Monday, September 03, 2007

Sweet 15: Custom That May Be Itself Coming of Age

Book review by Daniel Olivas

Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA

By Julia Alvarez
Viking, $23.95 (hardcover)

More than halfway into her provocative and engaging nonfiction Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (Viking, $23.95 hardcover), Julia Alvarez acknowledges that she harbored some fears in tackling this coming-of-age ceremony for Latinas turning 15.

"I would sometimes scare myself sick thinking of what would happen if I didn't fall in line and praise this important tradition of nuestra cultura," she confides. "The Malinche fear of betraying my own people to the conquistador culture hangs heavy on my heart -- Malinche being the indigenous woman in Mexico who supposedly betrayed her people to Cortés."

Alvarez's fears were unfounded.

To be certain, she does not shy away from some of the tough questions raised by quinceañeras: How much money should a family spend on it? Is it nothing more than an antiquated ritual from a time when a man felt compelled to present his daughter to eligible bachelors in the best light possible? And why does gang violence too often follow quinceañeras?

Alvarez's exploration of the "quince" is not meant to be scientific. Rather, the award-winning author freely blends statistics with personal observations as she throws herself into all aspects of this rite of passage. We follow Alvarez to Queens, where she interacts with young women and others as she tries to discover both the historical roots and the modern significance of quinceañeras. In the process, Alvarez becomes a virtual member of one family by driving a group of teenagers on emergency quince errands and offering opinions about dresses and other important matters.

Alvarez's return to the Queens of her youth brings up strong memories growing up and attempting to make sense out of life in the United States while maintaining her Dominican heritage. In some of the book's more moving and enlightening passages, she recounts struggles with becoming an independent, successful woman: friction with her parents, two failed marriages, going to school, choosing a career, marrying again.

"Maybe younger women -- younger than me, say, and I'm now in my mid-fifties -- know all of this from the get-go because they've been raised by women of my generation and so have absorbed this knowledge with mother's milk; it can be done -- being your own person."

But Alvarez finds evidence to the contrary.

She recounts the efforts of several women who want to turn the tide of the all-too-common scenario of girls enjoying their quinceañeras only to get pregnant and drop out of school in a year or two.

Ana María Schachtell founded the Stay-in-School Quinceañera Program, which, according to Alvarez, "could well become a model for such programs elsewhere." Each year, Schachtell organizes workshops for about three dozen 14-year-old girls and boys, who get to meet and learn from community leaders, artists, dancers and writers.

Alvarez observes: "What is inspiring about Ana María's program, which is in its eighth year, is that it takes the tradition of the quinceañera, acknowledging its power as a coming-of-age ceremony, but recasts it with new content, including a strong emphasis on education."

The young women we meet through Alvarez's research are vibrant and interesting. And, in truth, they're not unlike most teenagers, who simply want to enjoy life and celebrate milestones with family and friends.

In the end, Alvarez's book is a captivating and fascinating "behind the scenes" peek at quinceañeras. We are honored to be invited into the lives of these young women for a brief moment as they stand -- eager and hopeful -- at the cusp of adulthood.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

◙ I received the following e-mail from Daniel Alarcón regarding a fundraiser in response to the recent devastating earthquake in Peru:

You're invited to a party next Wednesday, September 12, at VELVET, 8 p.m. till closing. We’re raising money to support the victims of last month’s earthquake in southern Peru. We’re asking a $10 donation, but no one will be turned away. Please be as generous as possible. We’re hoping to raise $2,000. All funds will be donated to OxFam. I'll be spinning música criolla, samba, salsa, etc., and later on DJ Flavor Fav will hook up the Rock en Español and 80s hits. VELVET is located at 3411 MacArthur Blvd. at 35th Avenue in Oakland's Laurel District, right near the old Farmer Joe's. We'll open at 8 p.m. and will stay until the past person leaves.

For more information, go to the OxFam International website.

◙ Writing for BlogCritics, Sandra Ramos O'Briant reviews HBO’s Big Love, which, if you don’t know by now, is a drama/comedy about polygamy. Ramos O'Briant's work has appeared widely and her short stories have been anthologized in Best Lesbian Love Stories of 2004 (Alyson Publications), Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, forthcoming 2007), and What Wildness is This (University of Texas Press, 2007). Her book reviews have been published on La Bloga and Moorishgirl.

◙ As noted before on La Bloga, Helena María Viramontes and Manuel Muñoz made a joint appearance at the Los Angeles Public Library recently. Well, it is now watchable on LA36 at:

◙ Alma García is one of the winners of this year's Rona Jaffe Writers Foundation Awards ($25,000.00). García is working to complete her first novel, tentatively titled Shallow Waters, which follows the harrowing year in the lives of the DuPre and Gonzalez families in El Paso, Texas, after Rose DuPre, wife and mother, disappears. She received her M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, and her stories have appeared in Narrative and Passages North, among others. Her Writer’s Award will allow García to write full-time for two years and complete both her first novel and her second, which she has begun to research and also takes place in the Southwest. She lives in Seattle, Washington. Readers can also read one of her short stories, “The Great Beyond,” at Narrative Magazine, in the archives (free registration is required). It's at

Rigoberto González will be writing for the Poetry Foundation every third day for the next six months. Check it out and feel free to comment!

◙ Just a little note on the upcoming West Hollywood Book Fair which will be held on Sunday, September 30th. I will be moderating a panel on writers who blog. This is the official listing:

Adrienne Crew, Margo Candela, Kevin Roderick, Mark Sarvas
Moderator: Daniel Olivas
Book Signing at Skylight Books booth

Many friends of La Bloga will be appearing…I’ll do a longer post as we get closer to the date.

◙ As I noted last week, you are invited to a special planetarium screening of Gronk’s BrainFlame, the West Coast premiere of an extraordinary animated short in 180-degree projection.

WHEN: Saturday, September 8, 2007

WHERE: Glendale Community College, Planetarium and Science Center, 1500 North Verdugo Road, Glendale 91208

BrainFlame Screenings: 2:00 pm, 2:30 pm, 3:00 pm, 3:30 pm

Art exhibit on BrainFlame and signing of the new book Gronk (UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press) reception: 2:00 pm to 4:30 pm.

This weekend, Agustin Gurza reviewed BrainFlame which includes some very interesting background on the genesis of the project as well as some choice quotes from Gronk.

Screening ticket reservations required. Please reserve early, limited seating. Please RSVP for a specific screening by Sept. 4th: Bryan Robinson (310) 825-7716 or

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. ¡Lea un libro! --Daniel Olivas

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