Friday, August 20, 2010

First Night on the Town

On my third night in Guatemala, my Santa Lucia (first) host mother decided to take my fellow PCT and me to a 15th birthday party for the daughter of a childhood friend. 

For those unfamiliar, this is a bit like sweet 16 or a debutante party big in many parts of Latin America, with the Quincieñera birthday girl as the star of the show.  There had been lively discussion over whether we would be allowed to go at all, because we are supposed to be home before dark every night for safety purposes.  While that’s somewhat flexible if you are out with your family, in this case we were going to a neighboring town meaning we would be traveling by camioneta (aka Chicken Bus).  Having had strict instructions from the Training Director to be home before 7 pm, we double and triple checked with our host mom that we would be home on time.  She assured us we would, as it wouldn’t be good for her to travel after dark anyway, and that yes, we’d be home before the buses stopped running and before it was dark.


The event started with a Mass at 4:00 that we missed because we were still in class, so we went straight to the reception/party portion at a local municipal building, arriving around 5:45  (45 minutes late, according to the invitation) after a quick pass through the outdoor market to pick up a gift. 

The room was filled with about 40 round tables with white tablecloths and 9” tall plastic princess figurines in blue ribbon covered wire hoops that were suspended at eye level when seated.  The birthday girl’s name and the phrase “a dream made reality” (translated) were suspended over the cake table in large blue sparkly Styrofoam block letters.  There were towers of white cakes below with blue frosting flowers surrounded by another dozen or so of the plastic princess figurines.  These ones had batteries inside them that made a heart shape on the skirt glow in ever changing colors.  The table was a huge Lazy Susan, making a spinning sculpture of confections with glowing princess dolls.  There were waiters putting out the last of the goblets with white cloth napkins folded inside them, a screen for live and prerecorded videos, two walls of speakers playing very loud music, a DJ, and a blue oddly sized swing set with one basket shaped swing on it. 

In conspicuous absence was the birthday girl, most of her family, and guests to fill the 80% empty seats.

So, we sat with our host mother around a table, mainly silently due to the music already playing.  During the next hour the music gained volume steadily until I wished for the earplugs that had been on the packing list a former Volunteer sent me.  The music itself consisted mainly of American pop music that had a saxophone playing the melody in place of a singer.  I thought it odd when, “It Must Have Been Love (But it’s Over Now),” came on but figured it’s peppy enough if you don’t know the lyrics are about heartbreak.  What really got me was when they played Phil Collins’ song, “Another Day in Paradise,” in the midst of all the extravagance.  Odds are none of the people present knew the original,  so I suppose it was my own personal dish of irony.

As the clocked neared 7:00 my friend and I considered worrying but decided against it just because the situation was out of our hands anyway.   We were hungry and thirsty, she had a headache, and we had lost hope of making it home by dark since darkness was actually imminent and there was still little evidence that the party would begin any time soon, nor that our host mother had the slightest inclination to leave.

Luckily, the actual event got going pretty soon after 7 (guests had finally started filling the room around 6:30).  It began with a procession of that looked like every younger cousin the Quinciñera had in blue dresses and suits, followed by the girl of the hour in a blue ball gown accompanied by her grandparents, while her parents waited tearfully at the swing set.  There were many hugs and tears, followed by a series of symbolic first and lasts.  This began with the birthday girl “breaking” her “last” piñata (oddly enough, shaped to look just like her), swinging on a swing for the “last” time, and getting her “first” shot at wearing makeup and high heels.  Of course, the next item was a slide show of her childhood which had plenty of beauty pageant and dance competitions that showed plenty of makeup- and heel-wearing in her past.  Then there was a series of dances including father/daughter, mother/daughter, grandfather/daughter, grandmother/daughter, and daughter/boyfriend pairings.

At this point (which felt like “at last” to me) there was a full sit down dinner for everyone with champagne, beef, rice, potato salad, rice, and rolls.  Next there was the ceremonial gift delivery after which point our host mother agreed to take us home.  I wouldn’t have been so antsy except that my friend was feeling more and more sick, both feverish and nauseous.  We walked a bit to grab a taxi, and made it home without incident (although we did pass a landslide area that took over one of the lanes on the road.

The whole experience was fascinating on several levels and I was thrilled to get to observe the event!  Hopefully I’ll get to attend another later on to see how these events vary from place to place and family to family.  I was frustrated we didn’t have more options when my friend was feeling so ill, but I’ll chalk that up to a lesson in direct/indirect communication styles (especially now that she’s fully recovered).  Also, if that’s a birthday party, I can’t wait to attend a wedding!

1 comment:

  1. Oh my! We thought a "doll cake" for your 5th b'day was a bit over the top, but this.... I'm glad it worked out well in the end. We'll be interested to hear about another such gathering in the future. I'm curious to know if the swing set is a regular part of the ceremony.