A girl only turns fifteen once, so we figured we would do it up right. We did, too. Violeta rushed around for two weeks negotiating for music and food and I invited everybody who needed to be invited and wrote lists of things everywhere and lost them, and Natalia, in the final throes of her fourteenth year, looked nervous. She had never had a monster party thrown in her honor. I guess it would weigh on anyone.
A quinceaños is something like a debutante shindig in the States. Among the over-moneyed they can cost $15,000 without effort, though we spent a tenth of that and Natalia seemed to be just as fifteen when we got through. There’s a lot of ceremony involved, or supposed to be. The quinceañera — i.e., Natalia — is supposed to begin the evening in flat shoes and then the father, for practical purposes me, replaces them with high heels to signify that she is now a woman. It seemed too complicated, so we dispensed with it. Besides, you can’t dance on grass in heels. Unless you want to stay in one place.
Instead we put up a pavilion in the back yard for the kids and the music people came in with huge speakers and two hundred CDs and a deejay. The adults got another pavilion on the mirador, the rooftop patio. The beer company supplied tables and chairs. Vi bought a long ton of shrimp which in the heat of battle we forgot and so we ate shrimp for three days afterwards.
Natalia looked nervous some more and went off to Elisa’s to get gussied up. It’s what girls do, and a good thing too. It’s especially important when they are about to be fifteen. Elisa is the Mexican wife of my friend Larry. She could organize the Normandy landing with the left side of her brain, run IBM with the right, and apply makeup to a quinceañera with the interstices. If you want a complicated party, you need to talk to Elisa. Or if you want the UN actually to work.
People began to trickle in at five. Vi was in a mild frenzy. I surveyed the proceedings with what I hoped was serene masculine confidence. Actually I was sure an unseasonable rainstorm would break out, the temperature drop into the thirties, and the roof collapse from the weight of the guests.
In Mexico “five o’clock” is another way of saying, “six-thirty.” This works well if you know about it. Not everybody does, so parties get front-loaded with gringos. Tom the Robot came in from Chapala, down the lake a ways, and John, who was in the Pacific in WWII and has turned himself into a superb photographer, and Jim Coyne from the wild old days at Soldier of Fortune and, well, so on. We went up on the roof and drank good things while the mountains turned dark and the lake turned silver and the Mexican kids drifted in and Natalia came back.
To say that she looked nice would be like saying that Godzilla was, like, big. I’m not sure she quite understood that at these things the adults arrive with presents for the central young lady. She was delighted to find a mound of books and blouses and things, and then headed for the yard, now full of kids. The music started and she looked deliriously happy.
It’s working, I thought.
I tried to imagine what it must be like to be a young Mexican girl, and couldn’t. It didn’t matter, since she was the one doing it, and seemed to have it under control. It was hard enough remembering what it was like to be an American boy of fifteen in the countryside of Virginia. A recollection of desperately unwanted innocence was there, and a lot of adventures, some of them lawful. But it was hard to remember not knowing the vast number of things I didn’t know then. You had better be sure when getting rid of innocence, because you can’t get it back. (That’s, you know, like profound.)
Adriana Perez Flores, my immigrations attorney, arrived with her husband Kevin and their two small boys, Marshall and Dillon. (Honest.) Or perhaps Dylan, now that I think about it. They ended up in the yard watching the adolescents dance. The latter were nice kids. The boys presumably were libidinous hormone-wads, of course, but wholesome libidinous hormone wads. To the extent possible. Kids have to figure out this sex stuff, which they usually think their generation invented, but some ways of approaching it are more civilized than others.
It’s funny. Kids are kids, but these seemed less — “jaded” may be the word — than American kids of the same age. Less used up, less unhappy even. I’m not suggesting any sort of moral superiority. Kids here get pregnant at a pretty good clip, though not, I suspect, Natalia’s friends. But they seem to be kids, doing kid things, whereas Americans look tired.
I could say something facile, such as that the American young seem to learn too much too fast, but the kids here know where babies come from. They get detailed sex-ed classes. Drugs are available here, mostly marijuana, but they seem less a problem. On the other hand, American kids are more independent, readier to set out into the world, to backpack to Tibet or go to college on the other end of the continent. Mexicans are homebodies. You pays your money and takes your choice.
By eleven, things were winding down. Several kids and Natalia were still dancing, which Mexicans do naturally. They’re Latins. (It’s a scientific fact that Protestants don’t have hips, It says so in Gray’s Anatomy.) A fair few empty beer bottles suggested that some tippling had taken place, but what the hell. In Joco, you walk home. If the occasional Dos Equis is presented as not greatly forbidden, then kids have less desire to get blotto to defy their parents.
By midnight we had shut the music down. We have to live with the neighbors. Vi and I chatted with Ron the Mechanic, the last of the guests. He is a tall lanky Canadian who bailed out many years back and now fixes cars for expats. Then Ron too left. Natalia was still glowing. Fifteen.
Kids at fiesta (Yes, I know, you would have guessed it without the cutline. Clearly they are not anteaters. But you put cutlines on photos. It’s like a rule.)
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.