Sweet Sixteen is a rite of passage for many a young girl here in the United States. I’m not sure exactly how it came to be, but for whatever reason a girl turning 16 is a big deal that’s celebrated in oftentimes elaborate and extravagant ways. In Latin American countries, all of that showy celebration is much the same, only there the magic age is 15.
My First Quinciniera
Being a teacher of English as a Second Language, I’ve had several young girls celebrate their Quinciniera during the time they’ve been in my classroom, and until a couple of years ago I’d always wondered what it was all about. Part of the reason I am an ESL teacher is that I am always interested in the cultural aspects of other countries and a Quinciniera had always piqued my interest. In the summer of 2009, one of my students was celebrating her Quinciniera and I had the opportunity to see what it was all about, only this one turned out to be no ordinary “Sweet Fifteen.”
The big party had been planned for months in advance, with flashy pink invitations and dress shopping, song selection and the like. Yesenia, the guest of honor had been talking about it all along and when she handed me my invitation I was honored. The only thing was that the grand celebration was on the 4th of July, which kinda stunk because I always went to Cherry Grove with my friends on the 4th and being that it was a Saturday, it was going to be especially good.
The party was to begin at 5 P.M., which was actually good because I figured I’d come and watch the ceremony, eat a little Salvadoran food, pupusas, tamales and such, and head on out to meet my friends at the ferry in plenty of time. I showered and dressed for the party and made it out to Yesenia’s church in Riverhead, where the Quinciniera would take place.
Trouble from the get-go!
When I arrived at the church, I immediately realized that I was way underdressed. I had worn simple khakis and a button down shirt, but by the looks of the few young men gathered by the front door, I was badly unprepared. Each of them were dressed to the nines, most of them in suits, some in tuxedos. Since I was far from home there was no turning back, I just straightened myself up and headed for the door.
The temperature inside of the church was sweltering, and there was hardly anybody inside. It was very close to the 5 P.M. start time, so I was a little surprised. I sat in one of the rows towards the back and waited, and sweated… Within a few minutes, a fellow teacher came in and sat beside me. Kathy was Yesenia’s Spanish teacher and she was the only other faculty member invited to the shindig. I was thankful I wouldn’t have to deal with this all by myself, especially since my Spanish isn’t all that great.
Kathy and I sat chatting and fanning ourselves for almost an hour as people slowly, but surely, made their way into the church. Most of the people were also dressed in formal wear, more suits and tuxes, and evening gowns, as well. Others not so much. Everywhere the eye turned was the color pink! The ends of each row were adorned in pink ribbons and bows. There was a pink carpet rolled along the center aisle, and a giant wicker chair sat in front of the altar bedecked in more pink. My eyes were beginning to hurt.
By 6:30 the crowd, which had grown to fill virtually every row in the church, was beginning to get restless. My restlessness grew, too, as I kept an eye on my watch. I was supposed to meet my friends at the ferry by 8:30 and the ride to Sayville was at least a half an hour away. Kathy went out towards the front to find out what was going on. She hadn’t planned on spending the whole night there either.
“They forgot the shoes back in Southold,” Kathy said as she returned to her seat.
Apparently, “the shoes” are a very important prop in the Quinciniera ceremony and someone left it back at the house in Southold, which was also a half-hour’s ride from the church. Another twenty minutes or so later, the shoe arrived and the grand Quinciniera ceremony was finally about to start.
“Gloria Jesu!” A woman beside me rose from her seat, arms raised to the ceiling. I tried not to look, but I couldn’t help myself. I kinda sorta giggled to myself and gave Kathy the eye. Music started playing, and a gentleman up front began to sing as everyone got up from their seats and turned towards the front door to the foyer of the building.
“Gloria Jesu!” Another woman shouted. “Gracias a Dios!” I forgot to mention…this was an evangelical church!
Suddenly the double doors swung open and the long procession began. In all, about forty kids, boys in tuxedos and girls in pink, frilly dresses, entered the aisle towards the center of the church, and stopped to line up on either side. It was like a giant, fancy, pink wedding! Once all the boys and girls were in place, the doors closed once again and the music changed to a new song.
“Gloria Jesu!” Yet another woman shouted out. Several more responded with more “Gloria Jesu’s!” I felt like I was on Mars!
Once again the doors swung open and there was Yesenia, in the pinkest and frilliest dress I’d ever seen, shaking like a leaf, but smiling. She slowly, and shakily, walked down the aisle as the cameras flashed like crazy. Once she’d made it to the front, one of her ‘bridesmaids’ lifted her dress to help her get into her seat at the giant wicker chair. The ceremony had just begun, and it was already almost 7:15.
Becoming a Woman
A female pastor spoke for what seemed like an eternity, entirely in Spanish, and so fast that I could hardly make out what she was saying. Yesenia sat there, still shaking, gripping onto the arms of the wicker chair for dear life and trying to smile. Finally, her dad was called up to the altar and her little brother followed behind him carrying a pillow (pink, of course!) with two white, high-heeled pumps sitting atop.
The actual ceremony took all of five minutes, with the dad removing Yesenia’s plain, white flats and placing the ‘womanly’ high heels upon her feet. She was now a woman, and finally now I’d get to eat and then flee to catch my ferry. It was 7:30!
After the photo ops were exhausted and a few more “Gloria Jesu’s” shouted out, the pastor came to the altar again and started to speak. I thought she was wrapping up the show, but instead she was actually introducing a pair of brothers who were going to sing a song just for the newly shoed woman. One song turned into four and by then I gave up! I realized that I wasn’t going to make my ferry and it didn’t matter at that point. I just needed to get out of there, cool off and eat something.
I handed my gift card to Kathy to give to Yesenia, turned and bowed (I felt like I needed to bow for some reason) and bolted outta there, headed for the nearest 7-Eleven for a hot dog. I called my friend Rich, who had decided to stick it out with me at home, and we met at my house where we watched the fireworks, ate some chips and laughed as I told the story of my strangest of nights.
I only hope the next Quinciniera is not on the 4th of July, and I hope it’s not in an evangelical church either. Oh, and I hope that next time they remember the shoe! Gloria Jesu!