Quinceañeras can change a girl's life story

A few years ago, a publisher commissioned me to write a book for a series focusing on cultural phenomenon within different ethnic and racial communities. For Latinos, the editors had selected the quinceañera.

With all the hefty issues affecting us — immigration reform, education equity, the incarceration of Latino youth — I couldn’t believe they’d choose such a Latino-light topic. Despite my qualms, I accepted the assignment to understand what happens to our origin traditions when they arrive stateside.

Like many traditions in America, the quinceañera is a syncretization of indigenous and European influences. After years of preparation by their elders, Aztec maidens were considered ready for marriage at the age of 15, when a ritual was held. The Aztec Codex cites ceremonial speeches given by fathers and mothers to their daughters: “It is as if you were an herb, a plant that has propagated, sprouted, blossomed. It is also as if you had been asleep and have awakened…”

With the Spanish conquest, the Aztec tradition was subsumed by the Spaniards, who introduced details from the courtrooms of Europe and their coming-of-age balls where girls were presented to society, including elements that are part of the current celebration: the opening waltz, the girl's tiara, her court of young attendants. As with any living tradition, details were added over time. The girl got a “last doll” as a symbol of the babies she would bear; the court was set at 14 couples to represent the quinceañeras' past birthdays; the father (more and more in combination with the mother) changed her girlish slippers to heels and after the first dance handed her over to her escort.

This tradition has been criticized — as it should be when it turns show-offy and debt-inducing. But the resources embedded in traditions have become scarce in the First World. This was one finding of a United Nations study of world problems for the new millennium. Young people in developed countries were suffering from “rite deprivation.” They were adrift without a sense of traditions connecting them meaningfully with their past.

Young people in this country are confirming this. Teens are taking to the streets, marching in favor of gun control, letting us know we are not taking good enough care of them. It's time we listened.

“The earth is not given to us by our ancestors,” according to a Native American saying. “It is loaned to us by our children.”

The quinceañera tradition reminds us that our loan is coming due. And it is a tradition that can be used to support young people in their journey to adulthood.

Consider the Stay-in-School Quinceañera Program started by a Latina mom in Idaho. Over the course of a full year, 14-year-old girls and boys learn about their culture, old country traditions as well as the new opportunities in this country. They meet with a range of leaders in the community: the Latina judge, the abuelita who knows homeopathic remedies and the traditional craft of making wax flowers, the ranch-hand vaquero/cowboy who follows a true caballero (vs. macho) code of honor in caring for his familia and comunidad, the Latino CEO who runs a software company. There are field trips and retreats, community service projects and plain old fun.

Gaby, a program graduate, told me she would never have stayed in school much less gone to college without it. As the oldest of eight kids in an undocumented migrant family, Gaby was needed at home to help with her younger siblings.

“I never thought of going to college. I was like your typical Hispanic girl,” she told me. When I asked her what she meant by that, she said: “Oh, you know, we don't do white girl things like go to college.”

The Stay-at-School Quinceañera Program had put a new story in her head about what was possible for her.

I've been thinking a lot about Gaby, especially because she is one of those DREAMers now threatened with deportation. How do we help her and others on their journeys into adulthood? How do we create new narratives in their heads — and, maybe more importantly, in our own heads — about what is possible?

There are stories inside all of us about who we are, who we can be and what we can do. These stories drive our lives — which is exactly why it's so important to expand the pool of them.

Julia Alvarez is the author of “Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA.” She originally wrote this essay for Zocalo Public Square.

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