Once Upon a Quinceanera

I just finished reading Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez. A friend of mine lent me the book, because it’s her favorite author and she thought that I would find it interesting.

As a Korean, we don’t have anything like a sweet sixteen or a quinceanera, so it’s a world that is foreign to me. I wasn’t born in the South and I didn’t live with a rich Southern family, so I never experience a cotillion. And to be honest the thought of a sweet sixteen was just an alien concept to me, sixteen wasn’t that big of a deal for me, I hate driving and sixteen didn’t bring anything exciting to my life, not like age eighteen, where I could vote, or age twenty-five, when I would rent a car without a co-signer. But since I live in Texas, I do know of some of the concepts behind quinceaneras. When I was in uni, I went to the quinceaneara of the sister of a friend of mine, who would later become one of my sorority Sisters and coincidentally the quinceaneara honoree herself would also become my Sister, but that was a couple of years after I had graduated.

Most of the statistics that the author writes into her book are astounding. I am without a doubt, prudish, straight-laced, and old-fashion especially in comparison to a significant percent of women in my generation. But to have numbers that high in regards to how likely a Latina will become pregnant after her fifteenth birthday, use drugs, drop out of school, etc. are mind-numbing. Especially when you take into consideration that if the Latino population continues to grow at it’s current steady rate, then by 2050, one in four Americans will be Latino. To have one in four Americans be more at risk of dropping out of school…you can’t have population statistics like that and be a world power, much less be able to take care of your own citizens.

Other points that the book brings up, is that the breaking link between the original  meaning of quinceanearas in the States and life in their parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents’ homeland. Most of the girls interviewed for the book really didn’t have a strong identification with their ethnic homeland nor with any other purpose of a quinceaneara other than the party. One girl, “Monica”, had a religious blessing during her ceremony, but it was seemingly more of an afterthought than a central part of a traditonal rite of passage that one would normally associate with a coming of age ceremony.

As a Catholic, I can definitely understand how some parishes refuse to do even a blessing for a quinceanera, because God really isn’t the focus and we have confirmation as a coming-of-age ceremony within the Church. But then I do agree with the US Bishops Council saying that the Church should support her parishioners, especially with ethnic and traditional ceremonies, such as quinceaneras, because so many Catholics are falling away and some are feeling abandoned, the Church needs to show understanding and compassion for our celebrations. It’s definitely not the same thing, but I would be upset if the Church said that they couldn’t encourage her priest to participate in special Masses for Chuseok – our “Thanksgiving”/”Day of the Dead” holiday or even for tol.

Which in a sense could be compared to quinceaneras; tol is the 100 day celebration of a baby’s life, we count the days inside a mother’s womb, so back in the old days, if a child survived to his or her tol celebration, then the child was one year old. Also, during the celebration, on a low table, low enough for the baby to grab items, several items are placed, each with its own specific meaning. A rose for beauty, a wooden spoon for household talents, a coin for wealth, a bow for strength/military cunning, a pen for writing/well-spoken, a book for intelligence, a paintbrush for creativity, etc. and whichever item the child first picks up, will tell their future. But regardless which way you paint it, tol has no connection to the Church, in fact if anything it does go against the Church’s practice of anti-fortune telling. But I would want my priest to come to my child’s tol celebration and to bless my child on a day of cultural importance to us.

But I would never consider spending the equivalent of one year of university tuition or enough money to pay for a lavish wedding on a tol celebration. As I was reading the amounts that people were quoting for this, for that, etc. I was thinking of the fact that’s what I would have spent to attend Duke University for four years, that’s the price of getting a ME, that’s a down payment for a house, that’s a house, that’s k-12th private Catholic school tuition, etc. And to consider the fact that most of the Latino families in the States hover around the poverty mark, makes the numbers even more jaw dropping.

It seems like in a sense you’re setting up your own children to fail when all you wanted was to give them what you never had. What I mean is that when you spend so much money on a quinceanera, the dress that looks often like a mini-wedding dress, a feast not unlike a wedding, a huge cake to rival any wedding cake, usually with a court, how can you really tell your daughter that this is only the beginning? That she will be able to go on and do more, be more than this one moment so early in her life, especially if you’re hovering around the poverty line and really are not able to help put her through any post-high school education? That she will be able to have a wedding that is equal to this celebration, that the meaning and feelings won’t be dulled or even jaded by the largeness of her quinceanera? That you won’t basically have encourage your daughter to peak at such a young age?

3 responses to “Once Upon a Quinceanera

  1. Very thoughtful remarks–living for a future rather than for the moment.It is true–poverty does not take a young person beyond the starting point in their life.

  2. I’m sure I’ve told you of the Filipino tradition of debuts (pronounced “deh-BOO”), which are similar to quinces, but occur when the young lady is 18 as opposed to 15. I was one of the few in my Fil-Am community to have one. Mine was held at the town community center, the guest list was large (200, most of whom were my parents’ co-workers, the better to show off their daughter), and there was definitely a court. It’s interesting, though, when I think about it now. I don’t talk to 3/8 of the girls who were on my court, and of the boys, I only maintain friendships w/ maybe 3 of them. My dress was a recycled bridesmaid dress, and I made a speech about my future plans. I thanked the ppl who’d helped not only w/ the party, but w/ my development as a young adult. We had Mass before the party, and the priest came to the party and said another blessing. We had fun dancing and eating until the DJ had to go home. I went on to nursing school, and upon graduation, moved out and started supporting myself 100%.

    Most Fil-Am girls who have debuts turn out similarly, at least, according to what I’ve witnessed.

    I wonder what it is about our cultures that makes the ppl turn out so differently. Perhaps it’s merely the delay in having the ceremony that makes Filipinas less likely to drop out, etc.

    This is, of course, only taking into account the girls who have debuts. I assume the girls who have debuts have parents who care very much for them, and were probably very much present in most, if not all, other aspects of the girl’s life. (Not, of course, to say that if a girl didn’t have a debut, her parents didn’t care about her.)

    I really hope this doesn’t make me sound racist.

    • baikeunsook

      I remember you telling me about debuts, and more specifically yours.

      A friend of mine told me about a study that he read and during an informal study, while sort of loitering around some public libraries in LA, the author noticed that every Asian child was accompanied to the library with both parents and the hispanic children were skateboarding, etc. outside by themselves. Asians around the world generally have both parents to love and encourage them and also high importance are placed on education and self-sufficency. Generally speaking.

      And no you’re speaking broadly from your experience, so don’t worry about your opinions. God knows what you meant and so do your friends. Anyone who reads this blog and had no clue who I was probably thinks that I’m a self-hater with so much anger and hatred against Koreans, which isn’t true, I just have to scratch my head at some of the things that don’t make sense to me culturally and it frustrates me sometimes.

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