NBCC Awards Finalists in Criticism: Julia Alvarez’s “Once Upon a Quinceañera”


This is the twenty-eighth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Julia Alvarez, “Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA,” Viking.

In most countries south of the United States, when a girl turns 15 it’s a very big deal. Fifteen means a girl is a woman. If her parents are traditionalists, 15 will be the first year she’s allowed to wear lipstick, put on high heels and date. In many Latin American countries 15 was, or still is, the legal age of marriage, and pre-1940, many women were married with children by the time they were 18. With so much revolving around one birthday, it’s no wonder upper-class Latin Americans developed the habit of announcing 15 with a big party, or quinceañera, that served, indirectly, as a lure for eligible young men. What’s harder to understand is why this old-school rite of passage has mushroomed in the United States while the innocence of 15 has, shall we say, lost some rather significant ground.

According to Julia Alvarez’s “Once Upon a Quinceañera,” it’s now common for an American Latina’s 15th birthday to involve a limousine, caterers, beauticians and several thousand dollars. From the big white dress to the court of best-friend attendants, the party often resembles nothing so much as a wedding. This year, says Quince Girl magazine, Latinos will spend $400 million on these spectacular events. “[T]he quinceañera,” Alvarez observes, “has become an even bigger deal stateside than it had ever been back home,” and much of her book is devoted to putting forth possible causes for this unexpected growth: among them the age-old immigrant desire to grace children with luxuries that their parent’s never could afford back home.

Even more fascinating is Alvarez’s argument that American quinceañeras are an “invented tradition,” like Kwanzaa and bas mitzvahs, that serve to unite and legitimize a community “by establishing a continuity with a past that may be largely fictitious.” After all, the concept of being “Latino” or “Hispanic” – as opposed to being, say, Peruvian, Chilean or Nicaraguan – was invented by a bureaucratic stroke in 1973, when then-President Richard Nixon’s OMB Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 began dividing the nation into five categories: black, white, Asian/Pacific, Native American/Eskimo and Hispanic. By the 1980s, Alvarez writes, ” the bureaucratic brainstorm had turned into a reality: we had become La Raza, one people.” But a people need a history, and a set of common rituals. The quinceañera helped bind La Raza together.

It’s this kind of subtle analysis that makes “One Upon a Quinceañera” an indispensable book—and Alvarez’s novelistic eye also makes it an intimate, intoxicating read. All her sociological points are wrapped around stories: the story of how Monica Ramos celebrated her Disney-themed quince while her father was out of a job, the story of how Enrique Muñoz makes a living photographing quinceañeras in Miami, the story of how Alvarez herself came of age with no quinceañera at all.

“How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” the best-selling novel that started Alvarez’s career back in 1991, explored how a family’s displacement from the Dominican Republic could erode its children’s sense of self. La Raza was the way many such displaced children put themselves back together. But if the quinceañera is going to be the biggest, most expensive performance of La Raza’s identity, we ought to be careful about the symbols it contains. Latina girls are one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, but they also have some of the highest rates in the nation for substance abuse, teen pregnancy and school drop outs. As this stunning work of cultural criticism explains, if we want those statistics to change then we better teach quince princesses to want something more than an ersatz wedding and a $400 dress.—NBCC board member Marcela Valdes

Marcela Valdes’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Interview with Julia Alvarez on La Bloga.