Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fiesta de Quinceanos

I had been invited some time ago by a student of mine to her quinceaños party. I was honored to be asked to this event which marks the fifteenth birthday of a girl, her debut of sorts, symbolically her coming of age as a woman.  On several occasions I’ve looked on from the outside as the quinceñera, on the arm of her father, walked through town from the church, where there is a ceremony, to the family’s house where the party takes place. Following in a procession are family and friends, dressed up for the occasion.  But the most amazing of all is the quinceñera who wears a ball gown, often of pink or blue, and a tiara, jewelry, high heels.
 The party was scheduled for the day after the end of the Access English camp at which I was serving as co-coordinator with 2 other volunteers, a camp which the quinceñera had been invited to attend.  The camp was a fabulous opportunity for her, a girl from a very poor community, to meet kids from 12 cities in Nicaragua, study English each day for three hours with the best teachers, visit the shrine city of Nicaragua, Granada (which everyone says they want to visit and precious few Nicaraguans have actually seen), and have crazy fun in the way American campers have fun, so different from the kinds of limited games kids play in their communities. But the quinceñera declined the invitation because she was needed at home to prepare for her party.  I admit to being a little sad about her decision, emblematic as it seemed of priorities, and at odds so with her father’s voiced commitment to me to do everything he could to support her education.
I came to the party with my gift, a pair of earrings some kids I know had advised was a good one for the occasion, but I put a book in the gift bag, a picture book in English, just to remind the quinceñera that she has a mind as well as her great beauty. The guests were assembled listening to music when I scrambled up the dirt path to the house where the celebration was being held. The party was held on the packed dirt area in front of the house although plastic chairs were set up everywhere they could be, around trees and bushes and the wash stand.  The path across from the house was lined with spectators, who were not invited guests but gathered to watch the goings on.  Hand cut pink tissue paper flags attached to strings marked off the area and pink and blue balloons decorated the walls and formed a little arch over the special white cake with blue icing.
When the music was over I and all the students present were herded to the side to have our pictures taken with the quinceñera.  Then the food was served by her mom and aunt, two plates at a time walked from the house and handed to each guest.  I was served early, a small fried chicken drumstick, rice, salad and a tortilla, but I noticed that other people got a rice and chicken mixture topped by a slice of white bread, a meal I’ve seen a lot here for special occasions.  My first guess was that the adults got chicken and the kids rice, but after a while it was apparent that I was among the honored guests who ate chicken. That was followed by some delicious arroz con leche washed down with coke and finally by cake.
I saw something for the first time other Peace Corps volunteers had told me about.  While I was eating my chicken I noticed that a student sitting next to me was holding two plates of rice and bread, hers an her sister’s, but not eating anything.  I suggested to her that she eat, but she said no.  She was not alone. All around were people balancing plates of uneaten food.  I had heard that in some poor country families anyone who is fortunate enough to be offered food away from home is expected to bring it home to be shared with the rest of the family.  I expect that was what was going on here although an alternate theory has it that in the countryside some people are shy about eating in front of strangers.
This observation reminded me of a theory I have been slowly developing about the relative importance of the group in Nicaragua as compared to the individual.  This is hardly a new insight.  What is new, for me anyway, is the application of the group preference to situations in my classes at school or to life in the pueblo.  For instance, the proclivity of kids to copy from each other in class: The whole group functions to ensure that everyone passes, not just the lucky few who understand the assignment or work harder or do the task.  To norteamericanos it is cheating—straight up--because the gringo idea is that each individual rises or falls on his own merits and copying interferes with that goal, but here-MAYBE-it’s an assertion of the emphasis on the common good (passing, not necessarily learning, being the “good”). Another example:  students have pena, that is, embarrassment about being singled out to do something, speak in class, for instance.  Sometimes it is really crippling, the poor student dissolved in humiliation, covering his or her face or ducking his head. One cause, in addition to personality, might be the discomfort about being singled out from the safety of the group.  Another example: my teachers are less inclined to hold individuals responsible for their misbehavior in class than they are to hold the whole class responsible.  For that reason they would rather harangue the class than single out and correct individual students.  This is an extension, also of the reluctance of the school authorities to deal with individual teacher’s weaknesses (e.g., talking on their cell phones during class) in favor of general speeches about values—every tack indirect preferred over the direct.  I wonder if there is also in this theory an explanation of Nicaraguans’ reluctance to travel to see parts of their country.  I always assumed the reasons were habit or finances, but maybe no one wants to look more “urbane” than the others.
It’s funny how you can know something in theory and not recognize it in practice. It’s also funny how understanding the why of something makes it easier to deal with.  School starts in a couple of weeks and I’ll be watching for the individual/group distinction in action.  Meanwhile, my beautiful quinceñera student had her big day in the community instead of her big opportunity at camp. 

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