Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez

Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USAOnce Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

The quinceañera, the fifteenth birthday celebration for a Latina girl, is quickly becoming an American event. This legendary party is a sight to behold: lavish ball gowns, extravagant catered meals, DJs, limousines, and multi-tiered cakes. The must haves for a quince are becoming as numerous and costly as a prom or wedding. And yet, this elaborate ritual also hearkens back to traditions from native countries and communities, offering young Latinas a chance to connect with their heritage.

In Once Upon a Quinceañera, Julia Alvarez explores this celebration that brings a Latina girl into womanhood. She attends the quince of a young woman named Monica who lives in Queens, and witnesses the commotion, confusion, and potential for disaster that comes with planning this important event. Alvarez also weaves in interviews with other quince girls, her own memories of coming of age as an immigrant, and the history of the custom itself -how it originated and what has changed as Latinas become accustomed to a supersize American culture. Once Upon a Quinceañera is an enlightening, accessible, and entertaining portrait of contemporary Latino culture as well as a critical look at the rituals of coming of age and the economic and social consequences of the quince parties. Julia Alvarez’s dedicated fans will be eager to hear her thoughts on this topic. It is a great book for anyone interested in American youth today – parents, teachers, and teenagers themselves.

A few years back, Eva read and reviewed this book and inspired me to buy it. And it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I am not sure what finally pushed me to read it but I finally did, and I was rewarded by that decision by an excellent look at a cultural ritual that is quickly becoming as mainstream as weddings and funerals.

What I really liked about this book was how it was a mixture of journalism, cultural analysis, and it had a memoir feel at times as well. Alvarez digs deep into the historical significance and modern execution of quinceaneras while at the same time reflecting on her own childhood and experiences growing up Latina in the US.

She tries really hard not to get too judgmental about Latino parents who give their daughters elaborate, expensive parties they clearly can’t afford, although she doesn’t quite get there. It’s obvious to any reader just how silly Alvarez thinks it is to spend fifteen thousand dollars on a party when there is no money saved for that child’s college education (and I happen to agree). But besides that, she really gets involved with these families and gets to know these girls, way beyond just learning about their fifteenth birthday parties. Her analysis and feelings about these celebrations are clearly influenced by how close she got with some of the families, and she put significant effort into not showing any one person or family in a negative light.

While Alvarez shares her own thoughts and opinions about the quinceanera, she leaves things really open for the reader to make his/her own interpretations and conclusions. The book is mainly a look at how the quinceanera celebration is just one manifestation of Latino culture meeting American culture and the many different Latino cultures influencing and changing each other (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, etc.).

I really liked this one and I mostly appreciate the fact that it’s about a topic I wouldn’t have chosen to read on my own, without the subtle influence of a more cultured and well-read friend. (Thanks Eva!) I think it’s important to open oneself up to reading about and experiencing cultures other than your own, and I’m glad I did that with Once Upon a Quinceanera. Highly recommended!


9 thoughts on “Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez”

    1. I KNOW! Although it’s not that different from the wedding industry – people paying thousands for a wedding and then not having money for a down payment on a home. I think it’s crazy in both cases.

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one! Although you’re too kind in your words about me. 🙂

    You know, having now watched my sister plan a wedding, I think it’s almost a normative process. Like, spending $2,000 on a dress suddenly doesn’t seem like much, since there are $5K and $10K dresses out there. *shudder* And the businesses are more than happy to upcharge as much as possible, all the while saying “you deserve the best, it’s your special day, etc”. It’s a creepy thing to watch.

    1. It’s TOTALLY creepy. I sometimes watch “Say Yes to the Dress” which is basically an awful show about extravagance beyond belief BUT it can be entertaining. Personally I didn’t have a wedding – we had money set aside for something, and chose to use it as a down payment for a house. We had a courthouse wedding and a very inexpensive party afterwords. And look – my marriage is still happy almost seven years later! So glad I didn’t waste money on that (No offense to your sister of course!!!).

  2. I’ve been meaning to read something by Alvarez for years and didn’t realize she dabbled in nonfiction. I would find this one fascinating. Quinceaneras are big down here and everytime we go to the Dallas Arboretum we see the girls in their GORGEOUS dresses. It’s frightening enough to think about how much a wedding costs these days…I can imagine it would be tough not to look at the Quinceaneras without that in mind.

    1. YES I’ve been eyeing her fiction for years too! I would definitely recommend picking this up, especially if you live in a place where there are a lot of Quinceaneras. It’s fascinating stuff, really.

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