Julia Alvarez, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA
Publisher: Viking Penguin
2007, 269 pages, hardcover, $23.95

julia alvarez’s new non-fiction book, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, is a captivating work documenting and deconstructing the evolution of the Quinceañera while forcing us to recognize the importance of ceremonial rites of passage. This well-crafted text is highly recommended for anyone interested in the transformative power of custom and ritual.

The Quinceañera, a Latin American tradition, celebrates a young woman’s fifteenth birthday with a highly symbolic and often extremely expensive ritual, marking her transition from girl to woman. In her exploration, Alvarez seamlessly interweaves a first-hand account of one young woman’s Quinceañera, an investigation into the evolution of the custom, and a telling of her own struggles as a Latina coming of age in 1960’s America.

Framing the work is the story of Monica, a precocious Latina from Queens celebrating her Quinceañera. Alvarez shadows the young girl from early morning preparation to late night celebration and chronicles her ritualized transformation to womanhood, exploring her subject in an authorial voice at times critical but always graceful, compassionate and human. There is no attempt at journalistic separation between subject and observer. Instead, Alvarez manifests a motherly devotion, protectiveness, love and concern for Monica and the other young Latina women coming of age in a world of marginalization and stereotypes. She writes, “I was not their mother or grandmother or godmother or aunt. But their youth and their vulnerability, their hopefulness and their beauty, touched something womanly and profound in me that-for lack of a better name-could be called the maternal instinct.”

Monica’s is a typical Quinceañera with overspending, hints of Americanization (a stretch limo and Disney theme) and ritualized symbols of sexual maturation, which the author uses to open larger investigations into the origin of the custom, the multimillion-dollar Quinceañera business, and whether the ritual has been adapted from its tradition of enacting and affirming “a patriarchal paradigm.” Alvarez concludes that while the tradition may have originally affirmed patriarchy, it has evolved into a celebration of womanhood and female sexuality in direct response to “the modern era’s denigration of female sexuality.” She goes on to say, “I think there is a terrible spiritual and emotional longing among [young Latinas] for social behavior or ritual that respects, even worships, female sexuality and reproductive potential.” Against the perception that these celebrations are sexist, Alvarez argues this “right of passage,” as one young Latina refers to it, serves to empower these women, give them a presence in the world, and reconnect them to a heritage and history so easily lost in an American society that both marginalizes and eroticizes them.

The Quinceañera as practiced today in the United States is like a ritual that came from the native countries of grandparents or parents, countries many of these young girls have never been to. But through this tradition, they are reaching back to that old culture, out of a need for community and meaning, continuity and direction. A way not to get lost. A way to be and belong: a Latina girl stringing her bead of self in the necklace of the generations.

At the heart of the book is the retelling of the author’s own struggles and more often than not her failure to “not get lost.” An accomplished fiction writer, Alvarez exhibits her strength in storytelling throughout, and the most remarkable parts of the book explore those moments when she sneaks back into her own life. Hers is a narrative of being torn between home and school, the United States and the Dominican Republic , adolescence and womanhood. Much of the book’s memoir portion recounts this negotiation of her binary selves and her attempt to allow these parts to peacefully coexist. But as Alvarez documents, it is not a peace easily achieved. She says, “I was being encouraged intellectually and by the example of my teachers to step up to the front lines of American womanhood. […] I had Dominican blood in my veins. I yearned to belong and be loved by my own familia both here and back on the island I still persisted in calling ‘home.'”

Although the book documents young Latinas’ coming of age, the mothers, aunts and godmothers are the true heroes of Alvarez’s book. These women toil tirelessly to make sure that young Latinas like Monica have one magical night in which the world is forced to recognize their transformations from girls into women. However, it is what these women will face after their Quinceañera that worries Alvarez. Although these young girls’ metamorphoses into women have been heralded with celebration, the author points out that as women they will face an unsupportive world, one of tribulation far removed from the Quinceañera world of tiaras, stretch limos and extravagant dresses. As Alvarez intertwines her investigation of the Quinceañera tradition with her personal history, she reminds the reader of exactly what difficulties these women will face as newly crowned Latina women in the United States. But as strong Latinas-mothers, daughters, grandmothers, godmothers-come together to celebrate their own, Alvarez hopes that the ritual will be enough:

The moment has an ancient, tribal feel to it, women alone celebrating one of their own. But soon, someone thinks to improve things and Franz [Monica’s boyfriend] is pulled inside. The old story. But maybe these young girls will be living it differently, inventing their own unique ways of putting the pieces together. One would hope. Certainly they will need more light to find their way in that tricky borderland where many of us got lost.

-John Dean