Bookmarks Issue: 

Coming of Age in the USA

A-Once Upon a QuinceaneraOnce, the quinceañera marked a noble girl’s passage to adulthood and her availability for possible marriage. The tradition, which dates back to Aztec culture, was carried northward with the migration of Latin culture. Once across the border, the ceremony became something of a status symbol, with families spending astronomical sums on the pink dresses, DJs, limousines, and high heels that now mark these Latina girls’ 15th-birthday celebrations. Drawing on her own experience as an adolescent immigrant to the United States, novelist Julia Alvarez argues that the quinceañera is an invented tradition that unites a community, while weighing the advantages and dangers of the shifting cultural importance of the quince.
Viking. 278 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 06700387333

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s Alvarez’s novelistic eye that also makes it an intimate, intoxicating read. All her sociological points are wrapped around stories: the story of how Monica Ramos celebrated her Disney-themed quince while her father was out of a job, the story of how Enrique Muñoz makes a living photographing quinceañeras in Miami, the story of how Alvarez herself came of age with no quinceañera at all." Marcela Valdes

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Alvarez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and a novelist, works with an abundance of contradictions in this convincing book that is part cultural investigation and part memoir." Carolyn Alessio

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Alvarez forces the reader to consider the negative consequences of outdated rituals and traditions that foster unhealthy narratives for young girls to embrace. She fantasizes about how these festivals could be updated or modernized to offer today’s young Latinas viable and optimistic alternatives to the script that is in place." Elaine Margolin

Milwaukee Jrnl-Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ultimately, Alvarez remains divided: between the pragmatic intellectual feminist who rejects the quinceañera as merely another indulgence of a patriarchal, materialistic society and the romantic seduced by idea that the ritual reconnects these vulnerable girls with their culture." Edward Nawotka

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Despite numerous interviews with experts and citations to nearly every book and article she could dig up about quinceañeras, Alvarez doesn’t quite come to a conclusion about the tradition." Luz Lazo

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Alvarez’s intent seems to be to endow the quinceañera with larger meaning, to help us see it as a symbol of the uneasy passage of Hispanic teens—and by extension, all teens—into adulthood. But that ambitious goal gets lost somewhere in the layers of the multitiered pink tulle gowns." Marjorie Kehe

Critical Summary

Best-known for her best-selling novels How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and ¡Yo!, Julia Alvarez draws on her past to create a hybrid sociological study, memoir, and cultural critique. Reviewers praise her open-minded exploration of this treasured fairy-tale ritual, but they note Alvarez’s mixed feelings about quinceañeras. Do they bring immigrant families closer together and provide a valuable cultural reference point? Or is the excessive cost too burdensome on families, especially considering that the money could be spent on higher education instead? Alvarez’s lively bits of family history illuminate the challenges of the immigrant experience, and while she doesn’t reach any firm conclusions, she raises many questions worth asking.