Decaying remains of the “French Colony.”
It was raining quietly when I took these photos through the store windows of the quinceañera and bridal shops on West Jefferson Boulevard. It was a glum enough day to make the dresses look more vivid than usual: like flowers sprung from the rain. Full-blown, confectionery, hoop-skirted flowers. A stretch of West Jefferson, headed on the east by Bambi Beauty Shop at South Zang Blvd. and more or less terminated at S. Polk St., is devoted to the clothing and the beatification of the quinceañera. Brides, too, and flower children. But the potential market value in attracting quinceañeras and their mothers may be more tempting than the bride market. There are simply more fifteen-year-old girls (and fourteen-year-olds: the preparation for a fifteenth birthday can be time-consuming) without cars or drivers’ licenses. If they are limited by convenience to the shopping neighborhoods of their childhoods, they are certainly not limited in their choice of gowns.
Quinceañera refers both to the girl-queen of the fifteen-birthday celebration and to the fiesta de quince años itself, often shortened to quince. The (fabulous) Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia, includes a thoughtful entry on the quince, and a useful description:
“The ritual begins with a church ceremony, followed by a reception where family and friends bring gifts to the girl of honor, known as the quinceañera. She also performs elaborate choreographed dance routines with her father and members of her court. A court in the Quinceañera ceremony is made up of the honored girl’s friends, who are referred to as damas (ladies) and chambelánes (chamberlains, or gentlemen). Although the Quinceañera has never been designated an official rite of the Roman Catholic Church, it is a popular religious tradition that has been practiced by Latina/o families for decades.”
During the church ceremony, the quinceañera may receive a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe from the madrina de medulla (godmother, and sponsor of the medal). Another madrina may present a ring. Indeed, because of the costs of the festival, many godparent-sponsors may be needed to chip in for the church, the cake, the catering, the reception decorations, and so on.
Catholic churches have sometimes been at odds with the fiesta de quince años, possibly because the quinceañera’s court of boys as well as the quinceañera’s determination to look as glamorous as possible are not entirely compatible with the medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In any case, things begin to get very secular after the church ceremony. The quinceañera changes from flat shoes to high heels. Her father may change them for her. She also gives up her last doll, although I’m not sure how this ceremony works, since the doll may be purchased new, small enough to serve as a cake topper.
The fiesta de quince años has captured my imagination lately because it is said to be a Mexican tradition, rooted in Aztec coming-of-age ceremonies, Catholicism, and in the modes and manners of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century courts of Europe. Yet, researchers have traced it only as far as the Twentieth Century, and no farther. Sociologist Valentina Napolitano studied the neighborhood of Lomas de Polanco in south Guadalajara in the late 1990s and found that mothers and grandmothers there had no personal experience of the quinceañera:
“The origins of the feast are unknown to people in Lomas de Polanco. Old women do not recollect it in their accounts of the past. Middle-aged women remember that rich families in their villages of origin did celebrate the feast, but it was a custom of the ‘gente de dinero’ (rich people). . . .
“The first reports of the feast started to appear in the Sociales (social events) section of Guadalajara newspapers during the early 1940s. There are no church records, since the ritual is not a sacrament. The fiesta was celebrated in the house, and was an occasion for making family connexions manifest. It reinforced family status and social cohesion among a specific social class. Nowadays, press reports still present an ‘ideal’ model of the celebration of the fifteenth birthday, a standard unattainable by the population of Lomas de Polanco but still deferred to by quinceañeras . . . and their families.”
Angela McCracken cites Napolitano in her own recent study of the quinceañera in Guadalajara, The Beauty Trade, adding that “street myths often recounted the idea that Empress Carlota either started the tradition or had a party for her damas to be presented to society that was then reinterpreted as a quince.”
Lacking clear-cut historical dates, and variously interpreted, the fiesta de quince años may be a debut or a coming-of-age ritual, or both, or neither. It’s hard to say. But you can say—anything. You can say that “[t]he origins of this festival are shrouded in the history of the Mexican people.” It seems incredible that a celebration as big and bold as the quince could hide its light under even the densest shroud. But it’s convenient to adopt the mysterious shroud point of view if you are trying to figure out when the quince started and can get no farther back than the 1940s.
According to Angela McCracken, in The Beauty Trade, the quince años is no ordinary rite of passage. The participants themselves, at fourteen and fifteen, aren’t doing any heavy-lifting to understand the festival’s religious aspects. They understand the quince años simply as a glorious party that changes them from teenagers, to teenagers who have had a quince años; indeed, a quince años in which they have often had much to say about how they–and through them their extended families–are publicly presented. It is true that the fifteen-year-old in Guadalajara gains greater liberty to flirt, to wear makeup, to teeter in high hair and high heels if she likes to, and to go out with friends, but this is not a change of life in any way equivalent to the costs and efforts of putting on the party. As one of McCracken’s young interviewees says, apparently trying to describe her transition without alarming an adult:“’it is like starting to be less of a girl or a kid and more like you can be crazy and sort of, I mean, within reason of course . . . .‘” For girls in conservative Guadalajara in the early 2000s, any loosening of supervision was a welcome relief, but the quinceañeras did not think of themselves as becoming women, and still less as being ready to marry. As they saw it, they had become girls primed to enjoy their teen years, the pinnacle of youth, beauty and carefree happiness. Observing that no significant change was anticipated after the party, McCracken believes that “[t]he quince is a special case of a now-universal rite of passage: the beauty makeover.”
The Beauty Trade has the ambitious goal of determining the quinceañera’s local and global impact on the beauty market, the swapping of quince ideas among young people, and the degree to which small businesses, such as home-based beauty salons, share in the financial rewards of the festivals. These are only some of McCracken’s concerns. I can’t do justice to her book because I’ve only read the parts of it relating to the beautification of the quinceañera, which are fascinating enough.
Angela McCracken is a perfect guide to the modern quince años (modern-ish: her studies were done around 2007) because it is clear that she is interested in beauty transformations, and she has a keen eye for makeup and hairstyles. She attended beauty school in Guadalajara while gathering material for her book, where “as beginners we were taught makeup applications that typically included between four and six shades of eye shadow per application” (as opposed to “sixteen shades” for advanced practitioners). She notes that after a quinceañera has been through the hands of the beautician, “the total effect is close to the television makeup of a telenovela star.”
Beauty products include The Dress (the distinctive princess dress), hairstyles and makeup, tutoring in makeup application, and walking in high heels, as well as learning the traditional feminine accomplishments of dancing, performing hostess duties, and presenting oneself as “unique” in the careful choice of clothing, accessories and party decorations–yet without ever running the risk of introducing any very striking innovations—such as appearing in a shawl and pre-Columbian embroidery.
In particular, hair is an important medium for the beautifier’s art. Even as a neutral researcher, Angela McCracken appears rather stunned by hair preparations. She only observed updos in Guadalajara, in which “all or most of the hair is gathered toward the crown of the head, making a sort of modern beehive that makes the hair look like mounds of curls or mounds of straight but stylistically separated locks of hair sprouting out of the crown, falling forward over the top of the head, and falling down or streaming down the quinceañera’s neck and back. . .” Even though styles have changed in the ten years since McCracken observed these trends, the lavish anointment of the hair with hair products, even for “natural” styles, appears to be mandatory. The mysteries of the hair salon strike McCracken as faintly similar to a sequestered cleansing ritual, providing the fiesta with perhaps its closest approach to a traditional rite of passage. “Understood as a rite of passage, the beauty transformation has become a path to a secular beauty religion, wherein becoming beautiful leads to a new stage in life, creates a better future, and becomes an obligatory daily ritual that very few people in Guadalajara will disrespect.”
Angela McCracken’s young interviewees were obsessed with color, abiding by a strict three-color rule in their choice of gown, ornaments, shoes, and makeup, down to the tiniest rubber hair bands. No more than three colors could be worn, and the highest sticklers ordained only one. As one girl said, “. . . If you are going to wear pink clothing, it should all match, from the shoes to the accessories: pink. The makeup . . . yep, also. Since you are wearing pink, you should wear pink eye shadow. . . .” If pink is chosen, pink should be the reigning color in ribbons, balloons, flowers, streamers, twinkly lights, and all other party decorations. Boys’ ties should also properly be pink.
McCracken is frank about the implications of the three-color rule, which accompanies a mindset of casual disparagement of indigenous beauty. She is clearly convinced, from her conversations with Quinceañeras in Guadalajara in 2007, that these girls, from aspiring middle class families in Mexico’s fourth largest city, wanted to look as little as possible like native Mexicans. Clothes of many and brilliant colors and patterns were considered gauche, unkempt, and inelegant. Perhaps the three-color rule protected the unwary from dreadful color faux pas. The preferred prototype was the fresa—a slang term often used negatively for a spoiled, cliquish, and yet apparently enviable and trend-setting girl, with color-coordinated outfits and European features. It is one thing to drop an Aztec coming-of-age ritual into the mythology of the quince años and quite another thing, quite impossible, for the quinceañera to dress like an Aztec.
McCracken, Angela B. The Beauty Trade: Youth, Gender, and Fashion Globalization. Oxford Studies in Gender and International Relations. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mitchell, Claudia, and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.
Napolitano, Valentina. 1997. “Becoming a Mujercita: Rituals, Fiestas and Religious Discourses”. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3 (2). [Wiley, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland]: 279–96. doi:10.2307/3035020.
Twentieth Century Quinceañeras
“I remember thirty-five years ago going to buy my quinceañera dress in downtown Laredo. I don’t know why my mother who sewed beautiful dresses for other girls did not make mine, and I don’t know why we didn’t go across the river to a bridal shop. I barely remember shortly before Christmas going downtown with my Mom and visiting store after store only to be disappointed. We didn’t really like anything that we could afford. Finally, we returned to a store where we had seen what was closest to what we had in mind. I believe it was Winnie Lee, or it may have been Las Novedades, where we found a white number that fit the bill. It was semi-formal length with tres faldas, that is the crinoline for fullness, a plain slip under it, and a white nylon overskirt that fell like a cloud all around my skinny frame. The wide skirt fell from a plain sleeveless scoop neckline bodice, topped by a bolero-style jacket made of white rabbit fur; I hope it was fake fur. I felt glamorous, and a bit awkward, walking down the aisle on my parents’ arms at San Luis Rey Church.” (1995)
White nylon gowns were apparently still correct when Cristela Gonzalez Bond debuted in Cristela’s Quinceañera (1965), a home movie preserved on Texas Archive for the Moving Image. In the era of Jackie Kennedy style, just five years after Norma Cantú’s quinceañera, Cristela Gonzalez Bond is an ingénue all in white, her veil stiff and slight, gloved past the elbows, elegantly gowned and impossibly coiffed, with a beehive and a flip:
She greets her guests competently, smiling and hugging. She is sometimes a little stiff with her arms, as though she were wearing bandages instead of gloves, but a touch of child-like shyness and restrained excitement make her gestures adorable:
Cristela’s Quinceañera is worth watching for the fashion, the piled and puffed and lacquered hair, and even for the hair ornaments. Maybe especially for the hair ornaments. Early on, watch for the lime green fascinator, the size of a dessert plate and as voluptuous as a Christmas tinsel bow or a Homecoming chrysanthemum. It may be a flower. It may be a generous slice of mossy turf. By the time the dancing gets groovy it has been removed:
Here is a modern version of that flouffy hair ornament. This one is apparently made of relatively firm nylon net, with sequins. From a window display of quinceañera dresses on West Jefferson:
Nice shot of Cristela’s eye roll (below), bashful and goofy, telegraphing thrilled anticipation and cross-your-fingers-for-me agitation. Plus a little tremor like a pointer with a squirrel up a tree. She sparkles in the darker scenes (as does the plastic over the lamp shade) because the bodice of her gown is bejeweled, possibly with beaded or sequined lace appliqué:
A close up of the front door, showing decorative metalwork of oak leaves and acorns. There are also entrances on either side of the building: one for boys and one for girls. The front door, which is fancier, must have been for teachers. There seems to have been a preoccupation, maybe a distinctively southern preoccupation, with who could go in which door. I wonder if, in practice, boys and girls and adults ever flouted the door divisions.
Note (May 2016): I should have known better than to over-think the door divisions. A poster on The Old Oak Cliff Conservation League site cleared it up in a jiffy.
2012-07-24 15:34 wrote:
It’s all boarded up and gated, but the gate is less a bar to photography than the fire ants in the overgrown school yard.
Eagle Ford Elementary School was built in 1916, in unincorporated Cement City. The building is a good example of designing with the proudest local product available: cement, in this case. And not always a fine, smooth cement, but something more elemental, globby, and plastery. The school looks like it arose from the chalk bed composed of equal parts sand and pulverized seashells, only to be painted by Pompeians for use as a bawdy house. I really like it. A section just around the topmost arch of the doorway has chalky streaks of yellow and orange in it, the color of a ripe, if matte, tangerine. The door, with its jail house bars, has been embellished with cast-metal panels of oak leaves and acorns. The metalwork is fine, though evidently spray-painted. As decoration, it doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the building, or to have any reason for being there, other than that it is always good to have acorns on the door.
I can’t help wondering whether James Howard Kunstler would approve of Bonnie Parker’s school. My own taste in architecture is undependable. I can’t resist anything colorful. In Home from Nowhere, Kunstler takes a stand against concrete block boxes, strip malls, zoning codes written for cars, and the ugliness and isolation of modern American cities and suburbs in general:
” . . . Compare any richly embellished firehouse or post office built in 1904 with its dreary concrete-box counterpart today. Compare the home of a small-town bank president of the 1890s, with its massive masonry walls and complex roof articulation, with the flimsy home of a 1990s business leader, made of two-by-fours, Sheetrock, and fake fanlight windows. When we were a far less wealthy nation, we built things with the expectation that they would endure. To throw away money (painfully acquired) and effort (painfully expended) on something certain to fall apart in thirty years would have seemed immoral, if not insane, in our great-grandparents’ day.”
Eagle Ford School is a concrete box, but such a fine concrete box. It is one hundred years old, sitting on a plot of land ably contested by a few hundred thousand fire ants. If it isn’t absolutely solid, it looks solid. Somebody left something of themselves in the embellishments of oak leaves and acorns. I can’t remember when I’ve ever seen such flamboyance in a street address. The numbers 1601 are stuck within a dominating oval that bulges in the middle and stretches them with it. The central numbers ‘6’ and ‘0’ are as swollen as if somebody wrote them on the side of a balloon and blew it up, and it happened to bulge vertically in 2D. That treatment of numbers looks Deco to me. I like all the differences in texture. Maybe it was wise to build such massive walls; maybe it was almost cool in that cement fortress. The gigantic crack in the foreground stair-wall is irresistible; but it’s not easy to get your hand out again once you’ve tried to gauge just how thick this cement is. In listing this building as at risk of demolition, The Old Oak Oak Cliff Conservation League noted what an enormous amount of cement was used to build it.
Kunstler, James Howard. Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century. 1st Touchstone Ed Edition ed. Touchstone Press, 1998.
La Réunion cemetery is still around, but it is easy to overlook. It is set far back from a main street in what was once unincorporated West Dallas, partly obscured by a chain-link fence. The things that have been built around it seem banal at first, but when you force yourself to consider each thing, they seem to have an ugliness (the lake-thing, for instance) that is even quite mysterious, and worth some thought. Some parts of Dallas are like that; maybe many parts.
The cemetery is a completely gated community of the dead (although there was a lively black Chihuahua mix in the middle of it when I got there, barking, and never stopping), neighbored by big, plain, new white apartment buildings on two sides, and by a weird little lake in front. The lake is hard to figure out, because it isn’t used for sewage: it seems to be meant to be decorative, but there are no ducks in it or trees around it, and it looks about as forlorn as a lake ever looked, a neatly-kept hole in the ground with water in it, unrippled. A pair of lovers was walking by it, and they stopped to kiss by the cemetery. Since, overall, the entire area looked like a slum reclamation project in which everything but the cemetery had been bulldozed and a hole of water added as a flourish, I could only figure that they showed a certain delicate intuition in kissing by the one beautiful thing in sight, other than each other.
Not one stone is left of La Réunion, a co-operative socialist venture formed by French, Swiss, and Belgian immigrants in the mid-1850’s, just west of the new settlement of Dallas. The central, living quarters of the colony’s tract of roughly two thousand acres overlooked the Trinity River facing Dallas, on land that proved difficult to farm. La Réunion is supposed to have enjoyed a beautiful view on “the worst agricultural land in Dallas County” (Hill). For whiteness, boniness, flakiness and infertility, Founder Victor Considerant’s limestone bluffs likely resembled human skulls, if they were anything like other Trinity bluffs. Yet it may not have been the land that defeated the colonists. They created some excellent kitchen gardens. Maybe it was the weather that got them: the unexpected extremes of heat, and the killing cold snaps coming after deceiving mildness. Hunting was more satisfactory: “Prairie chickens were so plentiful they often darkened the sun as they flew by in such great numbers” (Santerre). Grasshoppers flew by, too, but decided to stop. In 1856, La Réunion was visited by a plague of locusts that ate the corn and stripped even the ancient hardwood forest. It is perhaps characteristic of these well-educated settlers that they might be eaten out of their homes and yet find the experience scientifically interesting. In the La Réunion collection of the Dallas Public Library is a paper called “Observation of the migratory grasshopper or western locust” by J. Reverchon for Prof. G. Boll, Naturalist. ”
The colony’s doctor, Dr. Augustin Savardan, was one of the earliest of La Réunion settlers, and one of the earliest to leave. Once back in France he published Un naufrage au Texas; observations et impressions recueillies pendant deux ans et demi au Texas et à travers les États-Unis d’Amérique. The English title, A Wreck in Texas, has a nice little rhyme to it. Judging from what little I can translate, the book is a scathing rebuttal of Texas as a green and fertile land, where, as Victor Prosper Considerant reckoned in Au Texas, “the annual prairie fires are largely responsible for the scarcity of snakes, and the breezes account for the scarcity of insect pests.” Savardan found snakes and insect pests in such style and abundance that he devoted an entire chapter to them. It wasn’t even possible to bivouac without getting chiggers, although at first Savardan didn’t quite know what he was getting. The following, tentative translation of a little bit of Chapter Eight, “Les Serpents et les Insectes” suggests that the insects were a more serious plague than the snakes. In fact, Savardan has some nice, and even quite metaphorical things to say about Texas snakes, although he nevertheless killed as many of them as he could catch:
Snakes and Insects
“In Texas, despite what Mr. Considerant says, there are many snakes, as well as a great variety of them.
In our yard, under our shed, in our workshop, under our floor – the “crotale” or rattlesnake and the copperheads were very common the first year, and even now are not infrequently found there.
In addition to these two venomous and dangerous beasts, one also finds (though more rarely), a snake I have not seen, but which I am told is called the cottonmouth because of the whiteness of the interior of its mouth, which contrasts with the somber color of its skin.
The few examples we have of the bites of these snakes lead us to believe that their venom is not very strong in northern Texas.
Before my arrival in Réunion, a woman was bitten by one of the cottonmouth vipers. Mr. Roger recounts that after thoroughly cleaning the bite, he made the woman drunk with whiskey, and the next day she was cured.
One of our dogs, in the presence of a hunter, was bitten on the lower lip by a rattlesnake. Its head and neck remained very swollen for a few days, but the swelling dissipated gradually, without cauterization of the bite (which we never could find) and with no treatment beyond a few drops of ammonia in water.
During our voyage from Houston to Réunion, in 1855, one of our hunters was bitten on the hand by a large water snake, and the bite, just thoroughly sucked out and carefully washed, did not cause any further malady.
None of these snakes exceeded two meters in length, and the biggest were no longer than the average arm.
None attacked humans without provocation. They all fled at our approach; but this is the marked difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes: the former retreat slowly, majestically, as if they knew the power of their means of defense, while the latter, especially in hot weather, flee with a rapidity that makes chasing them very difficult.
The non-venomous snakes are numerous and varied.
The most common is the “chicken snake,” literally couleuvre à poulets.
This snake was, in Réunion, the familiar guest of our habitations, and above all of our chicken coops, where it distressed the superintendent of our farmyard.
I have killed two, which, climbing up an oak in the pursuit of bird and squirrel nests, entwined in such a way as to form a beautiful braid nearly two meters long and perfectly representative of the caduceus of Mercury.
Finally, we could always find pretty little snakes, generally twisted among tree branches, where, as they were always completely green, a beautiful soft green, they were often confused with the foliage; and it was often noticed, when we put our hands on them, that they startled up no less fearful than feared.
Two others also merit a mention: one marked longitudinally with green, red, and yellow stripes, and another with red, blue, and yellow stripes, side by side in alternating rings along its entire length.
All of these little snakes, so perfectly inoffensive, would have been as contented as our pretty Blue-Collar snakes in France to dwell in intimacy with man; but their fatal resemblance to venomous snakes caused us to kill them all without distinction. Thus it is, in this world, we hunt down honest ideas—truly worthy ones, perhaps—without examining them; but, under the pretext that they resemble villainous ideas concealing poisonous perfidies, we act with the zealotry of that cardinal legate who, at the siege of Béziers, ordained that everyone in the city should be put to death, ensuring that no heretics escaped, and leaving, to the grace of God, the good and the bad to be sorted out Hereafter, and divine justice dealt out accordingly.
As for insects, none of us could understand to what M. Considerant owed the honor of finding them so rarely in Texas.
We first became preoccupied with this during our voyage from Houston to Réunion. Scarcely had we begun to bivouac in the prairie before each of us, without exception, had his legs engulfed by irresistible itching caused by a considerable number of pustules. Some claimed that it was the price to pay for acclimatization, but when people with younger and sharper eyes looked more closely, they recognized that the pustules were caused by an infinitesimally tiny species of tick, similar to the ones called “rougets” (red mullets) in France, which penetrates the epidermis, probably in order to shelter its young family, and produces numerous pustules.
I have never seen this insect; but during the three summers we spent in Texas I and everyone else have provided them with ample pasture, proving that this is not at all an effect of acclimatization, since the Americans are no more exempt than foreigners, and all legs that rub against the prairie grass are rapidly covered and soon after literally flayed by irresistible and persistent itching caused by these insects. This invasion did not take long to extend to the rest of the body and cause the same disorder.
In some of the settlers, the itching brought about a rash of boils that constituted a serious and very painful malady in which the ulcers, which were impossible not to scratch, were very difficult to cure. Every year, almost nobody managed to escape this scourge, and our friend M. Daly was, for three months, gravely ill enough to be forced to stay in bed almost the entire time. It is a sad fact that during this time, to his chagrin, he was not visited by his old friend, M. Victor Considerant, who, only when he was about to leave the colony and comments on this issue had been forwarded to him by M Cantagrel, did our executive officer recollect that he had at least some duty to fulfill in this circumstance and came to apologize for the long forgetfulness of him and his family.”
Dallas: The Making of a Modern City, by Patricia Evridge Hill
White Cliffs of Dallas: The story of La Reunion, The Old French Colony, by George Henry Santerre (1955)