Wednesday, August 22, 2007

RW: Quince

Before we dive into Reader Wednesday, one link I wanted to pass along for the back-to-schoolers and insatiably curious is Freeload Press, a web site devoted to making textbooks available for download at no or low cost. The book list they have is extensive, so check it out if you have a chance.

This week I am finally accepting the fact that I never had a sweet sixteen*. Yes, it's taken thirty years to get over that particular birthday, when I woke up, ran to the window and did not see a black Camaro with a big pink ribbon wrapped around it sitting in the driveway. At the time I knew my mom couldn't afford to get me a pair of skates, much less a car. Still, you always hold out hope for a mysterious rich uncle to show up on that day, with the brand new Camaro to make up for all the birthdays he missed.

Once Upon a Quinceañera ~ Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez is about another rite of passage birthday: the quince, or a Latina's fifteenth birthday. I don't often recommend nonfiction books, but this is one that is about so much more than a big whomping chick party at which the birthday girl wears a fluffy debutante gown and rhinestone tiara.

I grew up in South Florida, and my playmates were the American-born children of the first Cubans to escape Castro's regime. I envied my Latina girlfriends, because their quinceañeras made the most elaborate sweet sixteen parties -- and even some weddings -- look downright pitiful. No expense is spared, and it's not uncommon for parents to take out a second mortgage on their house to pay for a proper quince for a daughter.

I picked up this book out of idle curiosity -- as a teen I attended quinces for two of my friends. A lot of what went on completely mystified me (like the candle-lighting thing; I wondered if they were part Jewish.) I figured you had to be born Latina to understand the quince; Ms. Alvarez skillfully assures us that we don't. She documents one girl's quince, and talks about many others, and through observation and sharing some of her personal history, creates a fascinating, constantly-evolving portrait of the Latina in America.

We always talk about how Latinos are changing our country, but rarely about how our country has changed their people, beliefs and traditions. Young Latinas no longer have black-clad abuelitas and dueñas to safeguard them; they can't retreat to the safety of the convent or the arranged marriage. In American, these girls usually end up the bicultural rope tugged between their families and their friends, the old ways and modern life, tradition and individuality. And somewhere in there is the quince, the Cinderella birthday, when these girls become a princess for a night, and are considered women forever after.

Julia Alvarez tore down a lot of cultural and emotional walls that still exist between Latinas and non-Latinas with this book -- something that seems almost dangerous, given the subject matter. Militant feminists who burn Barbies, I will tell you upfront: this is not a book for you. But don't assume this is a fluffy celebration of the ultimate minority girl-fest. What Ms. Alvarez accomplishes with this book is a tribute to the hopes, dreams and realities of life shared by every generation of women, no matter what color our skin is, or what language we speak at home, or where our parents were born. We don't need those walls anymore, ladies.

As always, you don't have to take my word for it. In comments to this post, tell us which birthday made you feel that you'd finally grown up (or if that hasn't happened yet, just throw your name in the hat) by midnight EST on Friday, August 24, 2007. I'll draw three names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners an unsigned hardcover copy of Once Upon a Quinceañera ~ Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez, and a surprise. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.

*The movie Sixteen Candles could have been a documentary of that birthday. Okay, I wasn't as pretty as Molly Ringwald, and I didn't have a Jake Ryan, but the gorgeous blonde sister getting married, geeky admirers and embarrassing, bathroom-hogging relatives? Totally my family.


  1. Hmm- I think I'd felt grownup at my 15th birthday. This was when I took over the cooking for my family and most of the raising of my younger siblings.

  2. Anonymous2:09 AM

    The birthday that made me feel as if I was all grown up? Probably my thirteenth, because then I could sign up for forums without pushing my age up a couple of years.

  3. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particular birthday that did it to me--not mine anyway. I didn't get many as a kid (not even the 16th or 17th where my mother allowed me to drink champagne), and the one I had as an adult took me back to childhood.

    No, a birthday didn't do it to me--parenthood did.

  4. I think I always felt grown-up--evidence to the contrary notwithstanding--but for my eighteenth I had a very adult party, dinner and conversation rather than too-loud music, so we could say it was that one or just throw my name in the hat, given many people still don't seem to think I'm grown up (it's the fluffy toys that do it, I guess).

    I did read somewhere that people who don't have children never do mature properly, except if they're creative, when their creations become their children, but personally I prefer a cat.

  5. Anonymous7:24 AM

    I never got a sweet 16 either and I'm not quite sure when I felt like I grew up. It probably wasn't any birthday, but if I had to choose I'd say the year I was 13.

  6. Anonymous7:25 AM

    Hmmmmm....I dunno. Sometimes I still don't feel grown up.

    I didn't get a sweet 16. we were too broke.

    Maybe my 21st. And not because I was able to buy a drink but because i explained a few things to some people in my life that I hadn't been able to say before.

  7. The birthday when I thought I was grown up was 18. I didn't have a quince, but I did have a punker party. The birthday when I knew I was grown up was 24; my son was four months old.

  8. My 12th birthday and 11th Christmas. The first after my poarents had divorced and even though I knew, it was the first Christmas my mother said I was too old for Santa.

    It was the final jab of my first crappy year.

  9. I didn't really feel grown up till a couple of years ago. (I'm 36 now.) For some reason, even though it was like every birthday before and since, #34 was the one. Firmly in my third decade, pregnant with my third child, having survived thyroid cancer, and in the midst of buying my first home...I looked around and said, "Yup. Can't get any more grown-up than this."

    BTW, I just found your blog a few days ago, just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed 'Worthy'.

  10. Anonymous9:05 AM

    My grandma wanted to throw me a Sweet Sixteen party, but the moment my parents discovered that what she meant by this was she got to make all the decisions and they would get to pay for everything, it was off. Given Grandma, I wasn't too distressed because I seriously doubt it would have been a party I'd enjoy.

    I'd say it was my 20th birthday that brought home adulthood for me. I had moved halfway across the country, was temporarily living in a motel room until I found an apartment and was for all intents and purposes broke, seriously far away from family. I had to make the decision whether to keep going or fleeing home to Mom and Dad. That was a pretty serious moment for me.

  11. I would have to say 21. I went to the liquor store and bought my first booze. Buying a house, getting married and divorced didn't feel as grown up as that 21st birthday did.

  12. Anonymous9:24 AM

    I don'i feel grown-up yet. I'm 14, I haven't reached the coming-of-age for most culture anyway.

  13. Anonymous9:26 AM

    I felt grown up on my 22nd birthday. My 21st was spent in true, college-style debauchery, but I spent my 22nd eating a sedate dinner with my parents and I didn't mind.

  14. Thanks for recommending that book. I'll have to check it out.

    I think I've always felt grown up, being an only child with both parents working. But I probably felt 'ready' on my 18th birthday, which happened two days after I entered college. I was living on my own, could vote, and went for a camping trip with people I had just met the weekend after.

    Though now that I've passed the 25-years-old-and-can-rent-a-car age, I think I'm finally there.

  15. Anonymous12:03 PM

    The birthday that made me feel grown up wasn't mine. A younger friend of mine turned 21, and I was one of the hosts of her party/bar crawl.

  16. It wasn't a birthday for me. It was the very sad day when I had to have my childhood dog put to sleep. I was 28 at the time and she represented everything happy from my childhood (which wasn't much, honestly). I had her for 16 years and any time I wanted to feel safe and happy, all I had to do was spend time with her. Letting her go meant letting go of that piece of my life. I felt very old and adult that day and have never been quite the same since.

  17. The birthday for me that made me feel grownup was my 17th. Thats when I got my first car.

  18. You are definitely my hero, Lynn. That link is going to save me LOADS of work homeschooling.

    I don't know which birthday made me feel grown up. My brother got me schnockered for my 21st - memorable, kinda, but not grown up. My 30th birthday was the year I spent an hour feeling too old to go clubbing. I was in Las Vegas and my male consort wanted to take me to Studio 51 at the MGM. Getting ready to go and not a thing to wear that didn't make me look older than my age. I almost cried. Finally I kicked myself in the butt and threw something on. It ended up being a lot of fun, but I remember the crush of age that night. Ugh.

  19. I don't remember feeling particularly grown up on any of my teenage birthdays. (I didn't get a Camaro on my 16th either!) I do know that my 29th birthday made me feel old. It suddenly hit me that I was almost 30. And 30 was almost 40. And 40 was practically 60. I know, I know. It's ridiculous.
    Like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally...
    Meg (sobbing): I'm gonna be 40!
    Billy: When?
    Meg: SOME DAY! *Sob sob sob*

    Oh, and PS - I LOVE Sixteen Candles.

  20. I always felt like Peter Pan, or at best, an impostor just posing as a grown-up, until my mid-thirties. That's when I embraced person-hood, assertiveness, and feminism. I still like the part of me that is Peter Pan -- it just doesn't make all my decisions anymore.

  21. Anonymous3:00 PM

    I got engaged on my 19th birthday, so you'd think that would do it, wouldn't you? I'm still waiting to feel like a grown-up, and my 22nd is next month. Although more and more as I become involved in things and reach for my own dreams, I see that I am somebody who can accomplish things, and that's more important to me than being an "adult." I know adults who don't do anything, and I don't want to be that.

  22. Still not there, and this year is 36. I'm hoping at 40 the gold glitter rains down.

  23. Anonymous3:32 PM

    25. It was the first time that I remember looking in the mirror and seeing a woman staring back and not a half-grown kid. I started to see my mother in my eyes and it all sort of clicked that I was a grown-up for real.


  24. There's a movie that came out last year called Quinceanera, also. It seemed pretty good.

    As for feeling grown up? I think 21--granted that was only a couple months ago. The significance of how much more responsibility that awaits me when I graduate was more urgent--and coupled with recent events, I feel like nothing ever really prepares you for it.

  25. Anonymous3:34 PM

    I didn't feel grown up until my friends started getting married and having kids--in that order. Nothing makes you feel grown up more than getting calls from the hospital about the birth of your best friend's first born.

  26. Anonymous3:38 PM

    It's actually my birthday August 24:th... (My 32nd).

    The one that made me feel grown up was my nineteenth, the first I ever celebrated away from my family, and my twin brother.

    I got a sweatshirt and training pants from my parents. I kept them for well over ten years.

  27. For me, it was my eighteenth birthday.

    Go firgure. :)


  28. No Sweet Sixteen here, either. We had a small party at home for close and extended family, but we were so broke, it was a potluck. And my mother asked for money in lieu of gifts, which then went to pay the rent. I remember being angry at the time, but getting over it fast, because that's what grown-ups do.

    Nah, that sounds very self-pitying, and I don't mean it to be. Honestly? I think I was about eight years old when I woke up to the fact that grown-up behavior was at a premium in our family and I needed to step up and do what I could to fill that gap. I don't think it had much to do with a birthday.

    This is an interesting question. Very thought-provoking. Looks like a good book, too.

  29. Anonymous4:44 PM

    My eighteenth birthday. The one I spent visiting a concentration camp near Prague - and suddenly I had a whole different perspective on things.

  30. Anonymous4:55 PM

    There have been a few significant birthdays:

    16 - got my license so that I could babysit my cousin on a near daily basis which led to being mistaken for his mother.

    18 - We had federal, provincial and municipal elections over the course of that year. My family has always been political, so I was thrilled to join the process. I actually even worked in the polling station that year for the provincial election.

    19 - Legal drinking! And finally realizing I still had to be responsible for my own safety when I was drinking.

    28 - My baby brother turned 25. That was a scary realization.

  31. Anonymous9:08 PM

    We're supposed to be grown-up??? :)

    Throwing my hat in the ring, because I determined long ago that I'd never grow up. At all.

  32. Sweet 16 could have done it for me. My family gave me a long-stemmed red rose for a gift and Mom had cooked a great supper as usual.

  33. In some ways, I still don't feel grown up. In others, it was my 21st.

    My Mum had had a brain aneurysm 16 days earlier, and I spent my twenty-first birthday in the neurosurgery ICU. Before going into vasospasm, Mum had instructed Dad to go out and get me a gold ring with dolphins on it, because twenty-one was a milestone. She even had one picked out. But then came the brain damage and she couldn't remember where she had seen it.

    Dad did his best, and during one of Mum's more coherent moments, he gave me the ring he found. It was both a celebration of my birthday, and a promise from my Mum that she would get better. Which she did. But I spent a long time helping Dad take care of her after that, and it was the first time I really became aware of my parents' mortality. Mum recovered after that, but I never forgot that feeling that if anything ever happened to my parents, I was the adult who would have to take care of my sibling.

  34. I think it was at my 12th birthday party, when I wanted to watch movies and pull taffy and have a lot of good conversation, and all the other girls brought their Barbies. And didn't like the horror movies I'd picked out with help from my brother.

    Or maybe it was a friend's 11th birthday party, where I talked football and politics all night with her older brother while the guessed it...played with their Barbies. And froze each other's training bras.

    Oh, and nettleb? I think I've been to that concentration camp. You're right. It changes things.

  35. I don't really think I've hit that point yet. I've had a few birthdays that I've felt old (although from an objective standpoint I'm not), but I don't think that's the same thing as being grown up.

  36. hmmm.... the birthday of my first child made me feel pretty grown-up; the birthday of my second child made me realize that I wasn't at all...

  37. Anonymous1:08 PM

    Uh, not sure what happened to my first trying again!

    I am Latina, and I never had a quince, and neither did anyone I knew (I grew up in a heavily Latino area)...I wonder if this is something that has really taken off in the last 15 years or so?

    I would say the birthday that made me feel like a grownup was my 30th--it was the first birthday where I really felt empowered to do what I wanted, instead of giving in to familial pressure.

    And thanks so much for this site...I have learned so much and really appreciate it!

  38. hmmm...I guess I grew up gradually enough that I didn't have a defining birthday until 22...for some reason I felt that I was actually an adult at 22

  39. When I turned 18 it seemed that I had more responsibilities. I obtained my divers license, voted and then worked full time and went to university at night for the next 10 years to obtain my degree.

  40. I had a wonderful sweet 16 which my parents went all out for. Fun and friends. Now that I am older and have grown kids it seems a lifetime away and so much has happened in my life.

  41. I always looked young for my age being small and short. So this was an illusion. but when I married and then had a family this makes you grow up quickly and become aware of so much.

  42. What made it real for me was being married with little children and then losing your parents in close succession. This is a wake up call which changes your entire life, outlook and meaning.

  43. To be truthful I grew up this summer suddenly, when my father who was 56 dropped dead. Now I am trying to recover and return to school in the fall and hope that my future is brighter.

  44. Anonymous11:42 PM

    Thank you for the textbook site! I don't know what books I'll be needing for this quarter yet, but I'll definitely check the list for them when I do.

    Events have aged me more than my birthdays have. Breakups, suicide, graduation... the list goes on.



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