Becoming A Woman, the Latina Way

It could have happened lots of ways, but in my case, it started by accident.

The trigger occurred one afternoon as I powered my way through the shelves at my middle school library, where I had been bestowed the sweet assignment of a semester working as a student aide. I was straightening a totaled shelf of mythology when I pulled a pink book out from where it was haphazardly wedged.

The cover photo showed a young girl with chola lip liner and an enormous pink cupcake dress. I was immediately intrigued. I stood in the aisle flipping manically through it, my eyes grabbing at all the attractive keywords: “custom,” “Latina,” “fifteen,” “birthday,” “woman,” “ball gown,” “flan.” I was sold. I checked the book out and deposited it in my backpack to bring home and unleash before my parents for when I planned on demanding a reason why I’d never heard of a “quinceanera.”

I was fourteen and recently transplanted from my Chicagoland hometown to a suburb of Denver. I was in the middle of a giant identity crisis, the hideous sort that only new teenagers can suffer. The town my father had chosen to uproot us to was a strange, alien terrain full of endless cookie cutter subdivisions. There were zero other students at my school with the last name “Garcia,” something that thoroughly astounded me when I first became aware of it. Two pages of Garcias used to accompany me in the yearbook at my old school. It’s the Smith of Latino surnames; didn’t they get the memo? I couldn’t see my culture reflected anywhere I searched, not even in my Spanish class, where my teacher bounced about and swung her blonde bob cheerfully. I’d gone from having it cushioning me at all times to becoming desperate for any link at all.

I needed a quinceanera.

When I presented the book to my parents, they vaguely acknowledged that yes, they were well aware of the custom, had both been forced as youths to stand up as Court of Honor attendants multiple times, and waltzed and all that crap. I felt slightly wronged, the opportunity to learn about such an attractive, cultural coming-of-age ceremony coming to me so accidentally and far into life.

A quinceanera nearly didn’t happen for me. At the time, my family was more financially comfortable than we’d ever been. But the blue collar mentality my parents were raised with and kept very much alive in their household stuck. A quinceanera for me alone was not going to happen. Too frivolous. And that is how I got coupled into a double quinceanera with my cousin Alejandra, who is three months older than me.

Because we were floating in a state void of family, the event was planned to take place in Chicago without question. When should we do it? How about the most convenient time of the year, right smack in between Christmas and New Year’s? No one is busy during that time! My family would already be in town, and plus, it’s about in the middle of our birth months.

I researched the rite of passage intensely, learned all about its origins and traditions, and became generally obsessed. But there was little control I had over an event taking place in Chicago that no other female relative on either side of the family had ever had before. There simply was no precedent. I learned that the word “quinceanera” can be substituted with the word “chaos” quite interchangeably. Trying to plan across states an event with as many tiny details as this (Little M&Ms! Hoop skirts! Boutonnieres! DJ! Tiaras! Silk pillows you kneel on at the altar!) would have already been sufficiently challenging. The task of getting eighteen 14- and 15-year olds to pay attention to anything, much less be fitted and pay for formal wear and show up for rehearsals at the same place at the same time to learn two choreographed dances in a three-week span was ridiculous.

There was a barrage of less than perfect occurrences. I was displeased to learn our parents had chosen a VFW hall to host the reception, that the hall wouldn’t let us take down their awful Christmas décor and that a fish fry would be held the evening before. I had no idea what the dresses my damas were wearing looked like until the day of the event. Being rookies, we’d ordered my gown in a length that did not factor in that I’d be adding a voluminous hoop skirt underneath, resulting in six inches of the undergarment being exposed at the hem. Members of the Court of Honor didn’t show up to rehearsal, or showed up and then ignored direction. So-and-so wanted to bring their boyfriend/girlfriend/second cousin/auntie/postman/pharmacist/psychic reader.

There was little majesty in dressing myself on the day, since everyone left me to go prepare the VFW and I was charged to dress my small cousin. My father pulled up when I was still in my robe and hollered at me to get in the car, resulting in my mad rush to leap into my ball gown, one frantic and half-clothed aunt doing her best to lace me up. Alejandra got a very bloody nose all over her white gown after swinging a younger cousin around too playfully at the reception. The food ran out fifteen minutes after being served, and I got nothing, even given the advantage I’d taken by cutting half of the guests in line.

It was one of the best days of my life.

For better or worse, all eighteen of those teenagers showed up at our quinceanera on December 29th, 2001, dressed the way they were supposed to, and all did what they were supposed to, from the solemn church procession and long mass, to endless photos, a waltz, and a merengue.

I spent the day suspended in utter contentment at the top of the rollercoaster of the new womanhood uncurling in me, relishing the pulsing energy, the lights. I blew 15 candles out surrounded by the people I loved best in this world, and I was home.