Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez

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Two and a half stars, read July/August 2014.

Once Upon a Quinceanera was a mixed bag for me: interesting but slightly disappointing, until I got to the end, which pissed me off. The concept is great; there’s so much material for discussion, and the tradition is an intriguing one to learn about. I enjoyed the anecdotes about quinces she attended and people she spoke to in the industry while doing her research, but didn’t care for her take on the philosophy of the event. In the end, her conclusion is essentially that the quinceanera is a patriarchal and problematic tradition, and someone should update it, but thanks to third-wave feminism we can all still be feminists while perpetuating patriarchal traditions like it.

I listened to the audiobook, so I have to break it down by discs. There were eight, and about the first six were mostly focused on trying to discover the roots of the tradition, interspersed with stories of the girls whose quinces she studied and the memoir-like sections about her own coming of age. Then on disc seven there were maybe two or three tracks about the issue of violence at quinceaneras—which I had no idea was an issue, so I would have been interested to hear more. At this point the book was winding down, though, so she moved into her conclusions on how the ceremony can be “revamped” to get rid of the many problematic factors (the patriarchal designation of the girl as marriageable goods, the princess fantasy, the overwhelming amounts of money spent by families who sometimes put themselves in debt for the rest of their lives) and retain the important ones. The thing is, she doesn’t offer a single suggestion for doing that. She seems to dislike the excessive use of the color pink, and she says that families shouldn’t “throw the house out the window” for the sake of a party. But that’s it.

The worst part is that her idea of third-wave feminism seems to be that second-wave feminism got it all wrong. She quotes Rebecca Walker and spends the last disc talking about how the reason we need quinceaneras is that when feminism made us all independent, we “lost the sense of the value of female sexuality” that apparently patriarchy used to provide us. (I’m not sure how this meshes with the fact that the “cheapness,” as she calls it, of female sexuality now is also thanks to patriarchy.) There was a whole section quoting Naomi Wolf’s Brideland that just made me feel like gagging.

While few people want the bad old days of enforced virginity to return, I think there is a terrible spiritual and emotional longing among them for social behavior or ritual that respects, even worships, female sexuality and reproductive potential. We are no longer Goddesses or Queens of our own sexuality. Paradoxically, swaddled in the white satin of the formal bridal gown, we take on for a moment that lost sexual regalness… We are made into treasure again, and jewels adorn our breasts. In white, we retrieve our virginity, which means metaphorically, the original specialness of sexual access to us.

And then Alvarez says that this is what the quinceanera provides, as well. In the first place, I don’t know what feminists they’ve been talking to, because there is no group bigger on women as goddesses and queens of their own sexuality. If you feel that lacking, I do think it’s feminists you need, not patriarchal traditions. In the second place, I don’t think there’s much of a paradox going on here at all—what it sounds like to me, fairly simply, is that Wolf and Alvarez miss being on a pedestal.

I completely understand the draw of tradition; I’ve always been a tradition person myself, and I love anything that brings people together in a community. But, as Alvarez quotes Mimi Doll in the book, “Our traditions are meant to take care of us and protect us as a people. So we can’t just dismiss them. The challenge is to ensure that we recast them to our present-day context so that they continue to take care of us.” Alvarez is a Reviving Ophelia believer; she spent a lot of time talking about how “endangered” Latina girls are, mentioning how many of them had baby showers less than a year after their quinceaneras. So really, is this tradition protecting the girls who celebrate it? And who does she propose should start “recasting” it, when she herself offers no ideas in a book that seems perfectly placed to do so? I know this sounds critical, but mostly I felt like the book fell a little flat. It was interesting enough, but my expectations were higher than what was delivered.

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