Millennials come of age in immigrant families

In this blog entry, Evelyn Ibatan Rodriguez celebrates coming of age ceremonies and discusses what prompted her to write Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras

When I first pitched the project that has become Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras to my dissertation chair, the feminist in me worried that I might be judged as a phony because of my interest in traditions so associated with sparkles, poufy dresses, and curtsies.  Fortunately, my chair had just finished organizing her daughter’s bat mitzvah, so she didn’t need much persuading when I proposed studying “debuts” and “quinces” to better understand gender and American immigrant adaptation.  With this book, I now have the exciting opportunity to show readers how much more there are to debutantes and quinces than meets the eye.

Celebrating DebutantesIn some ways, this task seems more daunting today than when I started my fieldwork—a decade before Joel Stein lead Time readers to consider whether young adults are more entitled than ever or “will save the world” (2013).  And long before internet commenters blasted Ms. magazine for daring to call pop superstar Beyoncé a “fierce feminist” (2013).  But, amidst the hand-wringing over young people and what advocating for women’s equality should look like, Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras shows how some American immigrant families have managed to indulge their daughters without producing narcissists. These families observe old-world female coming-of-age traditions without imposing old-school limits on what females (and feminists) can be in a number of creative ways:

1.     They tie personal success to collective success.  Although female coming-of-age parties are framed as “for the girl,” the immigrants I studied organized these events as collective endeavors, designed to showcase the beauty and success of their families and cultures, as well as that of their daughters.  This requires celebrants to recognize what they want as inextricable from their parents’ and communities’ desires, needs, and goals, and, ultimately, it imparts a sense of responsibility for the well-being of those around them. This is remarkable when one considers that the majority of my subjects are “millennials,” teenagers who have been accused of being  more self-involved and significantly less civically and politically engaged than the generations before them.

2.     Debuts and quinceañeras also re-establish first-generation authority.   Viewers of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 and Quiero Mis Quinces (which paint debutantes and quinceañeras as teenage divas who control their parents via tantrums and manipulation) might be shocked that the immigrant parents I observed actually exercised a good degree of influence and control over their daughters.  During preparation for their events, for example, daughters often came to appreciate their near-total financial dependence on their parents.  And, by stressing the “tradition” aspect of their daughters’ celebrations, immigrants asserted themselves as “cultural experts” who their daughters needed to properly understand the traditions they were taking part in. This is vital for children of immigrants who are at risk of “downward assimilation.”  Inter-generational collaboration is also healthy for all youth because of how “cyberculture” has enabled many young adults to evade meaningful contact with anyone beside their peers, though healthy maturation requires youth to relate to older people and things.

3.     And quinces and debuts enable daughters to experience obstacles and figure them out.   Though these events allow some parents to establish greater authority over their kids, the immigrants I studied were not “Tiger” or “helicopter” parents.  In fact, the young women who experienced the best outcomes in my study were those who were granted some autonomy during their debut or quince preparation and performances.  Letting young women to take some financial and/ or organizing responsibilities and enabling them to respectfully voice their disagreement during planning helped cultivate leadership, money-management, communication, and conflict-management skills.  And these are all aptitudes those on either side of the Beyoncé-as-feminist debate should be able to agree are vital to women’s social, political, legal, and economic equality.

Of course there are other ways immigrant-organized debuts and quinceañeras avoid (and do not avoid) producing millennial narcissists and chauvinists.  Nevertheless,Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras should give the hand-wringers some pause—and maybe a little hope.  Because, as I write in the last pages of my book, the advancement of the communities I studied, and of our society in general, depends on how we enlarge our culture to accommodate diverse forms of expression—including feminists in sparkle dresses, being American and Filipino and/or Mexican at the same time, and learning to care for others by organizing a birthday party.

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