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The Boston Globe

'La Plaza' Celebrates Coming-Of-Age

By Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff

January 7, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Boston Globe. All rights reserved. 

For Vanessa Santiago's 15th birthday last July, her mother Rosa used a mortgage payment to help throw her an extravagant party in Brockton.

There was a horse-drawn carriage, limousines, a ball gown, and a banquet for 180 friends and family members.

All of the festivities were part of the coming-of-age celebration called Quince Anos, a tradition in the Latino community in which 15- year-old girls, and sometimes boys, are feted in an elaborate cotillion-style ceremony.

"I had one. My sister had one. I had one for my two boys, too," Rosa says through a translator. "The ceremony signifies that a child is passing into adulthood."

Tonight at 7:30, in the fascinating documentary "Sweet 15," WGBH- TV (Channel 2) explores this tradition through the eyes of Rosa Santiago, a single mother of four who - in her own words - "went crazy" trying to coordinate the $8,000 gala.

The show is the premiere of the 25th season of "La Plaza," the only nationally distributed public television series focused on Latinos.

"Most people know about bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs," says Angelica Allende Brisk, producer and director of "Sweet 15." "But even I didn't know about Quince Anos growing up, and I'm Latina. I think it was dying out as a tradition but it has come back."

The practice of Quince Anos dates back to at least the mid- 1500s, Brisk says, when Spaniards came to the Americas and mixed their royal court traditions with the coming-of-age ceremonies of the locals.

Today, quinceaneras or 15-year-olds, are widely celebrated in some parts of Latin America, such as Puerto Rico and Mexico, but not as commonly in other countries, such as Argentina and Chile, says Brisk.

Although states such as Texas and California have seen Quince Anos for years, New England is seeing more of the celebrations as its Latino population swells, she adds.

"Going into the film, I had no sentimental feelings about Quince Anos because I had never experienced one," Brisk says. "Now that I see how important it is, I hope my daughters, 7 and 4, choose to have one."

"Sweet 15" begins with Rosa in the final stages of planning the party. She has saved money for the event since Vanessa was born, and her family has also contributed. In addition, visitors to her house have dropped change in a piggy bank for three years, yielding the $1,500 which paid for Vanessa's "dream" gown. Still, money is tight because Rosa, a bus driver, has been unemployed for six months.

With just two weeks to go, Rosa is dealt another blow when the priest at her church refuses to bless her daughter in the traditional ceremony. Her parish administrator tells her the official reason is because Vanessa isn't enrolled in religious education classes.

Although surprised, Rosa isn't alone. There is a growing resistance to Quince Anos among some priests in Latino-Catholic communities nationwide, the documentary says, because the role of religion in the ceremony is questionable.

"Where is the role of the church in that?" the Rev. William Francis says in the documentary. Francis is a priest at the Church of the Holy Family in Dorchester.

Complicating matters, the function hall Rosa has reserved for her reception goes out of business. With just days left to find a new hall and caterer, Rosa goes into a frenzy, recruiting friends and family to cook.

"I had so many problems!" Rosa says. "I kept thinking, `What am I going to do?' I was really hoping to be able to give this to Vanessa."

Brisk, who found the Santiago family after talking to numerous dressmakers in the Boston area, said she witnessed an entire community come together at that point.

"The women started cooking at 3 a.m. the day of the Quince Anos. There were pots on stoves all over the city of Brockton. Guests came in with big platters of stuff," she says. "The film is really a universal immigrant story of a mom wanting more for her child. I think Rosa has very big hopes. She wants Vanessa to have an easier time than she has had."

In the end, the event is a success. The Santiagos find a church and Vanessa breaks down in tears during the service after promising to be more mature.

"She's talking about wanting to be a doctor or a nurse or a lawyer now," says Rosa. "She has a lot of dreams. We'll see what happens. You never know."

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