Write of Passage

by Published on
photo by Penny De Los Santos
Twin sisters in Weslaco wait for escorts to their quinceañera

When I agreed to write two books using the quinceañera as the backdrop, the fact that I’d never had a quinceañera, had never been to one, or that I don’t have a daughter, didn’t stop me. Similar to a Sweet Sixteen or a Bat Mitzvah, a quinceañera happens at a Latina’s 15th birthday to mark a girl’s transition to adulthood. Celebrated by some (but not all) Latino families, the quinceañera had a resurgence before the economic downturn of 2009, with quinceañera fairs and expos catering to celebrations that can range from intimate backyard barbecues to full-blown pachangas.

When I was a teenager my mother asked, in her constant bow to assimilation (and because we lived in Lincoln, Neb.) if I wanted a Sweet Sixteen party. The “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” era feminist in me sneered. I had just entered an asexual phase, dressing in khakis and work shirts that camouflaged my figure. I had saved my babysitting money to buy my first pair of Birkenstocks, which I wore through four seasons of rain, snow, mud and slush till the suede turned mangy and the soles began to crumble. When my mother pleaded with me to at least wear lipstick, I smeared on utilitarian Chapstick. For my letterhead (I was already a writer and all writers had letterhead, didn’t they?) I favored my middle name “Gene,” relegating my female-identified first name to a nondescript “B.” In retrospect, I was unconsciously responding to the fact that being male offered certain, unspoken advantages that being female didn’t. My mother feared I was a lesbian. That was far worse than turning up pregnant.

Still, I declared that I was “uniquely qualified to write these books.” I’ve got a Master of Fine Arts in Writing and have made a living as a journalist for at least 15 years; surely that research experience and writing on deadline would be useful in writing a book. After reading Julia Alvarez’s history of, and interrogation of, the quinceañera in Once Upon a Quinceañera, I was intrigued by the ceremony. More importantly, I liked the idea of Latinas starring in a book series, something I rarely saw while watching and writing about television for The Austin Chronicle.

I had some ground rules: There would be no gangs or unwed mothers or drug dealers in my books, not because they don’t exist in Latino culture, but because the Latino experience is much broader than what’s depicted in popular culture. Asked to set the books in Los Angeles, I suggested San Antonio instead, a city I’ve experienced up close and from a distance, and only an hour’s drive from my southeast Austin home. And unlike so-called “chick-lit” novels, my books are not about dresses and shoes and up-dos as much as they are about the relationship between Mexican-American mothers and their daughters—something I definitely know something about. While I’ve heard of those cuddly, mother-daughter relationships, they’re not particularly dramatic. Fortunately, my own mother-daughter relationship was fraught with misunderstanding, a soaring independent streak, teenage anxiety and plain old stubbornness. That my mother survived two teenagers without the aid of an extended family is something I appreciate only in hindsight. That, and the fact that she didn’t smother me in my sleep during my most obnoxious teen years. I had experienced enough mother-daughter drama to fill a small library.

While the “Quinceañera Club Novel” insignia brands the books as young adult novels, it’s the mothers who are the central characters of my books. In Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz, the titular Ana is trying to reconcile with her daughter Carmen, after Ana and her husband separate and he moves out of their home. Carmen dispenses all her anger and heartache over her father’s departure on Ana. So, when Ana suggests that they plan Carmen’s quinceañera, the girl grudgingly participates. In the process of telling their story, I examine reconciliation and forgiveness and parental self-sacrifice—something that mothers of all backgrounds are prone to, but at what personal cost? I was also interested in how and why committed partners grow apart and was highly conscious of how Esteban, Ana’s husband, would be depicted. While his actions precipitate a separation, I wanted him to be a good man who made bad choices, not the stereotypical “bad macho.”

Damas was written on a ridiculously short deadline (five or six months). I figured writing Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over would be smoother, given a few additional months to write it. I was eager to push the envelope further, and submitted a synopsis that told the story of Beatriz Sánchez (Ana’s best friend from Damas), startled by the appearance of her niece Celeste on her doorstep. The whereabouts of her mother, Beatriz’s estranged sister Perla, is a mystery. As the novel unfolds, it’s revealed that Perla was among the Women of Juarez, one of the many brutally killed by unknown assailants who have terrorized working-class Mexican women on the border for years. The synopsis was approved and I began writing. I was proud of that book, proud of how I was able to weave in an underreported, yet enduring problem (nowadays, overshadowed by the more sensational drug-war violence). I wanted Perla to be more than a nameless victim but someone readers would truly mourn, along with the other Women of Juarez.

In addition, I was devoted to the idea of found families—the families we create beyond our blood relatives. Central to that idea was Enrique, a big-hearted gay man who helped run a fictional advocacy program for the families whose mothers, daughters, wives and sisters had become one of the Women of Juarez. Enrique was Perla’s best friend and a surrogate parent to Celeste. I adored him. I say “adored,” because after the manuscript was delivered, I was told he had to “be removed from the book completely.” Too much Juarez, too much violence, not enough party planning. I was reminded that as the second book in the quinceañera club series, it had been positioned in the market in a certain way, and while I was encouraged to make “the book feel fresh and personal,” it still had to deliver a mother-daughter story.

When someone tells you to remove a beloved character from your book, it’s not as simple as removing a lamp from a house. It requires a complete rewiring. I was given a month to rewrite Sisters and did so tearfully. I still believe Enrique belongs in this book and deeply mourn his loss. But I also know that the Sisters rewrite is an emotionally driven, satisfying read. The early reviews have been generous. The Women of Juarez story is now deep in the background, with the story of Beatriz and Celeste more up close and personal, as is the hetero-normative relationship between Beatriz and her husband Larry, who worries with paternalistic vehemence how the appearance of Celeste will affect his immediate family.

On the surface, I seemed like the least likely candidate to write these books. But I had something to prove. I had to remedy years of false starts and a drawer full of unfinished work. I mustered skills learned writing on deadline and all that time spent in intentional observation, and yes, if I am to be honest, I succumbed to the allure of being a published writer. San Antonio-based writer Sandra Cisneros once advised: “Don’t be in a hurry to be published. Be in a hurry to be a good writer.” Those words have deeper resonance to me now. When it comes right down to it, you have to decide what “good writing” is and what you’re willing to do to achieve it.

When I get frustrated with writing and the business of publishing, I try to recall two things: First, I make a living as a writer. That’s no small feat. The second is a story a friend shared with me on Facebook: “Hey Belinda—I was getting on the #20 bus on my way to work; saw a young Latina reading your book. (I resisted the temptation to question her … thought she should be left alone to enjoy her book.)”

Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz was awarded the Mariposa Prize for Best First Book from the International Latino Book Awards in June. But, long before that, the packager of the series had broken the news that I would not continue writing Quinceañera Club books. Turns out, I was not ideally suited to write books on demand. My inability to treat the characters and world I’d created as merely product to fill a market niche made for a stressful working environment. No matter. While I’m proud to have met the challenge, singing two verses of the same song was plenty for me. Besides, everyone must decide on her just rewards. For me, that image of a Latina reading my book on a bus is satisfying enough: another person engaged with a work I created from a life stubbornly devoted to reading, writing, failing, rewriting, quitting and starting all over again. That’s a rite of passage as joyful, and deeply humbling, as I could ever dream of.

 

Born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, Belinda Acosta is Tejana by way of her mother. She currently lives in Austin and writes “TV Eye” for the Austin Chronicle.

A former Austin resident and a past Texas Observer contributor, Belinda Acosta is now a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.