Excerpted from Fifteen Candles 15 Tales of Taffeta, Hairspray, Drunk Uncles, and other Quinceañera Stories, edited by Adriana Lopez.
In some ways, Cynthia’s quince was the closest thing to a quince that I would ever have. There were going to be cameras, a live band, and we were going to be performing for an audience. All that decadence, when we were all scrounging for pennies. It was a big deal for everyone. My mother could never afford a party like Cynthia’s; I wouldn’t even think of asking her for one. Years later I learned that Cynthia’s family couldn’t afford it either. Her father took a loan against his bodega just to please his daughter.
Cynthia was her father’s princess. And perhaps in his mind that made him the neighborhood king. He owned a bodega. People depended on him. He gave people food on credit. And unlike many of us, Cynthia had a father that stuck around. None of us had any idea what her everyday thoughts and desires were because she kept to herself. The few exchanges I had with her were when she asked for money or said what we should or shouldn’t do at her quince. “Mi quince” was how she referred to it. “Mi fiesta.” And we were her backup, doing everything we could to make her look better. Besides, Yoyo and I were little girls in Cynthia’s eyes. In a few weeks she would be a young woman. And she did look a lot different than us. Even with those few months she had on us in age, she looked more experienced, more mature.
Cynthia was pretty in a Barbie-esque way. She had a long black mane that she proudly called “pelo bueno”. Not like my hair, that was “pelo malo” or “pelo vivo.” She parted her thick and shiny mane to one side and a big swooping wave framed her face. It bounced and moved around her in the most perfect way. And her skin was pale with white fuzz around her cheeks, as if she had never seen the sun before in her life. She had long black eyelashes that she constantly extended with Maybelline mascara, so she always looked bright-eyed.
Jewel, the choreographer, took her job seriously. She gave us a diet: no sugar, no bread, no rice. Then a uniform: We should wear black to rehearsals so we would look like a team. I hid the Dunkin’ Donuts uniform deep down in my bag. Saturday rehearsals were all day and I told my manager at work I had family business every Saturday until the quince. I took the risk that my mother wouldn’t go to check in on me. She was the type to do that. She always assumed that I was lying or doing something behind her back. That’s what America did to good girls like her daughter. And she was right, I was lying to her.
When I saw her in the evenings, and she greeted me as if I were the good daughter arriving home from a long day’s work, I felt terrible betraying her. But at the time I thought she would never understand. Besides it wasn’t like I was doing anything bad. Just learning some cool dance moves; gyrating like Madonna, moon-walking like Michael Jackson.
The choreographer’s plan was that Cynthia would strut into the room to a condensed version of Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way,” when it would suddenly mix into “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. This was when us kids in the court were supposed to go from strutting to some sort of waltz to a short step dance, with some very synchronized clapping and stomping action. Then we’d go back to bumping to some house music and then all formal again for our folkloric merengue number. It was an old-style merengue where the men bowed and the girls curtsied. All this would eventually lead into Wham’s “Careless Whisper.”
That’s when we would all come together. Our bodies huddled, building a large human cocoon. Cynthia would be hiding in our circle crouched low and we would then open up and she would lift herself slowly like a flower blooming and look around to find her father, who would then walk her around the room to look at all the guys waiting to dance with her while he watched his little girl leave him and become a woman.