Tuesday, October 23, 2007

For Latinas, it is Fifteen

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ethnology, folklore

When does a child become an adult? In Edo-period Japan and earlier, and only among nobles, a genpuku ceremony for boys was held at an age between 12 and 16; mogi for girls between 11 and 14. The precise age varied through the generations, and from place to place. In modern Japan, ceremony or no, young people become legal adults at age 20.

Among Jews, a bar mitzvah for boys is still held at the traditional time of the 13th birthday. The female version is the bat mitzvah, a more recent innovation. It is at this same age that Christians of various Baptist and Anabaptist persuasions consider a young person to be "morally responsible", and ready for baptism, though some sects prefer an age of 7 or 8.

In the Unites States, Euro-Americans tend to celebrate several rites of passage: Sweet Sixteen (mainly for girls, and because it is alliterative); "Voting Age", since it was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1972 (just in time for a hotly-contested election); and "Drinking Age", or 21.

The US has a habit of making one large transition into a series of small steps. In martial arts, for example, whether Judo or Karate, a young Japanese was expected to practice and study hard for four to six years, and attain an age of 20, to get a Black Belt. Prior to that he (very rarely she) wore the White Belt of a Learner. Less than a century ago, American dojos began awarding a Brown Belt at the halfway mark; the Green Belt was invented when I was learning in the 1950s, and the 1960s and later saw a proliferation of belt colors. Most dojos, however, reserve solid Red for the 10th dan (Black Belt is 1st dan). Similarly, in school my only graduation ceremony was about age 18, for High School. My son had ceremonies after grades 3, 6, and 8, and of course 12.

In some, not all, Hispanic cultures, girls are ushered into womanhood at age 15, usually with the best party her family can afford. On the surface it resembles the Debutante Ball of the American South, though that is held at age 17 or 18. "Los quince" (not the small orange fruit) means "the 15", and a quinceaƱera is a "girl of 15 years". The quince bears the most resemblance to a marriage ceremony, with a (usually) white gown, many attendants, a dance with her Father, and plenty of food at a follow-up reception.

Fifteen Candles: 15 Tales of Taffeta, Hairspray, Drunk Uncles, and other QuinceaƱera Stories, edited by Adriana Lopez, gives a peek or two, not so much into the quince itself, but into the feelings, experiences, dreams, and disasters of the participants.

Consider how delicately balanced a marriage ceremony is, how prone to being "ruined" by the smallest misstep; "the 15" simple doubles the chances a young woman will have dramatic, traumatic memories to laugh or cry about decades later.

Ms Lopez has gathered 15 stories by 15 Hispanic writers, mostly women. A few of the events were happily memorable, some were more shockingly memorable, and the middle-of-the-road experience seems to be a tragicomic, frightening-when-it-wasn't-boring spectacle of uptight parents, misbehaving uncles, aunts, cousins, and siblings, and often, puzzled Anglo friends.

I am pretty sure at least a couple of the stories are quite exaggerated ... pretty sure. But as the 'one that got away' gets bigger as time passes, I suspect most of the authors were actually holding back a little. Human nature is stranger than we like to think.

In spite of the fact that most quince parties are more for the parents than for the girls, some of the girls were indeed strongly moved, have retained cherished memories, and look forward to offering the same chance to their own budding young daughters.

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