We had been invited to Liliana and Herberto's Quinceañera. Liliana and Herberto are the children of Belinda, my wife's best friend at elementary school - which covers ages five to about eleven. The Quinceañera ceremony is a primarily Hispanic tradition, the celebration and religious blessing of a girl's fifteenth birthday marking her transition from childhood to womanhood.
I had been to one previous Quinceañera, and that was in honour of Bess's cousin Lena. The ceremony was in a church, as they tend to be, and had lasted a couple of hours. The section pertaining directly to Lena had been fine, and everyone felt happy for her as we all dutifully bowed our heads in prayer, or as a concession to the prayer of others in my case. This was followed by a lengthier address delivered by the priest, beginning with readings from the Bible, wishes expressed regarding Lena's hopefully prosperous future and so on; which somehow segued into one of the most passive-aggressive monologues I've ever heard. It seemed to last about an hour, and the general thrust was that there are a lot of people out there spreading filthy lies about the Catholic church, and that we should shun such people and take comfort from the fact that they will one day burn in hell for making accusations of a specific nature to which our man wasn't going to allude because none of it was true. The speech came across as particularly weird for having been delivered in the jovial tones of someone trying to drum up interest in the tombola; and it went on and on and on, and everyone began to feel a bit sorry for Lena still stood patiently at the front in all her finery.
After the service I got to meet Bess's father at long last. It wasn't a great meeting. He had suffered strokes and some memory loss in recent years, and didn't seem entirely sure as to quite who Bess might be so there didn't seem to be a lot of point in introducing me as his son-in-law. I also got to meet, Charlotte - either Bess's stepmother or more properly her father's second wife, depending on where you draw the familial line. Charlotte's father was cousin to music legend Johnny Cash, and the resemblance was difficult to miss. She seemed a pleasant woman, but the situation was awkward with her husband in such a state of obvious mental distress. We shook hands, and she seemed intrigued to have met someone from England, and I managed to keep myself from exclaiming well fuck me! at meeting the niece of the great Johnny Cash.
Liliana and Herberto's Quinceañera would hopefully be a more traditional affair, with less emphasis on anyone telling filthy lies about the church being consigned to an eternity of torment. My wife had raised a curious eyebrow at the inclusion of young Herberto. Being Liliana's twin brother, I suppose it would have seemed strange to exclude him. Under the circumstances it probably wouldn't have been much stranger celebrating his transition to womanhood, so we assumed that the ceremony had been adapted, at least leaving out the part where flat shoes are swapped for high heels.
Liliana looked gorgeous, a princess and dressed as such with that typically Latino enthusiasm and flair which somehow manages to make Liberace levels of excess seem positively restrained whilst nevertheless remaining entirely elegant. A legion of friends of both herself and Herberto filed in, the Quinceañera equivalent of bridesmaids but of both sexes, and then all the relatives and their guests settled down to the ceremony.
I'm not sure what it is about Hispanic people, but I am continually surprised at how good looking so many of them generally appear. When staying in Mexico City, I've always been struck by how it is possible to go an entire day without seeing even one face quite so distractingly hideous as those of the many gargoyles which congregate on an average wet Tuesday morning at Croydon railway station. It's not that Mexico City is populated by supermodels or that everyone enjoys a great diet and healthy outlook, but they just don't seem to go down the road leading to Quasimodo, Grendel, and John McCririck. I suspect that once one steps a little way outside of what traditionally constitutes western capitalism, it becomes more difficult to be quite so completely full of shit, and this is revealed in the face for the same reason that genuine evil very rarely resembles either Trevor Howard or Audrey Hepburn.
Lacking coherent religious faith, the ceremony didn't mean a great deal to me beyond a fairly general sense of well-being, pleasure taken in the knowledge of it meaning a great deal to those around me. Songs were sung, scripture was repeated and considered, wine and wafers were consumed, and only a bloody awful live band provided anything worth complaining about - jangling acoustic guitars and a drummer who was never quite in time and who had been provided more amplification than he really needed. They sounded like some sort of horrible Latino Death in June and were at least as depressing in every respect but for their making the case that music in church should be played on a pipe organ or not at all; unless Bess's cousin Jenni and her husband are reading in which case punk rock is also acceptable under special circumstances.
It was over after about an hour which hadn't seemed quite that long, and so we all made our way out, pausing only to take photographs of each other stood next to the life-size cardboard representation of Pope Francis kept in the foyer. Naturally we posted the photographs on facebook, and naturally they accrued the inevitable percentage of salty comments by persons who will burn in hell according to the priest who had presided over Lena's Quinceañera. Once I might have chuckled at such comments, but having grown up a little and having spent time with persons for whom all of the ritual and ceremony is a fundamental part of daily existence, I can see no value in such sneering, and if anything I've begun to feel a little protective towards the faithful. Besides, whatever all the chanting and waving was about clearly worked well enough for Liliana and Herberto, which in turn brought pleasure to everyone else, and those are all of the details which matter.