Perceptive Travel - Officially a Woman in Mexico

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Officially a Woman in Mexico
By Stephanie Elizondo Griest



Stephanie Griest dives into the tradition of a blowout 15th birthday party in Mexico, where dancing, tequila, and a feast mark the transformation from girl to woman.

Mexican quinceañera

Victor's daughter Jumi is about to turn fifteen, which for a Mexican means one thing: quinceañera, or Serious Party. The kind worth crossing the border for, even if you have to hire a coyote to sneak back into the United States when it's over. Victor quit his job at a deli in Brooklyn to hurry home for the festivities. Since I'm already in Mexico, I've sworn to bear witness.  

I hop a bus and then a cab to Victor's. He is chatting with a primo at the foot of a hill. Out of apron and off of bicycle with no hefty cartons upon his shoulders, he looks rested and happy. It is his first time home in nearly five years. We warmly embrace, then walk up the hill and through a metal gate. A dozen people flock upon us with kisses. Victor leads me past some tree-chained dogs to a three-walled home serving as the quinceañera storage facility. Cases of beer and tequila are stacked five feet high and twelve feet wide alongside several hundred three-liter bottles of Coca Cola.

"How many people are coming tomorrow?" I gasp.

"Quien sabe," says his wife Judith. Who knows.

"Three or four hundred," Victor tries to be helpful. "Maybe even five hundred. Six hundred. We'll see."

I ask for their daughter, Jumi, but she's at a dance lesson. Do I want to go watch? I do, envisioning her waltzing with a gallant young man across a hardwood floor beneath the hawk eyes of an old lady in a hair bun. We walk to Salon Esmeralda, an open-air banquet hall with a cement floor and a sound stage at one end. A young woman runs toward me. It takes a moment to realize she is Jumi. Gone is the girl in the puppy-dog shirt I met a year ago. Grown and curved in all directions, she is wholly chola now, draped in a baggy T-shirt of Jesus Christ bloodied by thorns, camouflaged pants, hi-top sneakers, and silver hoop earrings. We hug and laugh until someone claps us to attention. A pony-tailed man in a leopard-patterned shirt strides across the floor. The dance instructor. "Places, places everyone," he exclaims, flailing his arms about. You could balance shot glasses on his cheekbones.

Jumi's dance partners are six of her (male) primos. One wears a Metallica T-shirt and dog collar studded with silver spikes; the others are clad in hip-hop gear, their boxer shorts peeking above their jeans. Collectively they are the caballeros—or gentlemen—of the festivities. They gather into formation as the dance instructor blasts Cher's "Believe" through the speakers and lowers himself into a thigh-defying squat. "Feel it, move it, BE IT!" he commands between sucks on a cigarette.

Judith and Victor beam as their daughter gyrates on the dance floor. Victor tries to snuggle as they exchange whispers but Judith nudges him away, giggling. After so many lonely nights, their reunion must be salty sweet.


The Party Preparations
The quinceañera court practices another full hour before the dance instructor releases them. We return home for dinner, after which it simultaneously occurs to everyone that we'll be feeding and liquoring up to 600 people tomorrow. We whirl into activity. Jumi and I tackle the geraniums amassed in Abuela's backyard, covering each plastic pot with aluminum foil. The tías crochet serapes for the tequila bottles while Judith stalks around with a hot glue gun and Victor and the caballeros lift heavy objects. First there are twenty of us and then there are thirty, all bustling about. The night grows warm but the wind keeps us cool. I retire to Jumi's bedroom - which we're sharing - around 1 a.m. The entire extended family waves goodnight from their workstations. When I return seven hours later, they are still there, wearing the same clothes and finishing up their projects. Dozens more boxes have arrived. One is filled with 500 shot glasses engraved with Jumi's name and "Mis Quince Años" (My Fifteen Years); another has 500 highball glasses. There are hundreds of monogrammed salsa pots, salt and pepper shakers, napkin holders, and tortilla covers, plus place settings featuring Jumi's name embedded in lace and netting. The beer and tequila, meanwhile, multiplied overnight and birthed two buckets of limes.

When Jumi awakes, I help her dress, pouring her into a corset. She steps into puddles of petticoats, then sits beneath an avocado tree as a stylist constructs wonder-curls in a halo around her head with bobbie pins and AquaNet. The caballeros dart in, decked out in uniforms modeled off the Spanish Conquest: long white double-breasted coats trimmed with gold braid, white gloves, swords, and soldier hats. "¡Jumi! We're going to be late." I grab her train and we rush out the gate. The whole barrio has gathered outside. They clap as we dash past. The caballeros cram into one car; Victor, Judith, Jumi, and I into the other.

The church is forty-five minutes away; Mass starts in thirty. The driver slams it. The giant pink bow on our car hood grants us the right-of-way: everyone honks in felicidades as we swerve past. At the church, the caballeros form an archway with their swords. Father and daughter duck beneath it as the mariachis play a joyous tune and everyone in the pews rises to their feet. Jumi kneels alone at the altar, clutching her fake calia lilies, until someone whispers to Victor and Judith that the seats beside her are theirs. They scramble forward.

The priest concludes Mass by asking Jumi for the name of her best friend.

"Mi mamá y mi papá," she replies.

"That's right, Jumi," he coos. "Your parents will always be there for you."

At that, he asks the three to stand and face the audience. Victor smiles not just with his lips but his eyes, his chest, his whole being. After a few photos, we roar back to Salon Esmeralda where several hundred people await in a salon magically transformed into a quinceañera banquet hall, complete with streamers and balloons. So many party favors and aluminum-covered flower pots cover the tables, the guests must crane their necks to see each other.


Tequila, Two Bands, and Security Guards
"Where are the security guards?" Judith hisses.

I stare at her blankly.

"There might be fights," she explains.

The tequila is another concern: they don't want to stack it on the bar "because people will steal it and drink it and then we'll really have problems." The driver offers her car. We stuff the cases inside.

"And the presents?" Victor whispers.

A caballero is stationed beside them.

Mexican danceMay the fiesta begin! The first of two bands saunters onto the stage in norteño chic (cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and rump-sculpting jeans) and fires up some cumbias. After slamming a few beers, couples of all ages and sizes take to the floor as the single, divorced, and widowed people look on. The only soloist dances with an open container of salsa balanced atop her head. We all watch, mesmerized, as she defies gravity and sense. "Qué loca," the tías whisper.

An hour before midnight, the house lights blacken and opera music blasts forth. The caballeros appear in a spotlight carrying an enormous blinking star. Jumi sits Indian-style inside of it. They lower her onto the dance floor, now ablaze with the light of twelve candelabras. Jumi tries to step out of the star gracefully but her petticoats intervene. The caballeros break her fall and somehow scoop her out. She strides across the floor with her head held high. We clap. Celine Dion belts out "Power of Love" as the court begins their recital, which primarily consists of the caballeros bowing on one knee whenever Jumi glides past.

Then the padrinos line up. One by one, they proffer gifts to Jumi upon a red velvet pillow: a tiara (which shows she is a princess before God), a bracelet (representing the unending circle of life), earrings (to hear the word of God), a Bible (to read it), a scepter (to symbolize the responsibility she has acquired as a new adult), and a four-inch pair of stiletto heels. She slips on the heels and tiara and looks around for her father so they can share a dance. He is nowhere to be seen. We chant his name to no avail. Finally, the house lights flicker on. Victor and Judith are spotted way in the back, guarding the bar. The dance instructor swiftly retrieves them.

When Victor takes his daughter into his arms, something stirs within me. Maybe it's the knowledge of what he - as an undocumented worker - sacrificed for tonight. Or the aesthetic of a father dancing with his little girl-turned-woman. Or the tequila I just shot. Whatever. Tears leak as I rise to my feet in applause. Others join me for a standing ovation. The moment is tender but brief: according to tradition, Jumi must now waltz with every adult on the premises. This takes over an hour, after which she breaks for the bathroom for a costume change. She and the caballeros return in hi-top sneakers and sideways baseball caps to perform the Kumbia King's techno-mariachi-hip-hop hit "Pachuco." The crowd goes wild as they shake their asses and pretend to shoot one another. For the encore (Cher's "Believe") Jumi pours back into her corset and a ruffled skirt that commences four inches beneath her pubic bone and ripples down the back. Strobe lights and disco smoke shroud the choreography, but no matter - here come the fireworks! The words "Mis Quince Años" shower the eight-tiered birthday cake with debris as the guests dart away, coughing.

tequilaAnd with that, my cost analysis of this event smashes through the roof. A journalist will later tell me that Mexican families traditionally spend the equivalent of three years of salary on their daughters' quinceañeras. In Victor terms, that is roughly 12,000 bicycle deliveries of 20,000 bagel-and-egg sandwiches prepared over a hot griddle 2,300 miles from home. And the man is still hustling, bringing his guests plates of food and bottles of beer as Judith trails behind. Never do I see them dancing or laughing or even sitting, opting instead to pass out party favors their guests are too blitzed to notice. I soon cease drinking altogether. It is like guzzling his sweat.

Victor could have spent this hard-earned money on any number of things. A college fund for Jumi. A small business. A car. Investments that could have shaped their future. He elected instead to give his daughter the spotlight, to elevate her status in the community. (No doubt, this also proved his worth as a father. He may have abandoned Jumi for seven years, but look at her now, a veritable princess!) Which would she have preferred, though: this one night - or all those missing years with him?
Yet Mexicans believe in the here and the now; they strive for the delectable moments of being. And tonight has been chock-full of them. Certainly, Victor's money could have been more wisely spent. But not more memorably. No girl ever forgets the night she became a woman.

By 3:30 a.m., most of the guests have straggled home. Salon Esmeralda is a train wreck, and la familia gets to clean it. This is no small order. We have been partying for 11 hours straight. Our heads are throbbing, our ears are ringing. The temperature has dropped thirty degrees. Victor hands over the house keys, nimble as a zombie. I search around for Jumi. She is sprawled across three chairs, wearing eight inches of skirt and heels. I help her up and we teeter into the street for a taxi. A passing drunkard does a double-take at Jumi. Though only half-conscious, she pulls up her rebozo.
"My quinceañera… is it over?" she mumbles.

"It's over," I reply. "Congratulations, Jumi. You're officially a woman."



© 2008 Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Excerpted from Mexican Enough by Stephanie Elizondo Griest published by Washington Square Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.



Stephanie Elizondo Griest has mingled with the Russian Mafiya, polished Chinese propaganda, and belly danced with Cuban rumba queens. These adventures inspired her award-winning memoirs Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana; Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines; and the guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go. As a National Correspondent for The Odyssey, she once drove 45,000 miles across America in a Honda hatchback named Bertha. She has won a Hodder Fellowship to Princeton, a Richard Margolis Award for Social Justice Reporting, and a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Prize. Visit her website at www.MexicanEnough.com.

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In the Offering: Two Sides of a Turkish Sacrifice by Jennifer Eaton Gökmen

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