I’m writing this piece under the solemn gaze of a four-year-old girl who is waiting to show me the killer dance moves she has learned from watching Shakira. “Espérate,” I tell Valeria. Wait a while. Like about eleven more years, please.
Quincianeras are celebrated in Mexico when a young girl reaches fifteen years old. They mark an official passage into womanhood. For one day of her life she changes costumes more times than Cher, gets the kind of attention Miley Cyrus takes for granted, and her parents hire a band to play sentimental songs like “Turnaround” from the Kodak commercial. Larry and I were invited to a big quincianera this past weekend.
I think we scored tickets because the proud papa at first considered staging it in our RV park. There have been parties there before because it’s pretty, paved, and has plenty of bathrooms and electrical outlets. It’s also private and easily secured, a major consideration these days when Mexicans throw a big party. It was available because with travel advisories against driving in Mexico, we’re not getting a whole lot of business.
But Papa’s guest list grew and grew, and our little RV park was not big enough for a sit-down dinner for five hundred, a VIP lounge area, a dance floor and a twelve-piece band from Guadalajara. Papa eventually rented Hacienda La Peñita, a square city block studded with towering palms, and enclosed by high stonewalls. It’s dreamy beautiful, but in the whole place there is only one outside electric outlet and not one easily accessible bathroom. No problema. There’s not a lot you can’t accomplish in Mexico if you’ve got pesos. Papa hired a semi-truck with fancy built-in restrooms, and a substantial “gratuity” insured a direct hook-up to a nearby power pole. Within hours the Hacienda was transformed.
The invitation said a partir de las ocho. “If it begins at eight o’clock,” I thought,” leaving at nine will make us fashionably on time — according to Latin standards.” I am married to a man whose lights go dim before the evening news, so leaving for a party around nine in the evening was a major challenge for him, let alone putting on a tie. But just after nine, we approached the Hacienda slowly, very slowly, cruising for a parking place, subjecting our open, honest faces to the scrutiny of armed guards who were posted on all four sides of the party place. Papa greeted us, seemed overjoyed that we’d come, and led us to a table with the four other gringos in attendance. We were obviously early.
We also thought we’d scrubbed up pretty well, but we didn’t hold a candle to the glamour that surrounded us. My Mexican neighbor had counseled me about quincianera protocol. She told me to expect elegance — una noche de largas mantelas – literally, a night of long tablecloths. Party after party of the most beautiful and stylish people gradually populated the tables around us. Languidly, guests staked claim to white-shrouded tables — and stayed there. Maybe it’s just hard to mingle on a soft lawn when you’re wearing four-inch heels. It was honored-daughter, with her attendant court of young men and women, who promenaded from table to table, greeting guests, allowing plenty of time to take in the details of each others’ dress. The young men were seamless in their manners, their partners accepting their attentions with a grace engrained since kindergarten.
There were also lots of waiters, bearing lots of wine, lots of tequila, and eventually – wait for it, because we did — dinner rolls. I’d fed us a little something before going, but the combination of soft dinner music and growing hunger pangs were putting a glaze in Larry’s eyes. Soup was finally served about ten thirty, cream of corn with a hint of curry, but Larry gave up around eleven and took a cab home. The entrees arrived about twenty minutes later, a variety of coconut shrimp, filet mignon, and garlic-laced dorado with side salads of baby lettuces and blackberries. Just before midnight, an MC took the stage and announced that honored daughter had una sorpresita for us – a little surprise. Serve Larry right for leaving early. Not only did he miss the meal. He missed her belly dance, complete with appropriate drapery.
It was after midnight before the live band struck up with Latin rhythms that finally pried guests away from the long tablecloths and out onto the dance floor. There were trumpets, drums, choreography and vocals that rocked the neighborhood. The teen-age queen had yet another costume change, and when I left just before one, the lively part of the evening was just getting started.
Are the rhythms of Mexican life really that much different than those of their northern neighbors? Concerning party times, manners, and table service, yep, they are. But some things move at the same pace north or south of the border – like waiting forever for a grown up to finish what she’s doing, or watching a young girl grow up in the blink of an eye. I’m almost finished, Valeria. I’ll watch you dance. It will only be a moment, and then it will be — gone.