wondering where the “court” of honor comes from, that would be the royal courts of Europe).

Not yet a teen herself when her family fled to New York City from the Dominican Republic, Julia Alvarez knows very well what it means to be bicultural, to grow up torn between two languages, two cultures, two identities. That view permeates Once Upon a Quinceañera, and although the author’s frequent autobiographical vignettes do become a tad distracting, she does create a wonderful intimacy and a very real empathy for what Latina girls experience as their fifteenth birthday approaches: the clash between the desire to ‘fit in’ to American culture and the cultural ties that bind.

Despite Julia Alvarez’s detailed account of the Quinceañera custom, Once Upon a Quinceañera is really more about how we transmit wisdom and tradition from one generation to the next than the ritual itself. That’s why I recommend Once Upon a Quinceañera. Regardless of your age or culture, reading this book will give you an interesting opportunity to think about how we treat the passage from girl to woman, generation after generation.

P.S. New Moon’s January/February 2008 issue is themed “Through the Looking Glass: Coming of Age,” and we’re including a feature on different coming of age customs around the world. We would love to feature the Quinceañera tradition! Did you, or a girl you know, have a Quinceañera? Or are you a Latina girl who would like to write a short paragraph describing the tradition? Email blog@newmoon.org, and we’ll give you details about what to write!

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