Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez

Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez (2007, Viking)


Discovered with delight while working our library’s ‘buck a bag book sale’ last November


Shayne is my darling oldest niece, my godchild, and the mother of three beautiful children: Gabrielle, Patrick, and Madelyn.  She is fair and blonde and feisty.  Her husband, Noel, is Nicaraguan and as dark as Shayne is fair. Their children have his dark hair and snapping eyes—and interesting combinations of their parents’ personalities. They are wonderful kids with impeccable manners, and each is fully individual.

Gab, soon to be finishing up high school, is an athlete and a scholar and a darned hard worker.  Her part-time fast food job supports the car she proudly drives, — quite an accomplishment, I think, for a kid her age. Gab has never been afraid to speak her mind; her personality leans toward the bold and the dashing.

When Gab was four, she came North with her mom for Mark’s law school completion party; we rented an old farmhouse in a beautiful rural setting in western New York.  Family and friends came for the day and celebrated; Shayne and Gab came for three days and stayed at the farm with us.

City girl that she was, Gab quickly settled in, and was soon explaining to an interested audience how to tell the difference between cow corn and ‘people corn.’  Like any child far from home and the focus of attention, she got a little rambunctious, and Shayne tried to ramp her down.  The ramping didn’t work, and finally Shayne, frustrated and, I think, a little embarrassed, burst out, “That’s it, Gabrielle!  You are IN TROUBLE.”

And without missing a beat, Gab replied, “Gooooooood. Trouble is where I WANT to be.”


And come to think of it, when Patrick was four, the whole family came to visit us in Ohio.  Jess, another niece, was getting married, and Shayne, Noel, and the kids stayed with us.

Noel shared a story about Patrick, who is funny, thoughtful, and creative.  Noel was resting in a chair after work, and he asked Patrick to get him something from the kitchen.

Patrick stomped to the door and said to his father, “You are not the boss of me, Noel.

And Noel said, “Fine.  Now go get that for me.”

And Patrick cheerfully did.


I visited the family in Florida this Fall and had a chance to really get to know Miss Maddie, who was four at the time, as well.  Where Gab was hard, at that age, to wrestle into a dress, opting for jeans and sneakers, Maddie loves skirts that swing and swish, shoes with bows, feathers, and bling.  She has a flair for the dramatic and a titanium will, totally balanced by a beautifully loving heart.

She is, Shayne says, her little diva.

On a shelf, in a pretty frame, I noticed a photo of Maddie sitting on her cousin’s lap.  Her cousin, Noel’s niece, was resplendently gorgeous in a princessy dress and a tiara. Maddie was almost as resplendent, with all the bling a four year old can successfully cadge adorning her sweet little self.

Prom photo?  I asked Shayne.

No, she said.  In the Hispanic/Latina culture, there is a rite of passage for girls as they turn 15, a kind of debutante ball, called the quinceanera.

Shayne can foresee Maddie, ten years hence, campaigning for the whole nine yards.

It was the first I’d ever heard of quinceanera, and I was fascinated.  So, two weeks after that wonderful visit, when I saw Julia Alvarez’s book at the library’s annual book sale, I scooped it up. I have enjoyed learning about Noel’s country and culture—and particularly enjoyed eating Nicaraguan cuisine—and this book, I hoped, would help me understand some of the feminine traditions.  I promised myself I’d read it as soon as I finished “…And Ladies of the Club.”

I have not read Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, although it’s always been on my list of things to read when I get caught up. I did, however, enjoy A Wedding in Haiti, in which Alvarez writes about attending the wedding of Piti, a young Haitian, whom she and her husband had taken under their wing and into their hearts.  They promised Piti that when he got married they would be there with him, and despite unrest and obstacles, they fulfilled that promise.

So I look forward to reading Once Upon a Quinceanera.  I have reason to believe it will be a well-written, fascinating read, and I look forward to learning more about some of the practices of my nephew-in-law’s culture. Maybe it will help me prepare for the time, not too soon yet, when our darling little diva Maddie turns 15.


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