The day of the quinceañera dawns raw and blustery, and clouds of dust scud along the main road of this quiet village. But outside the cinderblock church, and on the well-worn basketball court in the center of town, young girls are already threading long garlands of handmade blue paper flowers, and their older brothers are scaling ladders to stretch the strings overhead.
Today is Seraya Butron Rodriguez's 15th birthday, and like so many young Latin American girls, she's been dreaming of her quinceañera, or "sweet 15" party, for as long as she can remember. Part sacred, part secular, the quinceañera marks the entrance of a young woman into adult society, and is thought to mix indigenous traditions with those of Spanish Catholic missionaries.
While customs vary by country, region, and class – quinceañeras are sometimes lavish affairs, with limousines and legions of jeweled attendants – the events are always carefully choreographed. Here, in this tiny ejido, or communal-farm village, less than an hour's drive south of the US border, the customs are modest, but the preparations are as exacting as a wedding's.
I've been visiting this ejido sporadically for years now, first as a journalist, later as a curious outsider and language student, finally as a friend. The town, with its fewer than 200 souls and simple brick-and-plywood houses, sits in the desiccated delta of the Colorado River, surrounded by salt-laden fields and miles of mud flats. Farming is rarely profitable, so people here work at shrimp farms along the Gulf of California, pick and bundle green onions in nearby fields, or endure a two-hour bus ride each way to shifts at "la Sony," the Sony factory in the border city of Mexicali. Many leave for better prospects north of the border.
I've known Seraya, the youngest daughter of friends, since she was 8, and last year she asked my husband and me to be among the two dozen padrinos — sponsors, literally godparents — of her quinceañera.
So we made the trip from our home in Colorado, fancy clothes wrinkled in our suitcases, to join the preparations and the fun. We're the padrinos of the drinks; others are responsible for the pedestaled cake, the bouquet, the invitations, and even the dress and hairstyle. In a place where credit is rare, the padrino system is a kind of lifelong installment plan, ensuring that no family carries the entire financial burden at once.
While the paper garlands whip and twist in the wind, Seraya's mother, sister, and sister-in-law cut up three freshly slaughtered sheep, cooking up enough savory mutton to feed the expected crowd of 200 or 300. Her mother calmly puts the finishing touches on the homemade silvery dresses and bolero jackets for the damas, the 14 younger girls who accompany the quinceañera, and the matching bow ties for the chambelanes, their 14 squirming escorts.
As the sun sets, Seraya and her procession enter the simple Roman Catholic church, its tile floor swept and cracked windows polished for the occasion. The crowd greets her with grins and gasps: Her dress glitters with crystals, its fantastically wide skirt ballooning with layers of gauzy aquamarine, almost immobilizing her with its bulk. Her thick brown hair is twisted and gathered and topped with a shiny tiara.
It's her chance to be a princess, and she's grabbed it.
During the mass, as the traveling priest struggles to remember the name of the town, Seraya bends for his blessing, her face impassive with fear or gravity or both. When the service ends, the damas and chambelanes leap up from the front rows, thrilled by the reflected glory, and make their way over to the basketball court for the evening celebration.
Though the wind has died down, the desert night is frigid, and the crowd shivers in their be-ribboned chairs as the family hands out the dinner plates. The DJ has arrived with a wall of speakers 15 feet high, and he begins to blare waltzes and pop songs and Mexican polkas. People circulate around the tables, greeting old friends visiting from Mexicali and Los Angeles, and young single men, eager to drink and dance, and gather at campfires on the edges of the court.
While this is a celebration, it also marks the introduction of this lovely shy girl, this youngest daughter, to a dangerous world. Young womanhood is an uncertain time anywhere, and here unplanned pregnancies are common, with many girls ending their teens as single mothers or reluctant brides.
So the mood thickens as Seraya, with only a filmy shawl and adrenaline to ward off the cold, dances a symbolic farewell waltz with her father around the basketball court. She then tosses a doll to a circle of younger girls, representing the end of her childhood, and throws a fabric heart to a circle of young boys, signifying her new ability to date with her family's approval.
Finally, her mother and father kneel to change her shoes, swapping her low heels for the high heels befitting a señorita, and her ceremonial transformation is complete.
Each set of padrinos is called on to waltz with Seraya and her escort, then waltz with one another, and we swirl round and round the girl and her dazzling dress, forming an ever-expanding circle of relatives and friends, letting her go while trying to keep her warm.
The party thumps and grinds long into the night, but by the next morning, the chairs and tables and empty kegs have been whisked away, the paper garlands already lying in the dust. At Seraya's house, visiting relatives overflow into tents, and everyone is gathered in the yard around a kettle of hot stew, talking animatedly despite the cold and lack of sleep and the feet sore from dancing.
Seraya, relaxed and smiling at last, sits inside on the couch with friends and relatives, watching the video of her party with the fervor of a sports analyst. The princess is once again a teenager in denim, with her future before her, and her mother, Magdalena, is smiling too.
Yes, the planning, the cooking, the sewing, it all took weeks of work, Magdalena says. But didn't everyone look beautiful?
"Valío la pena," she says. It was worth the trouble.