Fifteen, Already

A father, a daughter and the cross-cultural adventure of the quinceañera

My 15-year-old daughter is in the passenger seat beside me as I drive on Boulder Highway one recent Saturday afternoon and hesitantly enter the parking lot of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Henderson where my wife and I were married. We both are silent, cautious and curious about the small crowd that has gathered in the lot. We don’t want to be discovered but we want to see the small groups of men, women and children standing around in the bright sunlight. Who are they? How are they dressed? Who’s talking to whom? We feel like intruders, somehow. We drive on.

We drive north on Boulder Highway, past Lake Mead Parkway, past Warm Springs Road, past even Sunset Road. We don’t say much. Are we running away from something? Are we hesitant to confront a reality? Maybe—or perhaps it’s just that we’re 15 minutes early and killing time.

I pull a U-turn and my daughter wonders about its legality. We head back toward that church parking lot, back to the reason those people had gathered: the Mass in celebration of my daughter’s quinceañera.

• • •

Among the regrets in life that somehow pile up as we grow older: I took French rather than Spanish at the San Diego high school I attended. It was my worst class, the one in which I struggled to get C’s in an otherwise distinguished academic career, and I still don’t have a handle on either foreign language. Certainly not among the regrets in life is marrying a Henderson woman, born of Mexican immigrants, and having two beautiful daughters, the older of whom turned 15 in March, both of whom speak Spanish fluently.

For years, my wife spoke of throwing a quinceañera for our daughters—an elaborate party, traditional in Latin culture, to celebrate the transition from childhood to young womanhood. A quinceañera is not a sacrament in the Catholic Church like Confirmation, but it includes a formal Mass and a call to accept more responsibility.

Preparations for the reception began in earnest last fall when we shopped around for an appropriate room. We finally selected the Boulder Creek Golf Club—exotic enough for our purposes, yet convenient enough for most of our Henderson friends and family.

Besides, it included a round of golf for family members.

My wife took the lead; my role was like the U.S. Senate’s power on treaties: advise and consent. My daughter tried on the dress my wife wore 25 years ago for her quinceañera and, with a few alterations, it fit beautifully. Julia’s eyes sparkled when she wore it for the first time, and I have to admit my eyes were a bit damp.

We visited Moscatels—a mammoth craft store that melds Costco and Michael’s—in downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District several times for décor ideas and the materials to make our own table decorations. Endless aisles of ribbons, acrylic paints, candles, frames, moss, fabrics, wire, silk flowers, vases and seemingly infinite shapes and sizes of Styrofoam mesmerized us. Who would have thought the world needed ribbons in so many shades of raspberry? Then there was final selection of the menu, the color scheme, invitations, arrangements for the church services including the music, the cake, the DJ, the photographer. All the trappings you’d expect for a wedding ceremony. We looked into adding chocolate and cheese fountains, but stopped ourselves just in time.

• • •

After our walk down the aisle, we listen to the priest’s message. My daughter prays to dedicate herself to live the Word of God in unselfish service. Her godparents present a Rosary and Bible to her. She kneels before Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the strains of “Ave Maria” fill the church.

I lead Julia in a dance to begin the fiesta and later give a toast. I thank those who attended, some of whom had come from as far away as Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora, and Mexico City, and those family members whose contributions helped us make it a special day for our daughter. But most of all, it was a toast to Julia, how she fills her mom and me with pride.

Images nuanced and robust still fill my head from that night: A tireless caricature artist, somehow making my brother-in-law look, for a moment, like President Obama; one of Julia’s girlfriends singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” theatrically and at the top of her lungs in karaoke; and the gallantry of a young man, one of Julia’s oldest friends, who stepped out to dance with her after she completed her spins with me.

• • •

For all the talk of cultural fragmentation, the U.S. really does remain a melting pot, in which distinct cultural identities are inevitably blurred. But happy events such as weddings—when my family polkas could be played alongside mariachis—and quinceañeras remind us that we can be Americans and still honor our cultural roots; that we can be individuals and still feel ourselves part of larger traditions that bridge space and time.

My wife and I know that we’ll never forget this day of connectedness and celebration. And if everything falls perfectly in place, we’ll have finished payments on the party before we start saving for the next one, my younger daughter’s quinceañera, in 2013.

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