In a few moments, Claudia Villafan will become a woman. But right now, she can barely see three feet in front of her face. She is trapped in the dark stairwell of a German cultural center on Cleveland's West Side, sweating in her heavy, billowing white dress, as her friends argue about how to make their grand entrance. All together? In couples? Short people first? The stairwell is hot and suffocating. And loud.
"Let's go, you guys!" a girl shouts in Spanish from the front of the line. "Line up!"
"Grab your partner!" yells a boy. "Vamanos! C'mon!"
"Will you guys shut up!" another hisses in a raspy stage whisper. "They can totally hear you!"
Claudia is the only silent one. She stands in the appropriate place, at the end of the line, her face impassive. She has been ordering her friends around for weeks, telling them to practice their waltz steps and wrap the napkins and please, please, please leave the balloons alone, and she is tired. She had no idea that her 15th birthday party, her quinceañera, would require so much work. Her parents started saving for it years ago, but Claudia handled the planning almost entirely on her own. She reserved the church. She booked the party hall. She found the photographer, scheduled the dance teacher, chose the party favors, arranged for the caterer, picked the dresses for the chamber maids and the tuxedos for the best men.
Let the other kids decide how to enter the hall, she thinks. Her work is done.
"It just now hit me," she says, though her friends are too busy arguing to hear. "This is it. This is the day we've been waiting for. Wow."
Southerners have coming-out balls. Jewish girls have bat mitzvahs. Latinas have quinceañeras. Each is a family's celebration for a daughter who is about to begin the transition from childhood to adulthood. Quinceañeras are major events among people from Central and South America, ranking with baptisms and weddings as important rites of passage. But widespread poverty in the region often means that only the rich can afford them. Here in the United States, even many poor Latino families can pool enough money to throw enormous ceremonies.
This whole idea can seem crazy to some outsiders. Why spend tens of thousands of dollars on a birthday party? There is the official explanation, of course. "This is the only night in a girl's life where she can celebrate the transition from being a girl to being a woman," says Zoila Villafan, Claudia's mother.
Second, some Latino adults come from countries where the barriers to becoming an adult -- infant mortality, malaria, war -- run high. Now they live in a country where kids have more pocket money and more independence to do stupid things, like get pregnant or do drugs or crash their cars. Quinceañeras are meant to reward girls who seem to be on the right path.
Families also throw quinceañeras to declare their place in the community. Many quinceañeras are quiet, informal affairs, held at home, sometimes because the parents don't want to get sucked into the one-upmanship of keeping up with the Gonzaleses. Other families take out big loans to throw a quinceañera that none of their friends will ever forget. "I've seen families go $15,000 or $20,000 into debt just to throw a quinceañera," says Edwin Rodriguez, a Villafan family friend. "One family had to sell its house because of all the quinceañera debt."
Claudia Villafan's party fits somewhere in between. All told, it will cost $10,000 -- a lot, given that her father is disabled and her mother works in a lamp factory. But the family has many friends and is widely known in Cleveland's Latino community. They managed to find 12 padrinos, or godparents, each of whom agreed to pay for something -- the cake, for example, or the champagne or the DJ. The Villafans could have spent less. But to them this seemed like the right way to throw a respectably huge party. "We want it to be beautiful," Zoila Villafan says.
Claudia wished that her parents had bought her a new VW Beetle instead. "I guess I wasn't too psyched about this quinceañera thing when we started," she said a few days before her party. "But I'm getting more excited now."
Claudia sits at the table in her family's kitchen behind a two-foot stack of red paper napkins. Scattered on the table are boxes filled with red plastic forks and knives. She has recruited five friends to come to her house on this Monday afternoon, six days before her party, to wrap place settings with shiny white ribbons.
The bells at nearby St. Rocco's church start to ring. "It's six o'clock!" Claudia says. "Okay, we gotta start packing up! People should be getting here any minute."
When they walk out onto the gray, chipped front porch, five more kids stand waiting in the front yard. "Okay, we have 10 people, that's enough to get started," Claudia says. "Everybody line up!"
After weeks of practice, the kids know their places. They form a line, boys on the left, girls on the right, holding hands. Claudia presses Play on a boombox CD player, and the "Blue Danube" waltz blares out of the squeaky speakers. The kids instantly begin to walk forward, shuffling from side to side. They form a circle, then begin their formal dance, the girls curtseying to their partners, spinning around, and then moving to the next boy. Three younger kids from the neighborhood stand astride their bicycles at the end of the driveway, gaping at the sight.
The yard is bumpy and uneven. One boy steps into a foot-deep divot and falls over. The neighbors, watching from their porches across the street, all laugh. Angelica Juarez gets wrapped up in the arms of her uncle Daniel as they try to turn. "You suck at this!" she shouts with a laugh.
Everything about the traditional quinceañera waltz is symbolic, says Arcelio Andrade, the Mexican dancer who volunteered to teach the routine to Claudia and her friends. First, the dancers form two lines, and the birthday girl walks into the room between them, so she can be introduced to the audience but stay removed from potential suitors. The spinning of the dancers with different partners represents the many friendships the girl will have throughout her life. Then the chamber maids glide in close and form a tight circle around the girl, give her a blessing, and retreat back to the perimeter. The boys do the same. Finally, she is hoisted into the air on the shoulders of her best man and another boy, symbolizing her final metamorphosis from a girl to a woman.
"This is the time when a girl learns what it takes to be a good woman," Andrade says. "So it's very important that she do the dance correctly."
The kids generally do fine until the very end, when they start to bump into each other and giggle. One of the boys, Peter Hernandez, and the ceremony's best man, Juval Rivas, can hoist Claudia up into the air well enough. But then they lose their footing on the uneven lawn, and Claudia's eyes flash in fear. Every time, the boys send her crashing to the ground, fanny first. "You guys! Setting me back down should be the easy part!" she says.
Still, Claudia Villafan has successfully gotten a group of her teenage friends to spend an hour and a half on a sunny summer afternoon, doing things they don't want to do.
"Claudia is a different kind of kid than what I see in L.A.," says Rose Flores, Claudia's 35-year-old half-sister, who flew to Cleveland for the ceremony. "She's very quiet, responsible. She does her homework for two hours every night."
Claudia attends Early College, an accelerated Cleveland public high school that meets on the campus of Cleveland State University. She gets mostly A's and B's, and almost alone among her friends, she plans to go to college. She hopes to become a psychiatrist and settle in Cleveland, near her parents. "As a psychiatrist, I get to help people, but without all the blood, like if I was a doctor," she says.
Claudia was born in Los Angeles. Her parents moved to Cleveland when she was one and a half, and since then she has grown up fast. Her parents speak only Spanish, so Claudia is the family's representative to the outside world. If her mother needs to visit the doctor, Claudia must leave school to translate. If the gas company calls about a bill, Claudia takes the phone. "I think it's good, because it's exposed me to things that most kids don't have to deal with," she says.
It's nothing new for children in immigrant communities to take on such roles. But some use their power to manipulate. The Latino community is full of stories of kids convincing parents that an F on a report card means "Fantastic" or that a weeklong suspension from school is really just another holiday break.
But Claudia is not the type of girl to take advantage. "She's not crazy, like some of these girls out here," says Giovanni Lopez, 22, a neighborhood friend. "She's one of these girls who's 15 but acts like she's 20 or 21. She doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, she dresses conservatively, she helps her parents, she goes to school. She's a really sweet kid."
Most of Claudia's friends go to church only on Sundays, if at all. Claudia attends church three times a week. Her girlfriends mostly wear belly-exposing tank tops and rolled-down athletic shorts, while Claudia prefers jeans and T-shirts. Her friends listen to reggaeton, a mix of salsa and heavy rap with lots of explicit lyrics. Claudia thinks all reggaeton songs sound the same. Rivas, who is 19, sometimes worries that Claudia is more mature than he is.
"Some people say that a quinceañera doesn't really mean anything, since the girl will still be a girl when it's over," says Mercedes Flores, Claudia's aunt. "But there are lots of girls who are 15, 18 years old and getting pregnant. They're making adult decisions. When you look at it that way, Claudia is already more of an adult than some of the adults out here."
Claudia is riding in the limo, obviously. And Rivas must ride in the limo, too, because it wouldn't look right for the best man to travel to Claudia's coming-out ball in her father's purple van. Which leaves 16 courtiers standing on Claudia's lawn, most dressed in red evening gowns and rented black tuxedoes, trying to score one of eight remaining limousine seats.
They fall silent when Claudia pushes through the screen door and steps out onto the rain-splattered porch. Her dress has ornate floral designs around the bodice and yards and yards of white chiffon falling from her waist. Even on this overcast day, the dress is so bright that some kids raise their hands to their foreheads to look.
"Claudia!" calls a neighbor from her porch. "I love your dress!"
"Thank you!" Claudia says.
After about two seconds of silent appreciation, the limousine grudgefest begins anew. Claudia does not want to deal with the limousine right now. Her first official quinceañera ceremony, taking photos in the park, was supposed to start 15 minutes ago. But half the boys don't even have their tuxedos on yet. Her father, who is supposed to be in his tux, is walking around the yard in jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt. And the photographer is lost.
"Claudia! We have to talk about the limo!" yells José Juarez.
"Okay, fine!" she says. "We'll draw the numbers now! Shut up!" She presents a small fishbowl with scraps of paper inside. The kids swarm like hungry barracuda, their arms outstretched. Pedro, Claudia's father, stands away from the crowd and chuckles. "Everybody wants to ride in the limo," he says. "They want to feel important, huh?"
The drive for status at a quinceañera is sometimes intense, sometimes joking, but always present. It started months before the event, when Zoila Villafan started looking for padrinos to help cover costs. Finding people who wanted to help was easy, since the family is well-known in the Latino community. Zoila likes to cook papusas, traditional snacks of fried bread and cheese that her mother made back home in El Salvador. She used to sell them at the big soccer games that draw hundreds of Latinos to Mohican Park every Saturday. The couple also is well known because they attend many parties in the Latino community. "Oh, everybody knows Claudia's family," Rivas says. "They're just very open-hearted people."
The problem in picking godfathers for the quinceañera, therefore, was picking the right ones. The Villafans are not struggling, but they wouldn't exactly be called middle-class, either. They get by on Zoila's full-time job at the lamp factory and Pedro's disability checks -- he cracked his back 11 years ago when he fell out of a truck at the fruit-concentrate company where he worked. They didn't need millionaires to sponsor their quinceañera, but they needed people who are respected in the community. People like Edwin Rodriguez, a Cleveland building-code enforcer who serves on the boards of directors of the city's Mexican and Guatemalan clubs. Zoila Villafan chose him to be the quinceañera's lead godfather. "People choose their padrinos because they see you as a stable person with strong family values," says the soft-spoken Rodriguez, 46. "It's a big honor for me."
"Each of our padrinos is a good, high-class person," Zoila says. "No low people. They all have good jobs, families. That's important. It reflects well on us."
Claudia decides that everyone should drive to Lincoln Park in Tremont and meet the photographer there. The photo session takes 45 minutes. Pedro Villafan wears his mirrored Terminator glasses the entire time. When he stands next to Claudia for a photo, she says, "Take them off! You look stupid" without moving her lips. Pedro stands with his hands clasped in front of him.
Drizzling rain starts to fall, and everyone hustles into the limo for the ride to mass at Sagrada Familia. During the ceremony, Father David Fallon gives the only cautionary words of the evening. "This is an important moment in Claudia's life," Fallon says in halting Spanish. "But we know she has not yet achieved a full and complete life. There will be other, more important moments in her life, like graduation and marriage. But she has come here today to ask for our help and for our guidance."
After the service, another limo ride transports the kids to the party hall. The hall is decked out in red-and-white streamers, tall arches made of helium-filled balloons, and tables topped with white tablecloths and white candles. (Claudia's family spent four hours last night decorating.) Also on the tables are plastic key chains with photos of Claudia glued to them, and plastic snow globes with her photo inside.
By tradition, dinner comes before ceremony. There are trays of tamales, egg salad, cheese puffs, and sautéed chicken, as well as spicy pulled pork, which as recently as this morning was a giant pig running around a farm in Medina County. It takes an hour for 400 people to file past the buffet tables and return with overloaded paper plates.
Finally, Rivas carries a stuffed white chair into the middle of the room. The DJ cues the waltz music, and the audience members turn to watch. Claudia sits in the chair, and her parents crouch at her feet. They remove her one-inch white heels and replace them with three-inch heels. Claudia's Uncle Gregorio steps forward, takes a gold ring from a box, and places it on her finger. Then her parents present a silver tiara. They work for a few minutes to fasten it into her curled beehive hairdo. Claudia winces only once, when the tiara jabs her scalp, but otherwise she sits stoically.
"And now the children will start their dance," the DJ announces.
The waltz is crisp and precise. No one bonks anyone. No one giggles. Rivas and Hernandez move to the center of the circle and stoop to their knees. Claudia falls backwards slightly, and the boys heave her into the air without a grimace. Claudia sits on the shoulders of her friends and spins in the air above the hundreds of onlookers. She wears a calm expression and a little smile. She does not look afraid.