Today the NYT has an article by Lizette Alvarez titled Latinas Make Sweet 16-ish Their Own, on that most ridiculous tradition: the very extravagant sweet sixteen party. The article accurately describes it,
CATHY ZULUAGA rearranged her strapless pink froufrou gown, lightly touched her updo and, to the recorded strains of a waltz, strode into the ballroom at Riccardo’s catering hall in Astoria, Queens.
Natasha Poupariña of Miami chose “The Phantom of the Opera” as the theme for her quinceañera. Above, she makes her grand entrance from a balcony. As the applause from the crowd of Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans swelled, Cathy, 16, released her father’s arm, twirled, curtsied and smiled. She glided past her court of honor, eight girls in long silver dresses and eight boys in Nehru tuxes, and positioned herself on the white swing festooned with tulle, ribbons and flowers. Then, in keeping with tradition, her father knelt and slid off Cathy’s demure ballerina slippers, trading them for a pair of womanly high-heeled cha-cha sandals. Her mother gently placed a tiara on her head.
Cathy says she got “gifts, money and a Lexus.”
I’m all for getting gifts, money and a Lexus at any age, but the quinces and sweet sixteens are absurd:
In Miami, home to moneyed Latin Americans and wealthy Cuban-Americans, quinces are fancier than ever, with some parties now veering into Broadwayesque stagecraft. It is not uncommon for a young girl in belly-dancing attire to be carried aloft on a bejeweled “Arabian Nights” bed by four young men or to step out of a custom-built Cinderella castle. Birthday girls saunter across sandy floors as mermaids, à la “Under the Sea,” or dance in Victorian regalia, or put on hip-hop routines. Masquerade parties are popular, and costume changes, as in stage productions, are au courant. Even when the party involves just the traditional waltz, a choreographer is a must.
“Some wear short dresses underneath their big dresses and during the disco, they rip off the big dress,”
a detail that reminded me of Priscilla.
It used to be one of those coming-of-age things where back in the olden days parents announced that their virgin daughters were officialy on the marriage market. Nowadays it’s a matter of showing off just how much money you can conspicuously spend on just one night.
As a shy (it was a long time ago) fourteen-year old I dreaded the prospect of a solo evening-long performance on a Mass followed by a ball followed by a dinner. The dread increased as I watched my next door neighbor go through the preparations: endless discussions of what the gowns were to look like (white gown for her, gowns in coordinating colors for her mother and sisters), coordinating accessories, flowers, tuxedo rentals and a thousand other petty details, and the comandeering of an innocent bystander to be her escort, a guy I had known since we were kids and who was sentenced to ballroom duty for the only reasons that
1. his mother had made him take ballroom dance lessons a couple of years earlier
2. he was taller than my neighbor.
My neighbor was fitted into a gown that was too severe (no pink froufrou for her) but looked expensive, her hair was done in an elaborate hairdo, her makeup was done for the spotlight, and she ended up looking old enough to be her escort’s mother. A professional photographer, hired at great expense, was there to preserve the experience to all eternity.
As my own fifteenth birthday approached, I wasn’t looking forward to any of that. One of my cousins was already going over her quince process and it looked equally absurd to my young yet prematurely cynical eyes. Even worse, I would have been absolutely mortified to have to make someone else’s mother cajole her son to come along for the whole ordeal.
While I was pondering all this, my mother approached me one day and suggested a month-long trip for the Summer, instead of a quinceañero, “the only thing is, the whole family” (except for my dad who would be at work, paying for the whole thing) “would come along. Would that be OK?”
I could barely contain my glee, as I answered, “I’m packed!”
Thank you, Mom!
Update Neo-neocon writes a beautiful essay on Pubescent rites of passage: coming of age in Astoria (and elsewhere).
I can’t tell you how thankful I am that I didn’t have to go into a menstrual hut.