Thursday, May 11, 2006

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:

(1) champagne
(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.


At 3:53 PM, May 11, 2006, Blogger Judith said...

There was an article a few years ago about how gentile families were adopting the Bar/Bat Mitzvah idea, after their kids were going to their Jewish friends' celebrations and getting jealous that Jewish kids have a rite of passage.

Looks like the same thing is happening with the quince.

Shows how these rituals supply something intangible but desired. They are like weddings. Being married is different from living with someone. Having a coming of age ritual within your community is different from not having one. In fact, having an ethnic community itself is something people have a love/hate relationship with. If you don't have one, you fear them but also are envious of them. If you do have one, you both hate and love its demands on you.

At 4:34 PM, May 11, 2006, Blogger Fausta said...

As a footnote, I should have added that my sister, and now her daughters, have adopted the tradition of going on a trip instead of having a quince.

In my nieces' case, it's been a cruise, with the whole family along. It's a combination vacation/quince/family reunion: as memorable but much more enjoyable for all involved.

As for serving only champagne and roasted peanuts, they should have been run out of town!

At 5:52 PM, May 11, 2006, Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Not to rain on anyone's parade, but coming out parties seem (at least from my perspective) to be either a native country or - here in the US - a big city phenomenon. Filipino's have Cotillion's for the daughter's 18th birthdays supposedly, but I've never actually heard of any happening outside LA, Chicago, or New York. The only ones I've ever heard of involving people I personally know were for older aunts long ago in the Philippines. Growing up, my friends and I never were invited to any (we're guys, so we wouldn't have such events thrown for us), and given how tight all our families were, there's no way we would've missed the fact that a ball was being thrown. Even regarding my relatives in other states, like Georgia and Tenessee, I haven't heard of them throwing or attending any debutant-type balls for their daughters, and I have a lot of female cousins.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not criticizing the concept. On the contrary, I think they're a great idea (although I'd probably cringe at something too over-the-top). It's just that I don't believe those are all that common, at least outside of certain areas.

Although, as a side note, it is entertaining that in the Chicago Filipino newsletters, like the Via Times, debutant balls often get covered. So within those areas, they appear as popular as the NYTimes article implies.

And as a mini-addendum to Judith's comment: She gave me a chuckle, because she reminded me of something happening back in my hometown. The Filipino's there saw the Latin American families use of Pinatas during parties and decided to completely rip it off for their own kids birthdays. So now, whenever I'm back and one of the younger, single-digit kids has a b-day party, I get an amusing sort of non-sequitor experience: I see Filipino food, hear Filipino conversations, occasionally see Filipino attire (Barong Tagalogs, or Maria Claras)... but then see a big, fat Pinata sitting right in the middle of the room!

And Lord knows, you tell a kid there's candy inside and hand him a stick, there's no need for further instruction!

Anyway, one more cultural tradition crosses the border.

(Note - For those who point out the Filipino palayok and parol exist and are similar: Yes, I know. They palayok is similar, but it's a clay pot. Not a big, ruffled, silly looking animal. And a parol is a Christmas thing, not a birthday one. Although, I readily admit, both those get beat to death by a kid with a stick for the candy inside, so I guess a Pinata really isn't that much of a stretch.)

At 9:01 PM, May 11, 2006, Blogger Linda Fox said...

That wedding's skimpy refreshments are the typical old WASP tradition. You didn't spend a fortune, or get too elaborate - just a snack, champagne, and some wedding cake. Anything more is "just not done".

At 12:40 AM, May 12, 2006, Blogger douglas said...

Lord knows I could've used some sort of coming of age ceremony. Something that said, 'get serious now young man, you're not a kid anymore'. Might've saved me some trouble and wasted years. I think Quinces are over the top, and prefer the Bar Mitzvah, as there are responsibilities, not just a big party. I saw how my 'nephew' stressed for his Bar Mitzvah, and really came through great at the service and reception, truly a 'young man'. Our American seems to have taken a dangerous tack- rejecting 'coming of age' for eternal adolescence. Ever since teens became a demographic, instead of children, and marketed to because they had the most disposable income, our society has declined, and taken longer and longer to mature. Marriages occur later, commitment is avoided, men play boys games (quite seriously) well into their twenties, perhaps even the thirties instead of growing up and raising children.


Anyone got any ideas for 'coming of age' rituals for the American youth of today (short of enlistment in the military- not that it would be a bad option!)?

At 12:49 AM, May 12, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

This is the Elf Syndrome. Where you get to live longer, but it takes you longer to mature as well?

Nothing comes free, not even immortality.

Speaking of immaturity, I can't help but compare and contrast the Bush bashing that went on during and after the 2004 elections on the internet, to the criticism we see now being leveled at Bush by his supporters. There's a noticeable difference in maturity between the criticisms.

The Democrats always seem to believe, given their repeated claims publicly, that Bush supporters are mindless drones in the service of some fascistic regime. But the reality's a bit more sober than that.

At 12:28 PM, May 12, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like we expect the education system to usher our adolescents into adulthood. Parents tend to be spectators. It's interesting that in the US people from other cultures still practice initiations - although watered down initiation in which the emphasis is on having fun, not on becoming an adult.

Our culture's message to young people tends to emphasize unlimited possibilities, not specific responsibilities. That nobody assigns the teen a definite role in society is both a strength and a weakness. Not sure we could - or would want to - go back to "serious" rites of passage designed to turn adolescents into responsible adults.

If we do, however, I'm all for something that involves ritual subincision or filing the teeth to a point.

At 1:05 PM, May 12, 2006, Blogger Sissy Willis said...

Love in the sense of self-love I'd say. As Peter F. Rowbotham wrote in "The Importance of Being Noticed":

"More specific concern with evaluative status is to be found in the work of Veblen (1899), especially his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. His three basic assumptions were that possessions are primarily significant as symbols of worth, that this significance [406] is based on comparison with other people in similar situations, and that self-respect is derived from the display of such symbols. Form and Stone (1957) later drew attention to the idea that Veblen's analysis best fitted an urbanized society, for in smaller, more traditional communities the past history and present position of everyone is fairly well-known and there is less reliance on dress, housing and other props to reveal one's status to others. It is in more fluid, more mobile societies, where we know less of personal biographies that conspicuous consumption, as well as other more subtle Indicators of status, becomes important.

At 4:20 PM, May 12, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

S - That's interesting. The symbols can be used to display who we are as well as hide who we're not - in large, anonymous societies, anyway.

Maybe that's why real initiations don't have much of a function here. You don't need a major life change to become part of a community. You just need to acquire and display the correct symbols.

I would also venture to say that "American" too vaguely defined anymore to really constitute a community. An exception might be made, as Neo said, for people joining the military. They are given specific duties - a clearly-defined role they are expected to fulfill for the term of their enlistment. Just being "American" imposes no such responsibilities that I'm aware of - at least none that all "Americans" would agree on. If you can think of any, let me know.

Do Bar/Bat Mitzvah and the other coming-of-age ceremonies today mark an actual change in the person's relationship to the community, or are they just like extra-special birthdays? Or does it depend on the community?

At 7:13 PM, May 12, 2006, Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Wow! Sissy's awwwesome. Not only did she address Neo's point about ceremonies and my point about urban phenomenon with that pull quote, she managed to drag psychology -- Neo's profession -- into it! And in such a concise post, too!

That shows why she's a top blogger and I'm just a measley comment-hound. I'm humbled.

No, this post isn't sarcasm. Seriously, I'm genuinely impressed. Posts like that are what make blogs cool.


As an aside for humor -- Word verification:


Mahzelsqwah... sort of like "Mazeltov", but squished at the end.

At 7:42 PM, May 15, 2006, Blogger Jeff with one 'f' said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 7:42 PM, May 15, 2006, Blogger Jeff with one 'f' said...

Quinces and Bar Mitzvahs and Bridezilla-style weddings strike me as vulgar, but I'm from the midwest.

At 9:20 AM, November 17, 2006, Blogger Matches911 said...

i am doing a school project. do you know anything about the African rights of passage, or comming of age?


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