Pubescent rites of passage: coming of age in Astoria (and elsewhere)
Today, reading Fausta's reminiscences about the coming-of-age party for girls in the Hispanic community known as the quinceañero, I was reminded of--well, of lots of things, which I'll get to in due course.
But first, Fausta quoting the NY Times on the subject:
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..."
Even though the quinces were more a bit more modest when Fausta was a girl, she was not looking forward to the event at the time for herself:
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...
When I was a fourteen-year old (and no doubt it was even longer ago for me than for Fausta), I didn't know of any quinces. But there were other coming of age parties: for girls, the Sweet Sixteen. Bar Mitzvahs for Jewish boys. And weddings for all. I knew of no one who came out as a debutante, but I suppose that factored in for some.
Like Fausta, I wasn't all that eager for the two that might apply to me, the Sweet Sixteen and the wedding. In fact, at the age of eleven, on attending my very first big wedding--held in a catering hall, with two hundred guests and eight attendants in pink satin, and a loud band making it hard to speak or to hear--I turned to my mother and shouted over the din, "I'm telling you right now: you'll never get me to do this."
Oh, my poor, poor long-suffering mother. She panicked; did I mean I was never getting married?
"Oh no, it's the wedding," I answered. "Don't ever expect me to have this kind of wedding."
Nor did I want to have the next kind of wedding I attended. It was different, that's for sure: a late morning ceremony in a beautiful old church in Brooklyn Heights. The bride had designed and made her own gown, but this is misleading: she was an artist, and it was exquisite and unusual, a heavy satin with a vaguely Asian obi-like flair and tiny pearls sewn in a striking design. No, no problem there--although I certainly didn't have the skill to follow suit, I admired her style.
The problem came later, when we went to her family's elegant brownstone for the reception. No, not the brownstone itself; that seemed ideal. It was the refreshments. The day was insufferably hot in those pre-airconditioned times, close to 100 degrees. The crowd filled the brownstone and it became even warmer.
So, what was the menu? Elegant simplicity itself, like the bride's dress:
(2) salted peanuts
Nice beginning, you say? What about the rest?
There was no rest. That was it. And, if you use your imagination, you can guess what happened next. Everyone was sweating and also very hungry: dehydration led to thirst which led to greater imbibement of the champagne, hunger led to massive downing of the salted peanuts which led to greater thirst which led to...well, you get the idea. The entire crowd got totally and completely looped--almost dangerously so.
My own wedding, when it came in the fullness of time, was exactly as I wanted it to be: in my house, rather small, great food, good company.
But I digress (what, moi? Digress??) Back to the quince; we were speaking of the quince. And, thinking about the more general phenomenon of wretched excess in such matters, I've come to the conclusion that its a complex matter, perhaps just a natural part of human nature.
Note in the Times article that the idea of the huge coming out party is catching on:
The quince-style coming-of-age parties have even managed to influence the coming-of-age celebrations of other groups, including West Indians, African-Americans and Asians, who have grown infatuated with the party's choreographed nature and family tributes. This trend is particularly evident in multicultural New York, where the tradition of trading slippers for heels, lighting 16 candles and surrounding the birthday girl with a weddinglike "court" of friends is winning over non-Hispanic girls.
"I am amazed at how many nationalities come in and want these Sweet 16's —Indians, Filipinas, Chinese," said Angela Baker-Brown, who runs Tatiana's Bridal in Queens, which sells quinceañera dresses and props, like the scepter the birthday girl carries. "It is a Hispanic tradition, but these other groups are going to these parties and wanting one as well."
Greed, you say? Materialism? Yes, of course. But reading between the lines I see something else as well, something more heartwarming: love. Call me naive--and perhaps I am--but I think that's part of what's operating here:
The Hispanic community treats it this way: I have one or two daughters. She may get married several times but a '15' happens only once. It's once in a lifetime...Many families who can't really afford the party have them anyway. Traditionally, quinceañera parties have cut across class lines. "They save for this for years," Ms. Albuerne said. Mexican-Americans often share the cost with the extended family, naming several godparents specifically to participate in the process. Cuban families open special savings accounts. "I know some Hispanics who have placed second mortgages on their home for this," she said. "It's important."
The passage from childhood to adulthood traditionally has had these sorts of markers and celebrations, cutting across cultures. The impulse is nearly universal. The ages differ, and the details certainly do: menstrual huts and scarification, for example, are not part of a quince (at least not yet), although tattoos seem to be making a generalized comeback.
But the urge is there, and it is twofold: to mark an important passage for a beloved child, and to do it in style. In our affluent society, we have the money to try to outdo each other in ostentation, it's true. But perhaps that's just another human impulse that goes along with any society with greater resources; note the potlatch.
So, I'd consider accepting any quince invites that might happen to come my way. And I bet there's more than champagne and salted peanuts on the menu.