Review: Once Upon a Quinceanara: Coming of Age in the USA

“What KIND of book is that?” asks my son, and I ponder. Is Once Upon a Quinceanara: Coming of Age in the USA a memoir? Sort of. It’s also, a little bit, investigative journalism. There’s poetry dancing through the language on its pages. It’s a cautionary tale, philosophy, and a prophecy.

“It’s…non-fiction,” I tell him. He nods.

I could have said, “It’s a book about stories: the ones we tell our children; the ones someone told us; the ones we wished we’d heard; the ones, ultimately, that need to be told.”

Alvarez, who started out in the Dominican Republican culture and came to rest in the United States American, has a panoramic view of the Quinceanara. She loves the way it folds the generations of Hispanic women together, grandmother, mother, daughter,–hands entwined, braiding a custom.

She hates the way it glorifies commercialism, encourages families to spend beyond their means, and the girls themselves to see themselves as princesses—princesses dressed in $5,000 dresses waiting for their princes to arrive in stretch Hummer limos.

This is about a culture and its future embedded in a larger, more vacuumous one.

This is about the need of children in all cultures to have a valid rite of passage.

And what IS that rite of passage?

It is not just an event, although, as Alvarez attended party after party for the young ladies turning 15, she began to see their value. The party/event may be the door opening, the signal that the time of change has come.

Door open, though, the elders are to come through and surround and support the youngster. They are to reflect back what they see. “You are a gentle nurturer,” they might say, or “Your music makes stodgy old men want to dance!” “The way you write is a gift from God.” “No one makes people feel as good as you do when you listen so carefully.”

It is the time for the elders to tell youth their stories: this is who we see you are. And the young people gather those tales like scraps in a basket, and after a time, they take them home and sort them out, and use them, along with other materials they have gathered and other dreams that they have dreamed, to piece together their own stories.

“This,” the young one may write, “is who I think I am, and this, I think, is my quest.”

And then, with encouragement from those supporters, the young one ventures off on that quest. What will s/he find out there? Will it be successful? Will s/he fall? Will s/he be hurt?

All of the above could happen, but with the right support and the right understanding, the young one will think and heal and grow; her/his story will deepen. The path will open up.

If. If. If. The rite of passage as beginning of supported journey—a need for all children, but especially, as Alvarez notes, for Hispanic girls, in danger of early pregnancy, dropping out of school, drug addiction, and death by suicide.

We need to re-learn the art of supporting the journey. Alvarez’s work explains that beautifully, in the stories of the girls she meets, in the stories of her own steps and miss-steps, and in the research that she shares. It took me a chapter or two to get into this book, but then its voice took hold, and its wisdom drew me in.

Quotes I Liked From Once Upon a Quinceanara

(8) And for those who like myself are entering into elderhood, this book is an invitation to take up that mantle or mantilla of elders of the tribe, to consider what it means to be at the other end of our young people’s coming of age.

(10) But even when I am writing about myself, that self is not personal but a creature of language in a story that is ultimately about all of us.

(22) It’s worth remembering the old adage about how our strengths are often so tied up with our failings that we’d better be careful where we snip and what we cut off.

(44) This is the voice of experience, looking back at the excesses of our youth which we always want to say were our parents’ fault.

(55) We Abbott [Academy] girls were encouraged to develop our minds, not leave our brains parked at the door of our gender.

(57) Quoting Bruce Lincoln: …women’s initiation offers a religious compensation for a sociopolitical deprivation.

(94) Being thrown together with other points of view can mollify our own views, round us out, add extra lanes to our one track minds.

(160) “[The Quinceanara] should not be about just one night, but about the girl and what happens afterward in her life.” Quoting Bisli of Bisli Events

(217) I know enough about ritual to understand that it involves a surrender to cosmic time, so that one is safely, symbolically ferried past those jolting transitions of our mortal life.

(252) Change is necessary, but it should be change based on the needs of our young people, not a corporation’s bottom line…Traditions are made of sturdier stuff, and our ongoing responsibility is to revise and renew them so that they continue to fulfill their authentic purpose, to empower us.

(268) Wisdom is not a fixed quality. It circulates among us.


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