Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Quinceanera" - by Erinn Hutkin


Date: Monday, August 15, 2005
Section: EXTRA
Edition: METRO
Page: 1
Byline: By Erinn Hutkin 981-3138
Summary: Forget the Sweet Sixteen -- in Hispanic tradition, it's a
girl's 15th birthday that marks her arrival at womanhood

Jeffrey Stritesky wears gold Ray-Ban aviator glasses and blows into a
harmonica as he guides sister Ashley through dance steps in their
Daleville living room. After he threatens to muss her salon-created
curls and receives a couple of "don't even's" in return, the teen-agers
play nice and dance ballroom.

The moment is interrupted when their dad, "Big Jeff" Stritesky, hollers
from upstairs for 17 year-old Jeffrey to get in the shower.

It's 7 p.m. on Saturday. In one hour, Ashley will arrive at her

It is a custom that many of her friends and Virginia relatives never
knew existed. But as the daughter of a Cuban woman, Ashley Stritesky
will be continuing a tradition that in Hispanic cultures signals the
transition from girl to young woman.

All on her 15th birthday.

Over 20 relatives are visiting from Miami for the event. Her
grandparents made the 16-hour-drive hauling a custom-made cake.

Her mother did this when she turned 15. Now Ashley will do it too.

With an hour to go, Ashley's nails are shiny pink from the salon. Her
make-up, by Clinique, is in place. Her dance is unrehearsed. Her cell
phone has been ringing all day.

Her nerves are frazzled. She worries about falling down stairs. Or that
none of her 150 guests will show up.

But before any of that can happen, the family has to get out the door
dressed and on time.

Big Jeff saunters into the master bedroom, buttoning his blue dress
shirt, which falls untucked over cotton shorts and dark socks.

Ashley clouds the room with another layer of aerosol hairspray.

A hair dryer hums in the bathroom, where her mother, Irma, and
grandmother talk auctioneer-fast in Spanish, cleaning a make-up stain
from Irma's aquamarine skirt.

"My dress has lost its pleats," Irma moans.

"That's my signal to leave," Jeffrey, fresh from the shower, concludes.
He walks out of the room wearing only a towel and his Ray Bans.

In the distance, Ashley's cell phone rings again.

Feathery clouds are painted on the ceiling of Ashley's bedroom. Posters
of Orlando Bloom and the Olsen twins hang on pastel walls. Ashley
still as her grandma, Irma Cerda, zips her dress.

It's a sheath the color of butter, with sparkly shoulder straps.
Glittery beads form flowers and leaves on sheer material, and a train
rustles behind her.

"Are you excited, Jeffrey?," Ashley asks her brother as her grandmother
clasps pearls around her wrist and neck.

"No," he answers, monotone.

Ashley is nervous. Her shoulder straps keep falling. She doesn't want a
Janet Jackson moment.

This event celebrating her 15th birthday almost did not happen. Ashley
canceled her quinceanera earlier this year, deciding to make a trip to
New York City instead. But when her Miami relatives said they would
visit her anyway, the party was re-planned. That was in late July.

Her quinceanera is not entirely traditional. There is no pre-party
No court of 14 people in ball gowns and tuxedos with choreographed

But she is carrying on a tradition that may be the last of its kind in
her family. Unless Ashley marries a Latino, her own daughter may not
have a quinceanera.

Ashley does not turn 15 until Thursday, when there will be more
celebrating. But this may be biggest event in her life until her

When it is time to leave, father and daughter walk out of the house
toward a Ford Explorer parked in the driveway.

"I think you should open the door for me," Big Jeff jokes as they
approach the car.

A cousin slides a rose corsage onto Ashley's wrist as she walks into
Greenfield Educational Center for the celebration. She walks past a
table stacked with gifts and waits at the top of the steps.

Her brother is on one arm. Her cousin, 20-year-old Alex Delgado, is on
the other.

Downstairs, a priest concludes a blessing.

"Christo. Amen."

The crowd claps as Ashley is led downstairs. She responds with giggles.

She sits in a chair as Big Jeff slides off her white flip-flops and
replaces them with gold heels, signifying in quinceanera tradition that
Ashley is now a young woman.

The DJ plays a slow song by Julio Iglesias. Ashley flashes a smile as
she dances with her dad, stepping from side to side to the sound of

Big Jeff's father, Edward Stritesky, cuts in. Then her Cuban grandpa,
Alfred Cerda.

"Awww," girls in the crowd coo as Jeffrey, her brother, finishes the
dance. His yellow silk tie and the rose on his gray jacket lapel match
Ashley's dress.

"Hi," Ashley squeaks when the song ends. She thanks her grandparents
driving from Miami. She thanks her friends and relatives for being

"It means the world to me," she says.

The DJ switches to Gwen Stefani's "Holla Back." Ashley hugs her
girls in spaghetti straps and black heels.

"You look so pretty," one of them tells her.

"She thinks my tractor's sexx-ee," Ashley and her girlfriends sing
to a country song.

They sing along to rap.

"Baby-got-back!" they shout.

They sing along to "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson.

"Since you've been gone ..."

Cousins from Virginia dance with kids from Miami. Relatives flop on the
floor in breakdances and the worm. Ashley's escort, 17 year-old Tim
Wright, dances a jig so fast one of his sandals flies into the crowd.

The most potent drink at the party is sherbert mixed with 7-Up, so
there's nothing to blame for loose inhibitions.

The merengue plays. Cela Cruz sings. A conga line snakes around the
room, a little girl with a full skirt and a big bow in her hair serving
as its caboose.

Ashley's Cuban grandma, whom she calls Mimi, high-fives each person as
the human train passes.

Girls dance barefoot, their kicked-off heels abandoned at the edge of
the floor. Boys' shirts become increasingly untucked throughout the
night. Brother Jeffrey's dark bangs drop into his brooding teen-age

"Go Irma! Go Irma!" a circle of cousins chanted as Ashley's mother
twists on the dance floor.

Big Jeff stands against a railing with a fist pressed to his chin. He
grins the whole time.

Her birthday cake is pale yellow, decorated to look like a present with
a three-dimensional icing bow.

"Happy Birthday" blares from the sound system as the crowd sings along.

"I don't know what to wish for," Ashley admits with a giggle.

The party is near perfect. Everyone shows up, despite Ashley's fears.
All that hairspray holds her curls in place. Not once does she fall.

The only glitch is that the pleat never quite returns to Irma's dress.

Ashley waits for her mom to light the cake candle. She makes a silent
wish. She leans over and knocks down the flame with a single puff.

She may have to wait to see if her wish comes true. But for one night,
surrounded by friends and family from far away, Ashley Stritesky feels
very blessed.

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