quinceanera, (keen-see-ah-'nyair-ah) n., Spanish, formal (quince ['keen-say] for short): 1. traditional party (one that I refuse to have). According to my mom, a girl's fifteenth birthday is supposed to be the biggest day in her life. The quinceanera, is like a huge flashing neon sign for womanhood. Back in olden times, it meant that a woman was ready to get married and have babies. 2. The way I see it, it's just a lame party with cheesy music and puffy princess dresses.
"C'mon, Shorty," Bobby said, while pulling me into the conga line.
"This is ridiculous!" I yelled over the deafening music. I gripped my brother's shirt tightly.
"Don't be such a nerd, Estrella," he joked with a cheesy grin. "This is a fiesta."
But it wasn't just any party. This was Teresa Sandoval's quinceanera,, the biggest day of her life — or at least that's what our mothers told us. Tere had gone all out, cha-cha style. She was dancing at the front of the conga line in a white, layered dress with puffy sleeves. A rhinestone-studded tiara was balanced on top of her head. Tere looked like she was getting married, but there was no groom, just a bunch of pimply-faced cousins dressed in extra-large black suits.
"Don't be jealous," said Rey, my other brother. He and Bobby were both seventeen, fraternal twins but identically annoying. He cut in behind me and held my waist as the line wove around an oval table.
"I'm not jealous!"
Rey snickered behind me. Okay, so the Hyatt was kind of cool, and Tere did get to ride around in a white limo all day. But whatever — the reception was totally tacky. The decorations looked like rejects from the flea market, lace and frills everywhere. And what was up with the pathetic lime-green balloons rolling all over the floor? Couldn't anyone get it together to find a helium tank?
But from the looks of all the happy people conga-ing with me, I seemed to be the only one who had noticed.
"So when did Tere become so hot?" Rey asked.
I turned around and looked at Tere. Her hair had been twirled into ringlets that were pinned on top of her head. A few tendrils hung down and framed her face. Her skin was clear and smooth. She had recently grown boobs — big ones. She looked nothing like the chubby kid who used to come over to my house and play Connect Four. We'd been so close then; she'd come over practically every day after school. But we weren't friends anymore. Technically, I hadn't even been invited to this party.
When Tere's invitation had come in the mail, everyone in my family had been listed but me. My mom said it was probably just a mistake and insisted I come anyway. I, of course, knew that it was one hundred percent intentional, but I didn't have the heart to explain that to my mother. So I came. And now here I was, feeling anxious, hoping that maybe, just maybe, Tere wouldn't notice me.
The mariachi music picked up and people started running to catch up with the group. But it was too fast for my eighty-year-old nana. She slipped and fell, letting out a whooping laugh as she landed on the ground.
I felt instantly embarrassed. Not for my nana — she seemed to be having a grand old time right where she was — but for myself. I tried to imagine how this would look to Sheila and Christie — the overly frilly decorations, the sad balloons, and in the middle of it all, a tiny, wrinkly little old lady cackling on the floor. I felt my face grow hot. The music ended and everyone broke out in cheers for the quinceanera,.
Bobby ran over to Nana, who was still clapping and laughing on the floor. She was having a merry time. Oh my God! I thought as Bobby reached out for her. Bobby was a pretty big guy and I was afraid he might dislocate her arm if he pulled her up too quickly. But he also had a soft streak that always surprised me whenever it appeared. He gently helped Nana to her feet and led her to a chair.
Nana shook her head. She didn't want to sit. I'd caught her sipping champagne earlier at our table, and I knew she would not go quietly. She grabbed Bobby by the hips and started shimmying her shoulders. Rey started to cheer from the sidelines.
"Go Bobby! Go Nana!"
I couldn't help but smile while I watched Bobby's face turn bright red. One thing about Mexican parties: they're always a lot of fun. If only I could have gotten into the spirit of things. I turned around and saw my mom sitting with my dad at our table. She was waving frantically at me.
"Be right back," I called out to Rey as I made my way through screaming kids and dancing couples.
My mother smiled as I approached. People said we looked alike, but I didn't see the resemblance. Okay, so I had her petite frame, kinky black hair, and pretty lips, but that's where it ended. We were totally different about things like fashion, makeup, and hairstyles. I cared about them (a lot) and my mother didn't (at all). In her fuchsia dress (two sizes two big, complete with giant shoulder pads), my mom was a serious candidate for one of those TV fashion emergency shows. But I had to admit, I loved seeing her face light up and her dark eyes twinkle. Ever since we'd arrived she'd been ooohing and aahing over everything: the ruffles, the cake, Tere's dress, those sad balloons. Just another example of how different we really were.
My dad, Manuel, who everyone called Manny for short, kept looking at his watch. He was missing the San Francisco Giants game and wasn't happy about it. He reached out for the half-full bottle of Bacardi that sat in the middle of the table as if it were a centerpiece. He took a few long gulps. Like me, he was just there to please my mother. He looked up and gave me a wink. We were in this together.
"Mija," my mom said as I sat down next to her. She handed me a paper napkin containing Nana's coffee-stained dentures.
"Gross!" I tossed them onto the table.
"I told Nana that she couldn't eat the cake until it was served, and then," she sighed, throwing a napkin over the teeth, "I found these by the cake."
The image of Nana sneaking some cake like a naughty little kid was so funny that my dad and I burst out laughing.
"This is not a joke." My mother tried to hold back a smile. "If anyone saw those teeth, I don't know what I'd do."
"Don't worry, Mom." I took the napkin-wrapped dentures in my hand. "I'll make sure these go back in her mouth and that she stays far away from the dessert."
My mom gave me a kiss on the cheek before I wound my way back into the mob of bobbing heads and swinging hips on the dance floor. Nana and Bobby had disappeared from the spot where I'd left them, so I began to weave through tables and head toward the cake — just in case Nana wanted to go for seconds.
I turned and smiled into the cheerful face of my cousin Marta, who was sitting with her two babies, Temo and Maya. Maya had fallen fast asleep, despite the loud music. She looked so cute in her frilly baby-blue dress. Four-year-old Temo was in this tiny little baby-size brown tux, eating a piece of cake. I ran over and covered him with kisses. It felt like years since I'd seen him.
"Oh my God! I can't believe you're here," I said, giving Marta a big hug. She looked very mom-ish in her cream floral dress, with heavy bags under her eyes. Marta was always my favorite cousin. She was like the older sister I never had, but I hadn't seen her in a while. Four years ago, Marta had "tarnished" (according to her mother) the entire family's reputation when she'd gotten pregnant, dropped out of school, and shacked up with Suave, who my mother always used to call "that bribón with the black Camaro." A few months ago, Marta and Suave had finally gotten married at city hall, and now they lived in a tiny apartment in Cupertino with their two kids. Marta's relationship with her mother, my tía Lucky, was awful at best, and Marta wasn't invited to family functions anymore.
"Well, I think the whole city was invited," Marta joked as she looked around the packed room. The Gonzalezes were dancing with the Veras. Senora Vera had been a well-known dancer back in Mexico City. Even though she was almost as old as my nana, she was still the best dancer at the party. The Ortizes, the Talamateses, and the Montoyas were sitting at a table eating cake. The Ruizes were laughing hysterically at the Hugo and Margarita Martinez table, probably over one of Hugo's famous impersonations. He was one of my father's best friends and could make his voice sound like anyone's — even mine. Pedro Dominguez and Ernesto Lopez were toasting Tere with bottles of Corona. The list went on. These were the people I'd known all my life, and being with everyone together like this made me feel safe and suffocated at the same time.
"Did you say hi to my mom? She's right over there." I pointed toward the exit. "Tía Lucky should be over there, too."
Marta shrugged and fiddled with the napkin on her lap.
"Oh, come on, Marta," I said, tugging on her arm. "Why don't you just go over and say hi?"
Marta shook her head. "Maybe next time. I should be going. It's getting late."
"Oh, don't be like that." When we were in public, Tía Lucky and Marta just ignored each other. But behind closed doors my tía ranted about what an ungrateful, good-for-nothing daughter she was. Marta wasn't helping anything by staying away.
Marta got up and started getting Temo ready to go. He was still eating his cake and began to cry, waving his arms and legs. He kicked over a vase of red and yellow flowers with his tiny little dress shoe. Water spread out all over the white lace tablecloth.
"Why don't you just wait until he's finished? What's the hurry?"
Marta gave me a cold look that told me to butt out.
She mopped up the water with a blue napkin.
"Well," I said, turning away slowly, "nice seeing you."
I wished Marta and her mother would make peace. Their fighting meant I hardly ever got to see Marta, and I really missed her. Even so, I understood Marta's desire to keep her distance. After all, I had spent the entire party trying to avoid Tere and Izzy.
Unfortunately, I was on a mission to find Nana, and it didn't look like I could avoid Tere anymore. There she was, standing in front of the three-tiered white cake, passing out extra-thin slices to everyone. She had some frosting in her ringlets and on her cheek. Someone had shoved cake in her face, which was a family tradition. I was sorry I'd missed that. It was always my favorite part of a party. There was a group of girls in matching dresses standing with Tere, giggling and whispering to her. Obviously these were Tere's damas, her female escorts. Girls always choose their best friends as damas in order to celebrate this special occasion together, I thought with a pang of regret. Once I was sure Nana wasn't around, I decided to head back to my family's table.
"Watch it!" a girl hissed as she bumped into my shoulder.
"Sorry," I said. Then I looked up into the dark, fiery eyes of Isabel Flores. Izzy hated her name and refused to answer to Isabel. She was tough, the kind of girl who wasn't scared of anything. She never worried about getting hassled by thugs in our neighborhood. They made my walk home miserable with incessant catcalls, but they didn't mess with Izzy. They were probably worried about getting hassled by her! She wore scuffed army boots, a long trench coat, and a sparkly black flower pinned into her hair (which was probably her attempt at dressing up).
Izzy gave me a nasty smirk. "Well, you have nerve, showing up here." She and I were also super-close childhood friends. Or rather, had been. "Can't return a phone call for eight months, but you're quick to show up at a party. I see how it is."
"Whatever," I mumbled and shoved my way past her toward my family's table.
"Why don't you go hang out with your rich bitch private school friends?" she called out behind me. I felt my stomach tighten. It wasn't as if I didn't feel bad for what had happened between us, but some of it hadn't been my fault.
Last year, I'd been lucky enough to win an academic scholarship to Sacred Heart, this upscale high school in the wealthiest part of San Jose. I'd been busting my butt there, trying to keep my grades up....So yeah, I guess you could say I'd been blowing Tere and Izzy off. And if I was being honest about it, there was another reason, too — I'd also been hanging out with a couple of Sacred Heart girls, Christie and Sheila, who just happened to be white and just happened to have a lot of money. Being around them made me feel alive and free to do whatever and be whomever I wanted. I guess, as lame as it might sound, sometimes what I wanted was to be just like them.
Izzy joined Tere's group of girls and I walked back to the table. Nana was sitting between Bobby and Rey, eating cake alarmingly fast for someone without teeth. My mom's baby sister, Tía Lucky, had joined us and was checking out all the eligible men over forty.
I plopped into my seat.
"Tere hooked us up with extra cake," Bobby said, grinning. "I think she likes me."
"Whatever," Rey cut in. "She just gave you the parts Nana stuck her finger in."
"Gross," I said.
My mother covered my hand with hers. "Isn't this beautiful, Estrella?" She was watching the DJ's light show on the dance floor.
I glanced at my watch. "I guess." If you like tacky stuff, I thought, sighing at the sight of my tía's neon-green spandex dress and bright purple eye shadow.
"Mija," my mother said, "this is a quinceanera,. They're supposed to be big. That's part of the fun! Now, when you have yours..."
No, I thought as my heartbeat began to race.
She and I had already had this discussion a month ago. I'd told her that I didn't want one. In truth, just thinking about it made my face feel hot. Nobody at my school had a quinceanera,. I'd be surprised if any of them knew what one was.
"Mom, but you said..." I began. She'd promised me that I didn't have to have a quince if I really didn't want to. She couldn't flip the script on me now. But she looked so hopeful, and she was practically vibrating with excitement, so I swallowed my words. It was the same look she got when she saw a bargain at a garage sale. I decided to try a different tack.
"You know, having a quinceanera, is really expensive and kind of a waste of money, don't you think? Maybe it would be better if — "
But she didn't even let me finish. "Mija," my mother protested lovingly, "do not worry about the money. Even if we were worried about the money, we could always get padrinos to help us pay. This is tradition. Our tradition is what keeps us grounded. It reminds us of who we are. Just because we don't live in Mexico doesn't mean we're not Mexican. You can call yourself anything you want — Chicano, Latino, whatever — but your roots never change. It's our blood. This is more important than the money. What better thing is there to spend money on?"
I tried to keep myself from rolling my eyes. I'd heard this speech at least a million times before.
"Can't we compromise?" I asked hopefully. "Let's rent a club downtown. We can have mariachis!"
My mother gave me a funny look, like she had just been insulted. "This is not about mariachis."
"No, it's definitely not," Tía Lucky added.
I wished Tía would just mind her own business. Of course, that would never happen in my lifetime. My dad and brothers were unusually quiet. I turned to them in a plea for help, but they looked away. I was on my own.
"This is about tradition," my mother continued.
"And the church," Lucky chimed in.
"Obligation!" Nana added, raising one cake-covered finger in the air.
My mother reached out and grabbed my hand. "When I was your age, only the rich girls had quinceaneras. I've dreamed of this day since the doctor told me you would be a girl." She pinched my cheek. "Everything will be fine. You'll see." She looked back at the dance floor. The lights had dimmed and couples were slow-dancing to a bolero. "You're going to love it."
I felt something tighten in my chest when I saw the way she was gazing out at the party. How could I say no? "Okay, Mom." I knew I was going to regret this. "Just promise me that it'll be a small one."
"I promise," she said. Then she pulled me into a tight hug. There was something almost desperate about it, as if she was afraid that at any second, I'd just disappear.
Copyright © 2005 by 17th Street Productions, an Alloy Company, and Malín Alegría.