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.