Coming of age in COVID times

Paulina Villegas

THE WASHINGTON POST – Marcela Guevara smiled as she swayed in a puffy red sequin dress across the dance floor of a Maryland event hall before dozens of guests cheering her on. It was the moment she had dreamt of since she was a little girl, and yet it hadn’t come like she’d expected.

The year leading up to her quinceañera party – a coming-of-age celebration of her 15th birthday to mark her transition from childhood into womanhood – had been a trying one. The pandemic meant no football practice or dance classes. School was entirely online. Missing her friends, she found herself struggling with depression and anxiety.

“Suddenly my entire life changed,” she said. “I could not focus on my online classes and didn’t want to do or see anyone.”

Her family weighed not having a party at all. But as vaccines became available, and life began returning somewhat to normal, they decided they could not let their daughter miss out on a cultural milestone

“This is it! I am no longer a girl, I am a jovencita now,” Marcela said, using the Spanish word for young woman, after dancing on a recent weekend with her guests.

Ashley Servin dances with her court during her quinceañera celebration. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Ashely Sevin holds a face mask during her quinceañera celebration

As social interactions were reduced to a minimum last year due to the pandemic, many teenagers missed out on experiences central to adolescence: high school graduations, prom dances and even the simple act of hanging out with friends.

But for some Latina teenagers, the coronavirus also meant losing the chance to experience one of the most significant events of their lives – becoming a young woman in the eyes of society and celebrating it with a grand party that is a hallmark tradition for Hispanic families in the United States (US) and throughout Latin America.

The coronavirus has affected Latino communities disproportionately. Hispanics have been at a higher risk of infection, hospitalisation and death from the virus than most other racial and ethnic groups in the US, according to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

At the same time, they have suffered more economic hardship than most American adults. According to a Pew Research Center study released in July, about half of the Latinos interviewed said they or someone close to them had lost a job or taken a pay cut since February of last year.

Like other big events, quinceañera celebrations more or less vanished last year. In 2021, organisers said there are still far fewer than normal, but they are slowly trickling back. Two aspects make the parties especially challenging to hold: Tradition dictates there should be dozens if not hundreds of people attending and families spend up to USD30,000 to host them, a big hurdle for those still reeling from the pandemic’s financial losses.

As in the past, many families are relying on extended relatives and friends to split the costs.

Some venues are refusing to host such large gatherings, noting the risk of coronavirus spread. Marcela, during her party, could not help worrying that someone would get sick, but two weeks later the family was unaware of any cases tied to their celebration.

“I was scared,” she said. “But it was important because, more than a party, it is a years-long tradition.”

“We did it,” Jose Wilfredo Medrano said as he watched his stepdaughter dance underneath neon purple lights. “After all the struggle and uncertainty, we made it.”

Medrano and his wife Hildaura Guevara, both originally from El Salvador, were as ecstatic as they were relieved that the highly anticipated celebration took place. For Marcela’s mother, the event was especially meaningful. Over a decade ago, she fled Central America to escape an abusive relationship, she said, leaving Marcela, then four, in her sister’s care.

It took six years of working double shifts at restaurants to save enough money to hire a smuggler to bring her daughter to the US in 2016. After being held for two months in an immigration detention centre, she made it safely and began a new life in Maryland.

Over the last five months, Hildaura Guevara worked as a cook in two restaurants without taking a day off to raise the USD20,000 needed for the party.

“It is an achievement for me to be able to demonstrate to other mums that you do not always need a man to achieve things, that you can be a woman and get things done, raise your children, work hard and give them a better life than the one you had,” she said.

She said she trusted most of the maskless guests at the party had been vaccinated.

On the dance floor, Marcela’s little cousin handed her a white stuffed bear – a visual representation of the childhood she is leaving behind. Then mother and daughter danced and embraced in tears.

At a recent party in Hamilton, Virignia, about 50 miles northwest of Washington, DC, Ashley Servin danced to the Butterfly Waltz before about 200 guests as six escorts dressed in sand-toned suits moved to the music around her. She and her parents – both immigrants from Mexico – said about 10 venues declined to host the party. Some dance halls had capacity limits of 80 people or refused to hold large events, noting the coronavirus surge in several Virginia counties since July.

“I feel really happy, it is a really special day,” Servin said, batting thick, Minnie Mouse-like eyelashes donned for the event. “I feel like a princess.”

Texas Woman’s University Associate Professor Azucena Verdín said the tradition is important not only for the birthday girl but also for her immediate and extended family, and the community as a whole, as cousins, padrinos, and close friends all participate.

“It allows them to show that even through recessions and pandemics, we can call on our family, and extended family, and come together, help each other and continue to honour our culture,” she said.

And for those who will not get chance to participate in the tradition and look back one day at this moment, “it can create an ambiguous loss and a sense of grief”, Verdín added.

At Servin’s event, a man with a thick mustache dressed in a mariachi suit entertained
the guests.

“Viva México!” he said, prompting cheers and applause.

After dinner was served, Ashley’s father Ricardo Servin removed the pink Vans she had worn to the party and replaced it with a pair of sand-coloured stilettos – in representation that she would walk back home that night as a young woman.

For some families, the tradition is so important that they are holding quinceañeras a year late, when their daughters are turning 16.

Jessenia Contreras, originally from El Salvador, started planning and saving money for her daughter’s party in 2018. In April of last year, everything was ready for the celebration: the venue, dress, music all chosen. But with short notice, the celebration had to be cancelled as a mysterious virus ravaged the country.

Her daughter Tania Torres was devastated.

Contreras later lost an aunt and a brother to the virus. Her daughter became unfocussed, apathetic and spent most of her time looking at videos on her phone.

“The whole experience deeply affected her,” the mother of five said. “Our daughters were just not prepared for something like this.”

And so Contreras prayed for things to get better and for the opportunity to throw a delayed quinceañera celebration this year. Several weeks ago, over 200 guests gathered in the DC suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland, and danced to bachata music.

For many teen Latinas, born in the US to migrant parents who fled poverty or violence, the quinceañera is also a chance to celebrate their success in an adopted country.

As a little girl born in central Mexico, Griselda Rubio, Ashley’s mother, dreamed she would one day get to wear a Cinderella-like dress and have a big party like many of her friends did. But her parents had to raise six siblings and could not afford it, she said.

As guests danced to salsa music last weekend, Ashley stared at her mother, who jubilantly
greeted guests.

“My mum did not get to have one,” she said.

“But she has it now.”