May 22, 2024
Staying Afloat

The quinceanera is all about pressure. Now add water.

By Sara Claro

It’s been five years since my cruise. It departed from the Port of Miami on a Saturday, and made its last stop in Grand Cayman the following Thursday. And somewhere along the endless waves, I became a woman.

A quinces, as Cubans call the momentous fifteenth birthday, is the most extravagant and important party of a girl’s life. When it came time to celebrate my rite of passage, my mom and I agreed that a simple ballroom would not be enough - so we opted for a boat. Quince cruises are extremely popular in Miami. The lavish party through the Caribbean usually lasts a week, and includes a full schedule of dinners, rehearsals, photo shoots, dances, and programmed parties.

While it is true that you only turn 15 once, a quinces is never a one-day event — it takes almost a year to unfold.

Months before the actual cruise, my mom started to buy me what she called “vacation clothes.” With each new shopping bag of jewel-toned halter-tops and bedazzled shorts, I begged her to let me go with her to pick some things out. But she replied with a cold, No te vas a poner Abecrumy — “You’re not going to wear Abercrombie” — and that was the final word. To me, that sounded more like abandon all hope to look cool — you’re destined to dress like you just got off the boat from Cuba, fabulously self-important and glittery. At least I get to pick out my own ball gown, I thought naively.

Reality Bites

Somewhere in Little Havana, I sat in the tiny, receptionless living room of a Cuban seamstress who a cousin of a co-worker of my mom’s referred us to. The smell of sandalwood - a preferred scent of all Cuban women over age 40 - and pork lingered in the air. My grandpa, Pipo, walked around, staring into each photograph on the wall, turning every so often to look at me and roll his eyes. This helped me pass the time as my grandma and the seamstress consulted endlessly about the appropriate length of tulle that should be cut underneath the dress.

As I stared at the garment the two women were manhandling, I realized it wasn’t exactly what I had wanted. But it had been late the night we picked it out, and I’d had homework to do. It fit, my mom liked the pearl and lace design, and most importantly it was on sale. So I’d surrendered. I just hoped my pictures would turn out pretty, and that I would manage to look somewhat older than the rest of my friends.

The reality of my quinceanera didn’t hit me until my entire family - Mom, Abuela, Pipo, Tia Sara, Tia Ani, Tio Henry, Tio Migue, my cousin Stephanie, and my other cousin Mike - were standing in front of the ship, talking loudly about their plans to relax onboard. I tried to hide behind the gigantic white dress I was carrying, but my uncle noticed me fidgeting and took it from me, in an unwelcome act of thoughtfulness, exposing me and my “vacation clothes” to the judging eyes of what seemed like a million girls waiting in line holding white dresses. As we started boarding, they sent the quinceaneras to a separate party room to receive itineraries and meet one other.

I turned to my mom and translated where we had to go, but the man handing out maps overheard me and said, No, eres tu sola. “No, just you.”

I stared him down, angry that he had foiled my plan to be antisocial under the pretense of an overly-protective mom, and reluctantly left my family behind.

The Gulf between 14 and 15

Let me clear up a few unspoken rules of quince cruises. Because of their summery nature, girls born in the fall, like me, must choose between going the summer before they turn 15 — meaning you are still an insecure 14-year-old who just finished middle school — or the next summer, only a couple of months before turning 16. Because I didn’t want my actual birthday to pass without any proof of womanhood, I decided to go on my cruise the summer before. I chose wrong.

Thirty girls were celebrating their quinces on that cruise. Most of them were in high school, and had already turned 15. They had already had their photo shoots at the swanky Biltmore Hotel or the rustic Villa Vizcaya. They had already gone through the polishing associated with becoming a Hispanic teenage girl : eyebrow waxes, teeth whitening, spray tans, acrylic nails, and makeup.

Those things were still a mystery to me. I had only potential. But the ship had, literally, already left the dock. So I decided to act as confident and cocky as possible, pretending to be proud of my braces, bushy eyebrows, and pasty white-girl skin.

The battle of the best-dressed began at the Captain’s welcome dinner, exclusively for the quinceaneras and their families. Everyone congregated on the promenade of the ship, and the girls were lined up in height order on an indoor bridge, to be filmed walking down the stairs. As my lanky self walked to my place near the end of the line, I smirked at the stouter girls in the front who enviously eyed my BCBG dress, and I thought for the first time onboard, Thank you, Mom. Hours of forced practice walking in my heels before the cruise helped me glide down those stairs flawlessly, but a couple of girls tripped in front of the camera.

When it came time to take pictures with the captain, the photographer rearranged our group and put me in the middle. I still remember that as my most triumphant moment.

Some awkward limbo dancing and pinata-breaking happened the next day as we docked in Mexico, and my lack of coordination brought me back down the totem pole. On our “day-at-sea,” we had a painfully long photo shoot on the ship.

The tourists who were not involved with the quinces looked perplexed, as 30 teenaged girls in shiny jewelry and hair-sprayed curls lined up against railings and on chaise lounges to pose for pictures. By that time we were somewhere near round five of the best-dressed battle, and my stubborn pleading with my family to stop buying bikinis had backfired. Every girl wore two different bathing suits each day, while I was stuck with two conservative outfits for the entire vacation.

Dancing with Pipo

Then came our dress rehearsal for the big night, Each girl would be formally presented at the hand of her mother and father, and then dance a waltz with her dad. I had decided to dance with my grandpa, a lovable but hard-headed man. While other dads listened attentively to the choreographer’s instructions, Pipo commented on his accent, wondering what province of Cuba he was from. I had hoped that his age would prove in our favor, and that sometime in his life he had danced the waltz.

A couple of minutes later, my feet were throbbing, and everyone’s eyes were on the man holding me, who insisted on turning clockwise while the entire group turned counter-clockwise. We were asked to come in for private lessons.

I had finally started to get used to the dynamics of the quinceaneras. I knew when to hang out in the Jacuzzi, what to order at dinner, and how much time to sunbathe so that I would get darker, but not peel. Then I got sick.

The day of the big dance, a small tropical storm on the Gulf of Mexico turned into a small hurricane. Our ship was tugged back and forth.  Curtains swayed violently, and people stumbled in the narrow corridors like drunks.

My worries about the dance turned into full-blown anxiety as I practiced one more time with Pipo, and he was still turning the wrong way, the corset underneath my dress was not loving the extra ice cream cones I had treated myself to all week and was taking its anger out on my ribcage, and my nerves about looking grown-up gave way to sea sickness. My enormous and heavy dress would not let me go into the tiny bathroom to throw up, so I forced myself to calm down.

My aunts hovered around me, ready to hold my hair and save my dress if I decided to vomit. But I kept busy, by judging the way-too-tight, overly-jeweled dresses around me, wrapped around peeling shoulders and sunburnt skin.

I could not stop feeling little and ugly next to some of the older girls, but after I walked across the stage and heard my name, I didn’t even care that my grandpa was still turning the wrong way. I danced exceptionally through the salsa and the conga line, and when I walked into the dining room filled with thunderous clapping and flashing cameras, I confidently placed myself next to the cake meant for all the quinceaneras

Even though this newfound confidence sprang from a tired-of-worrying-what-other-people-are-thinking emotion, I realize now that it was probably the first sign of becoming a grown-up.

When I was a girl, I loved the thought of cruises — but that was five years ago.

Sara Claro is a writer and multimedia journalist in New York.

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