Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 14, 2006

Sweet 15

When we entered Seven Dolors Catholic Church earlier this month, my eyes were drawn to Ashley and her mother who were dressed entirely in white - Ashley with a floor-length sleeveless gown, her mother with a street-length dress. Ashley's hair was swept up on top of her head. The two were quietly conferring about some aspect of the upcoming ceremony.

"Wow!" I thought. "Ashley seems to have gone from a little girl to a young woman overnight!"

Although we have been neighbors with Ashley's family for years, the person responsible for connecting our families was Roy, who was the school bus driver for many years. He separated Katie from another friend because they were always getting into mischief. He seated Katie with Ashley and they have been sharing school bus rides and birthday parties ever since, despite the girls being two years apart in school.

It was the first quinceañero mass for Art, Katie and me. The quinceañero or "quince" is a traditional "coming of age" party for Latina girls when they reach their 15th birthday.

The ceremony embraces religious traditions and the virtues of family and social responsibility and is similar to other cultural initiation rites of passage throughout the world. Fifteen was the age when many women left their family home to become wives and then mothers. The girl enters the ceremony as a child, but emerges as a young woman with new responsibilities. Perhaps the closest equivalents in the English-speaking world are the "sweet 16" birthday or, in more affluent communities, a debutante ball at the age of 18.

The quinceañero can be a lavish affair, almost as elaborate as a wedding. The girl may have as many as 15 attendants, all dressed in ball gowns, and she may choose to have her party in a ballroom or reception hall decorated from top to bottom with flowers and streamers. The food can range from light appetizers to fancy meals, complete with chocolate fountains for dipping fruit and cake.

I have read of these celebrations and heard about them from my sister Gaila, who lives in Bolivia and has attended a few. In January 2004, Mom, the girls and I traveled to Bolivia to celebrate my niece Gabriela's "quince." Her parents recognized Gabriela's passage by putting flowers on the altar of the family's church. But rather than having a big party for her, they offered her the opportunity to take a trip at a later date. Gabriela was more than happy to accept that offer and so, her 15th birthday was a bit more typical of any teenager's with pizza, an afternoon at the movies and ice cream and cake with family members and a few close friends.

As Ashley's service began, she followed the priest down the aisle, accompanied by her parents, two younger brothers, godparents and other relatives and friends.

The mass was a Lenten service made even more special by the addition of Ashley's quinceañero celebration. She renewed her baptismal vows, and her family and friends promised to continue to support her in her adult life. She received a crown, a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe, earrings, a rosary and prayer book, a golden chain and a crucifix - all signs of loyalty and commitment to God, family and the community.

The celebration ended with a reception in the church basement. Ashley danced with her father and thanked everyone for sharing this event with her. Afterward, everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to her in English and Spanish.

We felt honored to be invited to the sweet and simple celebration for Ashley's sweet 15.

As we left, I thought about how there will be many more years of parenting ahead for Carmen and husband Andy, but the "quince" means that the days of shaping the little girl are over and guiding the young woman have begun.

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