Latina Traditions Remade in America

The commercial for the Saturn Vue offers a pithy indictment of our culture of bling in its slogan: "Rethink American. Rethink Excess." Ironic, perhaps, in an ad touting the virtues of a hybrid SUV, but it reflects a growing unease among us about how runaway consumption threatens to devour us whole.

Nowhere is this culture of greed run amok more conspicuously on display than on MTV's hit reality show My Super Sweet Sixteen. The series showcases all that is grotesque in status-obsessed parents today, but it also offers fair warning of the worse that is to come when their self-indulged progeny come of age. Consider 15-year-old Ava, who infamously threw a tantrum because her parents initially refused to buy her a Range Rover. If these children are our future, then the end of days is surely right around the corner.

The conspicuous displays on television are but extreme examples of a booming "coming of age" market that has marketing analysts salivating. Be it school proms, bar and bat mitzvahs or sweet sixteens, celebrating your child's (most often, your daughter's) entrance into adulthood has become big business. What was once a solemn rite of passage -- or at least a sweet moment of parental nostalgia and teenage excitement -- has turned into a spending extravaganza.

In such times, a book critiquing the commercialization of the quinceañera, a Latino tradition similar to the sweet sixteen, feels mandatory and inevitable. With a self-described mission to chronicle "how our traditions are remade in the USA, repackaged and sold back to us at a higher price," Julia Alvarez's Once Upon a Quinceañera offers the expected critique of commercialization, but she also points to the complex, contradictory and often bewildering relationships among tradition, materialism and identity.

The quinceañera is a lavish fiesta that marks a Latina girl's entry into womanhood, usually held on her fifteenth birthday. As with other such celebrations, these too have been supersized to epic proportions, with the average price tag running at $5,000 for a night of limousines, stylists, caterers and, of course, the overpriced, outsized princess dress.

The dollar amounts spent on the quinceañera are comparable to other sweet sixteen parties, but that kind of expense can represent a staggering financial burden for the average Latino family. Parents often save for years for this special night, sometimes dooming themselves to a lifetime of debt for one night of overindulgence. What can be dismissed as the cupidity of upper-middle-class wannabes on MTV looks like financial suicide for a typical working-class family in Queens.

But the extravagant quinceañera is about a lot more than keeping up with the Rodriguezes. "It's just something that comes to us from the past, that we want to give our children because it's something we never had," says unemployed carpenter Manuel Ramos in Alvarez's book, explaining his decision to spend $3,000-plus on his daughter Monica's quinceañera.

Yet there is little that is traditional or authentic about this re-created fragment of the past. The rites that mark Monica Ramos's passage into adulthood are a pastiche of elements borrowed from various traditions, old and new, a little bit Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican and even Walt Disney.

The fiesta is less about preserving an ancestral tradition than celebrating and affirming a Latino identity that simply didn't exist in the old country. The American version of the ritual was born of the quintessential immigrant desire to give the children what the parents were denied back in the home country -- in this case, an out-of-reach fantasy reserved for the daughters of the wealthy.

Much as we like to think of Mammon as a symbol of the rich, Alvarez reminds us that he "is the angel who before the fall is forever looking down on Heaven's golden pavement. He sounds familiar, like my papi, like so many immigrants who flee to el Norte in search of that country whose streets are paved with gold." The desire to climb the social ladder is sewn into the very fabric of the immigrant dream.

It's comforting to think that the hunger for upward mobility is reserved for the deluded, contemptible or pathetic, but materialism wears many faces. In Iran, for example, the Islamic revolution and its strict enforcement of the veil has fueled an enormous boom in cosmetic surgery. "It was an investment in feeling modern, in the midst of the seventh-century atmosphere the mullahs were trying to create. It assuaged so many urges at once -- to look better, to self-express, to show off that you could afford it, to appear Westernized," writes Azadeh Moaveni in Lipstick Jihad.

Materialism makes a poor antidote to fundamentalists, who seem just as eager to sample its delights. Once the ideological sword of the regime, the infamous Revolutionary Guard commanders now live in mansions, driving the very latest models of BMW or Mercedes Benz. The nose jobs, on the other hand, have done little to improve the rights of Iranian women.

Tradition can neither be preserved nor contested with the credit card. And spending lots of money for all the right reasons doesn't lead to the best of outcomes. As Alvarez points out, with nearly 22 percent of the Hispanic population living below poverty, working- class Latino parents are, in essence, throwing away money better spent on their daughter's future, which looks bleaker than ever for many young Latina girls, who have the highest teenage pregnancy and dropout rates (one in six are likely to attempt suicide). Surely one night of playing princess is poor compensation for a lifetime of despair.

And yet simply abandoning the quinceañera as a wasteful, retrograde fantasy is hardly an answer. At their core, underneath the layers of tawdry glitz and cheap symbolism, all coming-of-age rituals tap into a universal human need to mark an important moment for a teenager, her family and her community. "[It's] a desire to empower our young women, a need to ritually mark their passage into adulthood, remind them of their community and its past, and by doing so to give them and ourselves hope," writes Alvarez. We surely need more such rituals in a culture that increasingly values young women almost solely for their sexualized bodies.

What the commercialization of these rituals should force us to pay attention to is the steady colonization of our lives by market forces. The bratty suburban kids on MTV are no less lost than a young Latina girl in a world where the commodification of traditions coincides with the disintegration of the familial and communal relationships they are meant to evoke.

Corporate America loses no opportunity to transform traditions into selling opportunities, and communities into market segments, but we have also colluded in our own enslavement. Be it in Tehran, New York City or Beijing, consumerism has become our antidote of choice to alienation and displacement. In conflating value with a price tag, we've allowed every meaningful aspect of our twenty-first-century life -- identity, love, faith, even resistance to tyranny -- to be transformed into an empty imperative to spend, our most sacred rites performed at the cash register.

It is indeed time to rethink excess.

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