COLUMNS Nature of Things

Quinceñera, Ties That Bind

This week I attended a quinceñera, the first I’ve attended for a young woman I know. For those unfamiliar with the tradition, a quinceñera is a grand fiesta given for a girl who has turned fifteen and made vows, at a special mass, to be a strong and loving woman. For a mental snapshot, imagine little girls in pinwheel-bright dresses playing crack the whip on strappy heels, little boys in three-piece black suits and white ties, shirttails sprung from their trousers as they dart through the room or knuckle-bump their elders. Old and young women and men attired primly in a hall decked out from the disco ball to the shiny dance floor. Folding chairs disguised by crisp white coverlets and bows of purple tulle. Tulle draped from the ceiling and across elaborately decorated reception tables donning a multi-tiered cake. Every white-clothed table in the hall is likewise draped and packed with eager guests. A catered dinner is served and drinks flow, all against a rousing salsa beat. The birthday girl, the “quinceñera,” performs a waltz and other choreographed numbers with half a dozen teenage boys she has selected for the honor (all dressed to the nines). And then, when the time has finally comes, guests rise like a flock of pigeons and dance to the wee hours of morn.

As someone who issued from a culture very different from the Latino, I couldn’t help mentally tallying the tab. My daughter “came of age” a few years ago, and let’s just say I didn’t slaughter the fatted calf. I probably made cupcakes and ordered pizza for her and her friends. At a quinceñera there are layers upon layers of expense—from professional photography, to food and drink, to clothing and professional hair styling, to live bands and DJs, to bridal-scale dresses, to party favors. The events require months of planning and copious resources. I had to stop and remind myself that this party was like no Anglo party I had attended. It was a product of a community tight-knit on a scale unfathomable by my experiences. And its purpose was distinct to its cultural context, to honor the unique coming-of-age of women, because women are the spiritual backbone, the force of healing energy and heart for their communities.


Almost every aspect of a quinceñera is provided by close friends and family of the girl, who are affectionately titled “padrinos.” An intimately close friend or relative might provide a large item, such as photography and videography, while another friend might provide the girl’s slippers or a special photo album. A quinceñera party is an explosion of participation, generosity and friendship from several dozen people who contribute to make it possible. A non-Latino might look at such a party and wonder how parents pull it off. But the parents don’t pull it off. An entire community pulls it off. That is the distinction, a powerful distinction, that sets child-raising in Latino culture apart. It takes a village, a pueblo, and it goes without saying.

I am an onlooker at such events as quinceñeras. But I know enough about the local Latino community to know that relationships between families or between individuals in the community are often imperfect. Like all human communities, it holds its share of grudges, petty disputes, deep hurts, and delicate history. And yet.
And yet, when a family needs support to usher their child across the threshold of womanhood, when a baby is baptized, when a couple gets married, when someone is in need, people lay aside their differences and come together. They provide for each other. Personal rifts aside, everyone shares the same dance floor—parties to broken marriages, parties to broken business deals, parties to broken friendships, political differences, soured love. All because a girl went and turned fifteen. And it is, after all, about the children, the future generations, and the ties that bind us together to hold them up.

COLUMNS Nature of Things Uncategorized

Nature of Things

Nature of Things
Eight years away and I have gone back to church. Not just once a week, but twice. My churches are an “ecstatic dance” group and a late-evening Spanish-language mass in Manzanita. What lured me back were the people and the communal sharing of spirit that, in my mind, defines church. My definition of church is formed in defiance of old norms. It fills the vacuum created by my conscious, if temporary, jettisoning of the institution and is as wide and rich as the spectrum of religion and ideology. It is a definition that allows me to share spiritual community, on some level, with almost anyone.

Institutions of all stripes can draw bold lines that exclude people, or elevate to supreme importance doctrines that divide. Yet spirit unifies—in spite of those who wish to meld it to their purposes, to stake a claim to it. The divine spirit in us all is identical and one can no more sculpt and contain it than wind. Spirit unifies, and thus rattles the bigoted religious as well as the bigoted non-religious (whose bigotry is often aimed at the religious). It unseats those who would use it as a tool to dominate. Spirit breathes life into everyone, even those so resistant to spirit, so dedicated to burying it that they seem to be holding their breath.

In truth, I tend to choke on the edges of religious creed. I carry into any religious or spiritual experience more doubt than actual belief. Yet I can simultaneously honor the life-giving religious and spiritual creeds we humans have developed. A creed is nothing more than a system or formulation of core beliefs, and most of us have core beliefs. We may not recite them communally as creeds, and hopefully we do not use our core beliefs as weapons. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that we have them. When the hard angles of creed are used like sharp elbows, to shove people out, to define who is unwanted rather than to iterate vitalizing understandings, then I believe creeds can do more harm than good. Otherwise, they are formulations by groups of like-minded individuals that infuse life with meaning.

The pinnacle of the church experience for me is the connecting of spirit in myself and others. At Santa Catalina, I most experience this in the “passing of peace.” This is a moment in the service, characteristic of liturgical traditions, when people walk around the sanctuary and share “the peace,” shaking the hand of one person after another and saying “la paz.” With each passing of the peace, my spirit goes on a little mating mission, if you can pardon the earthiness of my analogy. The spirit in me looks into the smile of another, touches the radiant fingers of another, and connects with his or her spirit for a potent moment. One hand bony and fragile, another rough, another gentle and passive, almost limp, another childlike, tiny and sweaty and velveteen. Each hand, the portal to a soul.