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Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the Usa


Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the Usa

Award-winning novelist Julia Alvarez has turned her gift for human analysis toward some very real young people in ONCE UPON A QUINCEANERA, a probing and utterly readable look into the tradition of the "quinceanera," the coming-of-age party celebrated by Latina women around the globe.

In the wake of MTV's success with sweet 16 shows (in which young girls and their families spend wedding-sized amounts of money on a party where the bling outweighs any cultural significance the occasion might have) and the growing cost of a decent Bat/Bar Mitzvah in these concerned-with-wealth times in America, Alvarez looks at families, native and immigrant, who are still living below the well-to-do line and yet spend upwards of a year's mortgage payments or college tuition to make sure that their young daughter enters the "adult" world in style.

It's not just the money that disturbs Alvarez. Having come to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic around the time that she would have celebrated her own coming-of-age, she watches anxiously and sometimes enviously upon girls who don't seem to understand why this tradition is so important to young Latinas. Viewing it only as that --- a giant bling-filled party to impress their friends --- takes away from the rich traditions built into the ceremonies of the quinceanera: the changing of her shoes from flats to heels during the party, signifying her march into adulthood; the doll she carries, the last vestige of childish pursuits she’s allowed to enjoy; and the church ceremony, where her grown-up responsibilities are acknowledged before God and the community.

Alvarez, who never had her own quince, delves with planners and family members into what, if anything, they remember from their own quinces and how they might incorporate the more stealthy values associated with the rituals into these girls' lives. When she speaks with the young women themselves, it’s clear that most of them look upon this as their moment to become a "princess" --- indeed, one has her friends dress like Disney princess characters --- and that the money and energy that their parents, some of whom are struggling in this harsh economic system, are putting into this event is their right. They are, for good or bad, like the average American teen who thinks Beyonce is queen of the world and Jay-Z, her prince, is exactly what everyone should be looking for.

At times, it’s devastating to read the accounts of how these children are so expectant but don't really understand the changes that this bash is supposed to represent --- and it’s clear that Alvarez finds it sad as well. Traditions maintained are supposed to mean something --- but in present-day America, they can be just another excuse to act like overgrown kids or irresponsible adults. She keeps her cool and withholds serious judgment on these children of American entitlement, recognizing with poignancy the struggles of their parents to hold on to dear cultural strengths while trying to assimilate into the broader Bush-driven selfishness and extravagance.

The book's most appealing moments come from Alvarez's descriptive look at the craziness surrounding the day of the event and from her own recollections of growing up in the same area in Queens where she follows one family through this intense experience.

ONCE UPON A QUINCEANERA is a wonderful look at a tradition that is holding steadfast but changing at the same time. And, most of all, it's about the difficult job mothers and fathers have raising beautiful young daughters in these superficial times.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on July 29, 2008

Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the Usa
by Julia Alvarez

  • Publication Date: July 29, 2008
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0452288304
  • ISBN-13: 9780452288300