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Because Of The Pandemic, Some Quinceañeras Are Celebrating 17th Birthdays This Year

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As more people get vaccinated, those milestone celebrations that had to be postponed are back on; like quinceañeras. A big deal for many Latino communities, a quinceañera is a birthday party for a 15-year-old marking a girl's passage from childhood to adulthood. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has one story about a quinceañera in times of COVID-19.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: On a Saturday night in Brooklyn, at a Jewish temple decorated in neon blue lights, the ranchera music is playing so loud you can feel your ribcage vibrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: This is a quinceañera. Backstage, looking like a fairy tale in a cream hoop skirt dress and delicate sparkling nails, is the young woman of the hour, Siglali Alvera (ph).

You ready?

SIGLALI ALVERA: Yeah, we're about to start right now. I'm excited (laughter).

GARSD: She's smiling in disbelief. Siglali's 15th birthday has been two years in the making. She's actually 17.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: A week before the event, I meet the family. A self-described tough cookie, Siglali was raised by her mom and her grandfather, Antonio Salazar (ph), who is a tough cookie himself. He used to be a boxer in Mexico City, and he schooled her on several things, such as how to defend herself if a man ever tried to hurt her...

ALVERA: He's the one that taught me that my left is always my domain. So he was like, you have - you're a leftie, so punch them with your left.

GARSD: ...And how to plan a quinceañera.

ALVERA: I would sit with him, and I would be like, are you ready? Are you ready? Like, we're going to dance all night. And then he was like, yeah, we are.

GARSD: Don Salazar died in April 2020 of cancer days before the party. Siglali canceled.

ALVERA: I was - I don't want to do this no more. My papa is not here no more with me, so it was like...

GARSD: Besides, New York was now in a lockdown because of COVID. Siglali says her mom, Miriam (ph), said when things got back to normal, they'd have the party.

ALVERA: She's come in my room so many times, and she sat down, and she's like, you got this. You got to keep your head up.

GARSD: But things never really got back to normal. Miriam, who cleans houses for a living, lost most of her income. The Latino community has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Nationally, Latinos had over twice the death toll as whites. In the next few months, Siglali's uncle died, her aunt, her godmother. Two other family members were placed on respirators. She turned 16, then 17. She felt there was no point in doing a quinceañera. Instead, she got a tattoo on her left ankle in heavy black bold font. It reads, they come, they go

ALVERA: Like, people come and go, so I better not get attached. I better not feel like they're going to be here with me forever because they're going to leave some point.

GARSD: But with vaccinations, the city opened up. Miriam found work. The family decided to give it one last try. Thing is, so did every other family planning a quinceañera.

MARCOS ORTIZ: It's really crazy, trust me. We're doing five, six events per day in the weekend. It's completely crazy.

GARSD: That's event planner Marcos Ortiz in Brooklyn. Although these days he himself is drowning in a sea of chiffon dresses and sparkling tiaras, he and his team have been working to put together Siglali's event.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: On the day of the quinceañera, Siglali looks elegant. It's exactly the way she and her grandfather planned it, down to the mariachi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: And when the final waltz comes up - that's the one where the girl is supposed to dance with her father or grandfather...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

GARSD: ...Siglali picks up a photograph of them both and heads to the dance floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEJANDRA GUZMAN SONG, "YO TE ESPERABA")

GARSD: She says she didn't want anyone replacing her grandpa.

ALVERA: Nobody's ever going to fill his spot, so that's why I want him to still have his spot.

GARSD: Holding the picture tightly, she twirls by herself in a translucent halo of gold fabric. Her mother, Miriam, watches and says she's proud of her daughter's strength.

MIRIAM: (Through interpreter) This is what I have tried to make of her. The dance has to continue. Even if on the inside you are sad, you are destroyed, the dance continues.

GARSD: A tough cookie crumbles - as Siglali waltzes alone, she starts to sob. Her mom is quickly by her side, holding her, and they start to dance.

(APPLAUSE)

GARSD: They come, they go. Far too many have left, and two women who are still here waltz together on a Saturday night in Brooklyn.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, reporting from Siglali Alvera's quinceañera.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YO TE ESPERABA")

ALEJANDRA GUZMAN: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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