In the time and place where I grew up—the outskirts of Appalachia, in the late 1970s—girls didn't have coming-out parties. It was not that kind of culture or era; we distrusted any event to which we could not wear Levi's. The closest thing I can remember is a party a group of us held our senior year, the salient feature of which was a line of beer kegs. To the extent that we were commemorating anything, it was the arrival at legal drinking age.
Since then, you'd think the coming-of-age party would have been rendered even more outmoded and irrelevant, as vestigial as hoop skirts and hope chests. What on earth does coming of age mean in this time and place, and when can it be said to happen? At the point that a girl turns 11, can no longer find children's clothing for sale in her size, and resorts to cheerleader shorts with "Juicy" or "Hottie" inscribed on the rear? When she leaves 12 behind, and can officially enjoy pole-dancing scenes in PG-13 movies?
Once upon a time, there really was a moment when a girl left behind an actual, old-fashioned childhood and embarked on a well-defined period of preparation for motherhood and marriage. Now, childhood ends earlier than ever, while adulthood in the traditional sense—of settling down and starting a family—begins much later, if at all. In the middle is a stretch of adolescence so extended—and so various, from teenage parenthood to perpetual studenthood—one hardly knows when coming of age should be celebrated, or why.
Yet coming-of-age parties appear to be enjoying a renaissance. The sweet 16, the debutante bash: These stalwarts are again popular, thanks in part to a thriving party-service industry, and they may soon be eclipsed by the quinceañera, the often lavish Latina ceremony that has exploded in popularity in the United States. In her thought-provoking new book, Once Upon a Quinceañera, Julia Alvarez explores a phenomenon that now encompasses quince-themed cruises, quinceañera Web sites, and the inevitable quinceañera Barbie.
Like Kwanzaa, the quince is something of an invented tradition. Many immigrant mothers never had a quince—their families may have been too poor, or upon coming to this country wanted to avoid seeming too ethnic—yet regard it as de rigueur for their daughters. "It's just something that ... we want to give to our children because it's something we never had," one unemployed carpenter tells Alvarez, explaining why, though he lives in a rented apartment with a crowd of relatives, he spent thousands on a quinceañera for his daughter, who offers this interpretation of its significance: "I'm going from being a girl to being a woman."
And therein lies the central problem with any modern coming-of-age ceremony: It encourages delusions of adulthood at a time when biological maturity may indeed be upon a girl, but social maturity is far, far away. During Alvarez's reporting, one party maven tries to convince her that the quince is a valuable anchor in an otherwise chaotic passage. "I've seen it turn girls around," says this quinceañera advice columnist, arguing that coming-of-age rituals enhance self-esteem by showing girls they are loved and valued. Yet Alvarez's account also suggests a rather different perspective on the event—that girls may see the quince as a license to become sexually active, with all the related risks, including early motherhood.
The quinceañera, even more than other traditional ceremonies, is a ritual designed to celebrate but also control a girl's sexual maturity. It is a formal, public granting-of-permission for a girl to adopt a more adult appearance, and with it a more adult way of behaving; the idea—originally—being that the social celebration of physical maturity would be followed not long after by marriage. After her quince, a girl was permitted to shave her legs, wear makeup, and date. (There is a funny aside where Alvarez says that she got around the leg-shaving prohibition as a young teenager by using Nair.) In this country, the quince may blend traditions from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other cultures; it often is celebrated at 16 rather than 15. But the typical pattern is that the quinceañera (the name for the girl as well as the party) carries a last doll of childhood, symbolic of the innocence she is leaving behind. Her mother crowns her with a tiara, and her father removes her flat-soled shoes and replaces them with heels, eventually relinquishing her to a boyfriend. Not, to put it mildly, exactly a feminist's dream: The quince "sends a clear message to the Latina girl: we expect you to get married, have children, devote yourself to your family," writes Alvarez, who worries that "I'm watching the next generation be tamed into a narrative my generation fought so hard to change."
But the real worry is that the next generation isn't being tamed so much as unleashed, though not exactly liberated. These girls' post-quince lives will not be nearly so closely supervised as they might have been in their home countries, and they won't move toward anything like the same conclusion. Latina teens are among the most at-risk group of teenagers. Despite a high rate of religiosity, they are—like so many children of first-generation immigrants—often alienated from their parents' worldview. It doesn't help that more than 25 percent of Hispanic children live below the poverty line. They are also the fastest-growing teenage demographic: By 2020, one in five teens will be Hispanic. According to the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Latinas have the highest teen birthrate of all major U.S. racial/ethnic groups: 51 percent of Latina teens get pregnant at least once before the age of 20, nearly twice the national average. Alvarez interviews one hairdresser who notes that of seven girls he styled for their quinces, four invited him, within the year, to a baby shower. Latina teens are more likely to drop out of school than their white and black counterparts. Only about one-third of Latina teen mothers are married.
Of course, a simple party can't be blamed for all, or even any, of this. The quince may well be more symptom than cause. It is notable that the quinceañera, which originated as a prelude to a wedding, in this country seems to have become a substitute for the wedding a girl may never have. One of Alvarez's central questions is why parents are willing to spend so much arduously earned money—the average price of a quince is $5,000; the colloquial phrase for giving a party you can't afford is "throwing the house out the window"—on a one-night blowout. The answer is that for many of these girls, a quince is the only blowout her parents can be sure of giving.
Alvarez, who emigrated with her professional-class family from the Dominican Republic as a girl, tends to maintain a fretful but fond attitude toward this well-intended excess, which she captures vividly: There is one surreal scene where a high-end quince—including a "mariachi serenade, a Hummer limo … as well as a two-person crew filming the whole day and night"—takes place in a Gulf Coast hotel inundated by evacuees from Hurricane Rita. She is loath to criticize, even as she clearly thinks parents would do better to save for college. Her delicacy is understandable, yet frustrating, too. "Rather than tail the stressed quinceaneara asking questions, I'm going to go sit in the living room out of her way," she writes, when describing preparations for the quince that provides the central narrative of the book. When the girl actually begins vomiting just before her ceremony, Alvarez retreats to a spot on the steps. Curiously, given Alvarez's stature as a poet and fiction writer—one of her best-known novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, is itself an evocative coming-of-age story—the girls themselves do not emerge as rounded characters. What do their lives consist of? Their dreams? Their days? Their conversations?
Instead, we get descriptions of Alvarez's own adolescent struggles—with her strict mother, primarily—which are riveting but not always relevant. Alvarez never had a quince herself, and her issues growing up as the child of a political refugee in the 1960s don't necessarily reflect the lives of modern-day economic immigrants. I found myself wishing Alvarez would phone the nauseated quince girl after the ceremony and ask: So, why were you vomiting? Was it nothing more than jitters and hunger? How dizzying is it to be caught between conventional old-world expectations and typical American license?
Still, in her empathetic if sometimes indirect way, Alvarez subtly homes in on the unsettling question at the heart of the festivities, which is whether these girls are being served, or undermined, by what many girls themselves describe when they write to her as their "right of passage." In America, they are acquiring a sense of materialistic entitlement—that much is clear—but are they coming away with anything else, less concrete, more useful, to face their future lives? The quince, rather than a turning point, may in fact be an enchanting distraction from what adults feel they truly owe them but can't provide: a sense of purpose.