Se robaron mi qiunceañera: Female Performativity and Coming of Age in Latina Narratives

A lot has been going these last two weeks. Putin swept into office, as everybody expected. Demonstrations have continued in Moscow. Our favorite aggregator of Russian news, Johnson’s Russia list,, has a few articles to help bring us all up to date. It also seems like the Putin administration will be turning control of the media to the Ministry of Culture, in a move that sounds suspiciously Orwellian…

This week, however, I am mostly focusing on a presentation I will give at the Mid-Atlantic Council of Latin American Studies, MACLAS, conference this weekend. I will be focusing on structural aspects of Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman, and Julia Álvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accent. I want to focus on a structural aspect of both authors’ works: the importance of the transition from girl to woman, the moment marked traditionally by a quinceañera, but which both are deprived by circumstance.

I would like to focus on a moment that becomes a shared moment of insight by both authors: the moment of liminality when a young woman transitions into a young woman, and the challenges posed by the simultaneous rupture and knitting together that occurs at that time. In this case, I use the term liminal as used by anthropologist Victor Turner:

” Liminal rites. Liminality is the term used by the Belgian folklorist van Gennep to denominate the second of three stages in what he called a “rite of passage.” Such rites are found in all cultures, and are seen as both indicators and vehicles of transition from one sociocultural state and status to another — childhood to maturity, virginity to marriage, childlessness to parenthood, ghosthood to ancestorhood, sickness to health, peace to war and vice versa, scarcity to plenty, winter to spring, and so on. He did, however, distinguish between those rites performed at life-crises, such as birth, puberty, marriage, death, and those performed at crucial points in the turning year, or on occasions of collective crisis when a whole society faces a major change, peace to war, health to epidemic, and so forth. The first set were mainly performed for individuals in secret or hidden places and related to upward mobility. The latter were performed for collectivities, were public in character, and often portrayed reversals or inversions of status or confusion of ordinary everyday categories. Van Gennep distinguished the three stages as (1) separation (from ordinary social life); (2) margin or  limen  (meaning threshold), when the subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence; and (3) re-aggregation, when they are ritually returned to secular or mundane life — either at a higher status level or in an altered state of consciousness or social being.”

Victor Turner: “Frame, Flow  and Reflection: Ritual and Drama  as  Public Liminality.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 6/4 December 1979 466-467

In the case Santiago and Álvarez, they focus on the trauma that results from trauma derived from their radical displacement to American culture at the time when they were emerging to the liminal age of fifteen, the age of the quinceañera. Fifteen is an age heavy with symbolic weight in literature. Even the short story recognized as the first surviving short story in Russia features a female protagonist whose life has become traumatized when her father dies at the age of – you guessed it – fifteen. Even Álvarez observes the seeming cross-cultural consensus of fifteen as the age when a girl becomes a young woman, available for presentation to society, in her non-fiction  Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the U. S. A. Both highlight the ritualized aspect of growing up tweener, adolescent and Latina. They focus on the level of sometimes stifling overprotection provided by the entire family unit – the battle for individual agency in a culture that stresses chaperones and escorts until marriage, the comfort provided by the familiar cocoon of abuelos and abuelas, tíos y tías, primos y primas. Both cases also highlight the tension between the comfort of this familial environment, the pride of mastering that cultural set of gender expectations, and the equal thrill and appeal of mastering the English language culture that surrounds them outside their house. Rupture is severe and significant. Geography, language, clothing, and eventually self, are replaced by a new individual that combines both cultures, the hybrid being.

While they point to Caribbean elements of their upbringing, what fascinates me is the commonality they share with other coming of age narratives.  In this case, I want to call up Vladimir Nabokov, who in Speak Memory  made the following observation about forced dislocation at a young age:

“I would moreover submit that, in regard to the power of hoarding up impressions, Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known. Genius disappeared when everything had been stored, just as it does with those other, more specialized child prodigies – pretty, curly-headed youngsters waving batons or taming enormous pianos, who eventually turn into second-rate musicians with sad eyes and obscure ailments and something vaguely misshapen about their eunuchoid hindquarters. But even so, the individual mystery remains to tantalize the memoirist… [i]

What Nabokov would attribute to the power of the Russian Revolution to displace a whole generation of young people – the ability to hoard up impressions – is actually reflected time and time again in the autobiographical narratives of émigrés.  I have been looking at autobiographies mostly from Slavic and Latino immigrants into the United States. They provide an interesting point of contrast due to what I call the “permeability factor.” By permeability, I mean the ability of the person to hope for an opportunity to return, or at the minimum visit, their homeland. Most Slavic immigrants were denied this opportunity, due to the laws government immigration during the Soviet period – the result of the “cataclysmic” take over by the Soviets in 1917, which led to Nabokov’s exile, and their expansion throughout Eastern Europe, which led to the exile of many others. Once exiled, these immigrants into the United States had no hope to return to their homelands.

One particularly interesting memoir from the Soviet period is Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation.[ii] Eva Hoffman is a Polish born writer who immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1959, at the age of fourteen. She later came to the United States to study in college in Houston, and she then continued graduate studies at Harvard University. She basically matches Nabokov in the area of demonstrable erudition, down to her studies in music in Cracow before she was forced to flee Poland. In her memoir, she contemplates the effects of the adjustment to her new language, English, on her view of the world around her.

“I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyways, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, this radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances – its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation. 107

Both writers depict a double language, code switching world,  where in some ways the young adolescent females – right at the point of liminality into adult Caribbean state of womanhood – get thrust into a much more different process of transition, where they need to master the new codes of language, morality and behavior not only for themselves, but also for their parents, whom they often surpass when it comes to language mastery. They are these walking avatars, playing with their new English words as they play with their dolls, but lacking the living connection to the rich traditions and family history that the Spanish discourse carries within itself. The immature narrators become the mediators for themselves as for their families, as their school educations become a means through which their own parents – particularly their mothers – come to master their new roles in a new language.

One of the greatest challenges facing the writers, then, is how to represent these marked moments of drastic cultural transition. Structurally, their management of narrative time becomes one of the main ways in which they highlight the depth of their transition.

Julia Álvarez approaches the presentation of liminal reconciliation, How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, by dividing chapters into discrete chronological blocks that reflect the voices of her multiple protagonists. The book evolves in reverse chronological order, as if trying to lull the reader into a sense of comfort, gradually stripping away the levels of American familiarity and increasing the levels of dvoekul’turnost’, dual culturality, which reflects the depth of the narrators’ cultural dvoeverie – the dual belief system that emerges from the merging of both Spanish and United States cultural orders. Internalized, naturalized dual code-switching emerges as the state of being.

The García Girl follows the stories of the four García sisters, Carla, Yolanda, Sandra and Sofía, and the challenges of adapting to the at times contradictory social expectations of the Dominican and United States cultures. The novel progresses in reverse chronological order. This chronological arrangement allows the author to focus on a different configuration, a different cultural moment, in the life of the family. The last chapter shows the family at the point of emigration from the Dominican Republic. The narrative voice suddenly gets shifted to Chucha, one of the family’s servants on the island, as she reflects on the departure of the family.

“I have said prayers to all the santos, to the loa, and to the Gran Poder de Dios, visiting each room, swinging the can of cleaning smoke, driving away the bad spirits that filled the house this day, and fixing in my head the different objects and where they belong so that if any workman sneaks in and steals something I will know what is gone. In the girls’ rooms I remember each one as a certain heaviness, now in my heart, now in my shoulders, now in my head or feet, I feel their losses pile up like dirt thrown on a box after it has been lowered into the earth. I see their future, the troublesome life ahead. They will be haunted by what they do and don’t remember. But they have spirit in them. They will invent what they need to survive. [iii]”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 223

It is very interesting that it is left to Chucha, the voodoo trained servant, to put an intellectual spin to the existence that the girls’ merely experience: “They will invent what they need to survive.” The girls constantly struggle to interpret the new codes and symbols around, particularly when it comes to gender relations. The most explicitly analytical of this process is Yolanda, the daughter who becomes a teacher. When Yolanda speaks about her boarding school days, she says:

“Back in those days I had what one teacher called ‘a vivacious personality.’ I had to look up the word in the dictionary and was relieved to find out it didn’t mean I had problems. English was then still a party favor for me – crack open the dictionary, find out if I’d just been insulted, praised, admonished, criticized…”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 87

Outside of “cracking the code” of conversational English language,  they also must master the code surrounding relationships outside of the understood parameters of Dominican society. Hoffman describes the cognitive challenge of cracking this code in the following manner:

“Dating is an unknown ritual to me, unknown among my Cracow peers, who aside from lacking certain of its requisite accessories – cars, private rooms, a bit of money – ran around in boy-girl packs and didn’t have a ceremonial set of rules for how to act toward the other set. A date, by contrast, seems to be an occasion whose semiotics are highly standardized and in which every step has a highly determinate meaning and therefore has to be carefully calibrated…”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation.  149

“How do you talk to an alien? Very carefully. When I fall in love with my first American, I also fall in love with otherness, with the far spaces between us and the distances we have to travel to meet at the source of our attraction…”

Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation, 187

By the time Yolanda manages to crack the basic codes for dating, she realizes that there are some American norms she does not wish to adopt, particularly when it comes to sexual promiscuity.

“Why I couldn’t keep them interested was pretty simple: I wouldn’t sleep with them. By the time I went to college, it was the late sixties, and everyone was sleeping as a matter of principle. By then, I was a lapsed Catholic; my sisters and I had been pretty well Americanized since our arrival in this country a decade before, so really, I didn’t have a good excuse…”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accent, 87

Esmeralda Santiago literally breaks her narrative in half by dividing the narrative of her coming of age into two volumes, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman. The books break apart at the line between thirteen and fourteen years of age, when Esmeralda moves from the poor neighborhood of Macún to New York City.

Almost a Woman focuses on Esmeralda’s coming of age as a student at a high school for the performing arts in New York. While Álvarez does express the difference in socio-economic status when they moved, Santiago experiences it in a much more physical manner as she becomes her mother’s interpreter at the welfare office.

“I was grateful for Mami’s faith in me but couldn’t relax until we heard from the welfare office. A few days later, our application was approved. By the I’d decided that even when it seemed like my head couldn’t hold that many new words inside it, I had to learn English well enough never again to be caught between languages.”[iv]

Almost a Woman. 20-21

Being caught between languages, and its real implications for daily survival, is a theme repeated again and again in numerous immigrant narratives. Santiago’s narrative stands out for the way that it explicitly breaks out the challenges specific to life in the late twentieth century for a working class family, unlike Álvarez, whose professional father manages to retool his skills and provide them with a more protected middle class life. Santiago’s work as family interpreter, as the mediator between her family and the public welfare system in New York makes her ponder much more explicitly the sharpness of the cultural division.

“It was good to be healthy, big and strong like Dick, Jane, and Sally. It was good to learn English and to know how to act among Americans, but it was not good to behave like them. Mami made it clear that although we lived in the United States, we were to remain 100 percent Puerto Rican. The problem was that it was hard to tell where Puerto Rican ended and Americanized began. Was I Americanized if I preferred pizza to pastelillos? Was I Puerto  Rican if my skirts covered my knees? If I cut out a picture of Paul Anka from a magazine and tacked it to the wall, was I less Puerto Rican than when I cut out pictures of Gilberto Monroig? Who could tell me?”

Almost a Woman 25

You can feel the personal, moral and psychological weight placed in Santiago, as the eldest and the first in her family to master the American educational system, to play the mediator for her family. The term interpreter, in this case, really understates how active her role becomes within her family, a role that her mother cannot fulfill because she finds mastering the language a much larger challenge due to her age and the need for her to work to support her family.  The fact that Santiago ends up attending a fine arts high school almost works as an ironic undertone to her struggles in performing her role as an emerging English language wielding individual.

[i] Vladimir Nabokov. Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 25.

[ii] Eva Hoffman. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[iii] Julia Alvarez. How the  García Girls Lost Their Accent. (New York, Plume, 1991)

[iv] Esmeralda Santiago. Almost a Woman. (New York: Vintage, 1999)