Originally created 04/24/04

Young Hispanics learn responsibility as part of quinceanera celebration

NAMPA, Idaho -- The pastel dresses were carefully pressed, the wax flowers twisted into delicate coronas, the waltz choreographed and the invitations sent.

But this Quinceanera Gala - a traditional coming-of-age celebration in Hispanic communities on a girl's 15th birthday - was much more than a party for 40 young teens gathered in tuxedos and gowns.

The youth are part of a new Stay-in-School Quinceanera Program, which mixes preparations for the glitzy event with education about culture, lessons on respect and warnings about teen preganancy and dropping out.

For 14-year-old Yvette Garcia, it may have been the push she needed to stay in school.

"It makes me feel that I could do whatever I want if I put my mind into it," she said. "It makes me respect myself more and don't put myself down as much."

The program was started by the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho in an attempt to reduce the high dropout rates among Hispanic youth.

"It's a really important time in a young person's life to become more productive in staying in school and going on to college," said Graciela Fonseca, who helps run the program.

So the center used the much-anticipated quincereana celebration to squeeze in lessons about responsibility and experiments in self-expression through writing and art.

Jorge Pina, the center's executive director, turns every possible moment with the middle school boys and girls into a lesson on respect.

"They learn to be part of the community and to protect the community, and that's what the quinceanera is all about," Pina said.

Historically, quinceanera celebrations marked a girl's 15th birthday and signified she was ready for marriage. A centuries-old tradition in Latin America, the ceremonies have gained in popularity in Spanish-speaking pockets of the United States.

In some regions, quinceanera celebrations can be as elaborate as a wedding, with special church services, engraved invitations, live music and catering.

"The community all comes together to sponsor the cake, the food, the music," said Lisa Sanchez, a writing instructor with the program. "If I asked you to pay for a quinceanera cake, you would be honored and become a co-madre or co-mother to this child because it's an elevated level of friendship."

Hispanics make up about 8.5 percent of Idaho's population, and the migration of farmers has led the community to grow at a fast clip, jumping 10.6 percent between mid-2000 and mid-2002.

Many of the area's Hispanic teens are drawn to the program to help prepare for their own quinceaneras, Sanchez said. But she hopes they leave prepared to become responsible, productive adults.

"There are so many challenges growing up Hispanic," Sanchez said. "This is a chance for them to say, 'I come from a really great culture and this is an asset, not something to overcome."'

Garcia, like many of her Hispanic friends, will have her own quinceanera celebration in October when she turns 15. But her mother, Jovita Medina, encouraged her to take part in the cultural center's program, too.

"My mom cheered me on and told me don't quit, because it was worth my time. Now I thank her for it," Garcia said.

Medina said that before the program, her daughter told her "she might not graduate high school."

"Now she's decided she will," Medina said. "The program puts kids on the right track."

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