Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Guest Columnist: Ann Cardinal

In May 2006, La Bloga reviewed Sister Chicas, a delightful young adult novel for adults by three writers, including Lisa Alvarado, who would eventually join La Bloga's regular line-up. 

Today it's La Bloga's pleasure to welcome one of Lisa's co-authors, Ann Cardinal, as our Tuesday guest.

Fifteen Candles

Ann Cardinal

For a moment, just a moment, we actually considered lying about it to a national reporter. But in the end we confessed that not one of us—the three authors of Sister Chicas, a coming-of-age novel that culminates in the celebration of one of the character’s quinceañera—had had our own Latin equivalent of a sweet fifteen party. For Jane and Lisa’s families money had been tight, and for me, well, my mother was not your typical Puerto Rican mother. She was a self-proclaimed socialist and openly disdained such events. But she had told me all about this ritual that seems to be coming back in style for Latinos in the U.S. with a vengeance. “But I never had one myself, you understand,” she would always say in caveat.

“It is the equivalent of a debutante ball, a coming-out party for girls from the ‘best’ families. It was more about the parents’ standing than the girl’s birthday,” she would tell me. According to her, formal events of this type were very popular when she was growing up in late 1930s and early 1940s Puerto Rico. There are scores of photos of her dressed in starched white lace at different ages, her hair in perfect ringlets, her hand clutched in her cousin Georgie’s, their young eyes weary but resigned to being paraded at carnival as Pierot and Pierrette. And though there is a series of photos of her at age fifteen, glamorous as any movie star of the period, she insisted she hadn’t had the event herself. She seemed proud of this fact. “It was designed to present a daughter of marriageable age to the community, to find her a husband. Bah! I refused to be paraded around like livestock in expensive white crinoline!” At the time I couldn’t understand her problem with it, I mean, isn’t it every girl’s dream to wear Barbie gowns and a tiara and have everyone’s attention on her?

When I turned fifteen, she sat me down and said, “sweetheart it is customary that I should throw you a quinceañera for this birthday, but I really don’t want to subject you to that and besides,” she continued as she surveyed my then thick black eyeliner, spiked ice blond hair and punk attire, “it really doesn’t seem like something you’d be into.” At that point in my life, I had to agree. But that day she gave me a diamond ring, her own engagement ring she had had reset into a simple gold setting. “I felt the need to mark this important birthday in some way,” she had said. I was grateful, but confused by her sentimentality given the disdain she had expressed for the traditions of that particular birthday. But whether or not I understood her reasons, I was always touched by her need to mark the occasion, if not with an all out ball (with the Ramones playing, of course), at least with a symbol that meant so much to her, and was a connection to my deceased father.

Years later I would recall my mother’s disdain for this event during the aforementioned interview with USA Today about the ritual of the quinceañera. “My mother didn’t even have one,” I told the reporter though it seemed odd to me as I knew my mother’s family was well-off and could have afforded one. I went on to explain that with the resurgence of interest in the event I had to admit I didn’t share her disdain. I mean, as long as it doesn’t put the family in the poorhouse to throw one for their princesa, then why the hell not? I myself love to dress up and the idea of sauntering about with your friends and family dressed in a full length gown with a tux-clad, handsome partner at your side sounds dreamy.

Three months later I was on a conference call with my co-authors, typing notes for a sequel to our novel on my computer, when an email came in from my sister Ellen.

“Look what I found in a box in the basement today,” the subject line said. I clicked on the attached scan while chatting on the phone and gasped as it opened up on the screen. It was a faded press clipping from 1939 that was captioned: “Una Alegre Fiestecita de

Cumpleaños” or “A Happy Birthday Party.” And there was my mother, dressed in a full length white satin gown, a spray of white roses across her chest and a wide smile on her gorgeous, lipsticked mouth. I did the math in my head…she was born in 1924, so it was…her fifteenth birthday.

“Annie? You still there?” I heard my chicas asking on the other ends of the phone line in Chicago and New York and it snapped me out of my slack-jawed coma.

“Yes,” I squawked, shock still tightening in my throat. “It’s just…well, my sister sent me a clipping that apparently is about my mother’s quinceañera!”

“But I thought she hadn’t had one?” Lisa asked.

“Me too.” I said. I went on to read the article in Spanish and translated it with Jane’s help.

“Whoa, the governor’s children came. Annie, that was a really important party if they were there.” Jane had grown up on the island and understood the lifestyle better than I ever would. “Why do you think she lied about it?”

Truth be told, I hadn’t a clue. It was no surprise that yet another of my mother’s stories turned out to be untrue—
I found out long after her death that it was from her I got my fiction skills—but why this? I mean, she wasn’t a socialist at fifteen; that came much later in her life. But as I stared at the pixilated image on my screen and a sea of teenage faces stared back at me, only one—her best friend Maria Mercedes—that I recognized, I realized that though the smile seemed honest, this glamorous event
 was certainly entirely of her mother’s doing. I knew that very few of those children were actually her friends and knowing her crazy and belligerent mother—God rest her troubled soul—none of the details had been under my mother’s control.

By the time I knew her, my mother had grown into a fiercely independent woman, who survived my father’s long illness and subsequent death and managed to raise her three children still remaining at home on a draftsperson’s salary. As I thought of her uniform of loosely flowing, Bohemian clothing and her radical ideologies I became certain that it was way more than not wanting a fancy party: just the idea of being pushed and pulled around in stiff formal finery by her overpowering madre had been her idea of hell.

After I hung up the phone I continued to stare at the clipping for some time. It was then I decided to cut the woman a break. If she wanted to forget the event ever happened, then good for her. I would forgive her for trading that one small white lie for a white satin formal, with a big fat heaping of rebellion on the side. I had to get it from somewhere, after all.


Anonymous said...

Loved your story.
And it just had to turn out that way.

I'm like your grandmother, sort of. Coming from a poor background, we never had such things. (Fokk, we never even went to a doc or dentist.)

So when my daughter was about to turn 15, I wanted to throw her a quinceañera, since we could afford some version of it.

Luckily, she was like your mom later in life and said she didn't want one, tho not with much explanation.

Now, given your retell, maybe I should ask her why; I might be surprised by the truth, as well.

Thanks for a great first guest post; we look forward to more of the same.

Ello said...

What a wonderful story - and such a beautiful picture. Thank you for sharing this. I will definitely have to look up Sisters Chica for my personal library.

Daniel - I came here through Larramie and Sustenance's blogs. I loved your interview with Lisa See. It was really well done. You are an excellent interviewer.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Hermana! I am THRILLED to see your post here! It's a wonderful tribute to her journey and yours....to say nothing of also being a fine piece of writing!

And readers --
go to Ann's site to see what a triple threat talented writer she is: http://annhagmancardinal.com