The commercial for the Saturn Vue offers a pithy indictment of our culture of bling in its slogan: “Rethink American. Rethink Excess.” Ironic, perhaps, in an ad touting the virtues of a hybrid SUV, but it reflects a growing unease among us about how runaway consumption threatens to devour us whole.
Nowhere is this culture of greed run amok more conspicuously on display than on MTV’s hit reality show My Super Sweet Sixteen. The series showcases all that is grotesque in status-obsessed parents today, but it also offers fair warning of the worse that is to come when their self-indulged progeny come of age. Consider 15-year-old Ava, who infamously threw a tantrum because her parents initially refused to buy her a Range Rover. If these children are our future, then the end of days is surely right around the corner.
The conspicuous displays on television are but extreme examples of a booming “coming of age” market that has marketing analysts salivating. Be it school proms, bar and bat mitzvahs or sweet sixteens, celebrating your child’s (most often, your daughter’s) entrance into adulthood has become big business. What was once a solemn rite of passage–or at least a sweet moment of parental nostalgia and teenage excitement–has turned into a spending extravaganza.
In such times, a book critiquing the commercialization of the quinceañera, a Latino tradition similar to the sweet sixteen, feels mandatory and inevitable. With a self-described mission to chronicle “how our traditions are remade in the USA, repackaged and sold back to us at a higher price,” Julia Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceañera offers the expected critique of commercialization, but she also points to the complex, contradictory and often bewildering relationships among tradition, materialism and identity.
The quinceañera is a lavish fiesta that marks a Latina girl’s entry into womanhood, usually held on her fifteenth birthday. As with other such celebrations, these too have been supersized to epic proportions, with the average price tag running at $5,000 for a night of limousines, stylists, caterers and, of course, the overpriced, outsized princess dress.
The dollar amounts spent on the quinceañera are comparable to other sweet sixteen parties, but that kind of expense can represent a staggering financial burden for the average Latino family. Parents often save for years for this special night, sometimes dooming themselves to a lifetime of debt for one night of overindulgence. What can be dismissed as the cupidity of upper-middle-class wannabes on MTV looks like financial suicide for a typical working-class family in Queens.
But the extravagant quinceañera is about a lot more than keeping up with the Rodriguezes. “It’s just something that comes to us from the past, that we want to give our children because it’s something we never had,” says unemployed carpenter Manuel Ramos in Alvarez’s book, explaining his decision to spend $3,000-plus on his daughter Monica’s quinceañera.