Hispanic girls connect with their heritage through Quinceanera

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2004

NAMPA, Idaho The pastel dresses were altered and carefully pressed, and the wax flowers were twisted into delicate coronas. The dance had been choreographed, the invitations sent and hours of practice ensured everything would run smoothly.

There was nothing left for 14-year-old Yvette Garcia and nearly 40 other young teens to do but anticipate the start of their Quinceanera Gala.

''I'm excited but I'm nervous about not speaking loud enough or rushing through it,'' Garcia said a few days before the event. ''I'm still practicing, and I think it's going to be fun.''

Historically, quinceanera celebrations marked a daughter's 15th birthday and signified she was ready for marriage. But Graciela Fonseca and others with the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho have turned the event into something much more.

''It's a really important time in a young person's life to become more productive in staying in school and going on to college,'' said Fonseca, who helps run the program. ''So with the traditions, we do training as to life skills and a little bit of theater and arts and cultural training.''

The Stay-in-School Quinceanera Program, open to middle school boys and girls, culminates with the gala, when students wearing tuxedos and gowns dance an elaborate waltz, read original poetry and perform stylized theater before an audience of parents and friends.

Garcia, like many of her Hispanic friends, will have an individual quinceanera celebration in October when she turns 15. But her mother encouraged Garcia to take part in the program as well after learning about it through her school.

''At first I was thinking to quit the program because I was embarrassed because I didn't know all the people around me. But my mom cheered me on and told me don't quit, because it was worth my time. Now I thank her for it,'' Garcia said.

In the program, the East Valley Middle School student learned about the struggles of teen pregnancy and the dangers of dropping out. The students discussed culture and respect, and experimented with expressing themselves through writing and art.

''It makes me feel that I could do whatever I want if I put my mind into it,'' Garcia said. ''It makes me respect myself more and don't put myself down as much. The guys learned to be more respectful of women too, and that gang colors don't really matter.''

Jorje Pena, the center's executive director, turns every possible moment with the teens into a lesson on respect. Rather than being bored or defiant, the students have blossomed under his high-discipline approach.

''They're all in their shell right now, and it helps them get out of their shell, build confidence. In the process, they get to know their culture,'' Pena said. ''They learn to be part of the community and to protect the community, and that's what the quinceanera is all about.''

The youth are drawn to the program because they know it will prepare them for their individual quinceaneras, said Lisa Sanchez, a writing instructor with the program. In some regions, quinceanera celebrations can be as elaborate as a wedding, with special church services, engraved invitations, live music and catering.

''It's an indigenous tradition that over the years had a European influence, and the big dresses and a special mass were added, with a court of 14 best friends and escorts,'' said Sanchez. ''The community all comes together to sponsor the cake, the food, the music. If I asked you to pay for a quinceanera cake, you would be honored and become a co-madre or co-mother to this child because it's an elevated level of friendship.''

But besides being readied for one big day, Sanchez said, the center's program prepares the teens to become responsible, productive adults.

''There are so many challenges growing up Hispanic, and a lot of them are systemic. This is a chance for them to say, 'I come from a really great culture and this is an asset, not something to overcome,''' she said.

Garcia said she's simply come to understand that what is fun is not always what is best.

''I feel like I'm learning that I can't always do what's fun, but have to take care of business and commitments first,'' she said. ''There's time to hang out later.''

And the work pays off. The teens all wrote poetry for the gala, and Sanchez compiled their efforts into four composite readings. Garcia was picked to read the final lines in a poem titled ''Gracias.''

''I want to put meaning into my voice because I can relate to those lines,'' she said. The poem describes things the teens are grateful for using a series of vignettes. Garcia's lines portray a grandfather bringing his wife a cup of coffee as they sit on the porch, watching the sun set.

''I'm excited to do the speaking,'' she added.

Most importantly, Medina said, her daughter has set goals for the future.

''In the Hispanic culture, we have the highest dropout rate. And before she was talking about she might not graduate high school,'' Medina said. ''Now she's decided she will. The program puts kids on the right track.''

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