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The quincea¤era is thought to be rooted in warrior inductions and fertility rites practiced by the Mayas, Toltecs and other peoples native to the Americas. Some ceremonies were tests of endurance, and more debated accounts suggest even less desirable circumstances for the few who were so honored, at least by today's standards: "A young Mayan lady would celebrate," says Sister Jo Marie Arredondo of San Antonio's Mexican American Cultural Center, "but then she would be sacrificed."
With the force-feeding of Catholicism to what is now the American Southwest, Mexico, Central and South America, indigenous religions were pretty much wiped out, but some traditions evolved through translation. Among them was the quincea¤era, and in Mexico, where Catholicism is as much a part of national and family identity as it is a religion, such a tradition is second nature.
So it's nice to know a girl can come out to her community these days without worrying about having her heart ripped out on a pyramid altar. The thing that troubles the church, that five years ago prompted the diocese to draw up quincea¤era guidelines, is this: The human sacrifices have been replaced by spiritual and financial ones.
@body:Two years ago, the only daughter of Juan and Mary Mendez told them she wanted a quincea¤era, and after deciding she was worth it, the Phoenix truck driver and his wife, a nurse, started saving for it.
Juan and Mary say Brandy is a good kid, free from the problems that plague others who have grown up in the same graffiti-speckled neighborhood. The family lives near 16th Street and Southern in a brick house with a fenced yard, dirt driveway and a spacious family room they've added where the back porch used to be.
"Not to brag," Mary Mendez says, "but my daughter is unique in a lot of ways. Even just being here, where we live, she's done real well. She's a freshman at South Mountain, and my friends were like, 'You're going to send her there?'
"But I said, 'She's a good student. It doesn't matter where I send her.' And she hasn't proven me wrong yet. A couple of her friends who were going to be in the quincea¤era dropped out because they got pregnant. Knock on wood, she's not like that."
She also is pleased that Brandy, 14, wants to follow in her footsteps as a nurse.
"I think it's good," Mary says. "Half of what's wrong with kids nowadays is they don't think about their future. We have a 17-year-old not sure what he wants to do. He could be an air balloon for all he knows."
And so Brandy is getting something that neither Mary Mendez nor Mary's younger sister, Flora Perez, was able to have. Their father was a miner near Tucson, their mother a housewife; the money just wasn't there. "I didn't regret not having one," Flora says, "because my family couldn't afford it. Actually, I was surprised [Brandy] would want to have one, because you're the center of attention for a day."
Brandy doesn't come off as the type of girl who seeks attention. Just home from a half-day of exams, she is wearing the billowing hip-hop fashions that have become her trademark--baggy pants with a big tee shirt, size double-X--and is thoughtful and unassuming, typically quiet, sometimes playful. Her voice is thick and nasal, and she is quick to speak up when she needs to, like her mother, in the same self-assured tone.
"It's your moment, your time," she says, explaining why she wanted to go through all the trouble. Plus, her best friend Lisa was having one.
Her quincea¤era will be an individual recognition, not the group ceremony introduced after priests complained that the tradition's true meaning was being buried in ignorance and extravagance. (On top of that, quincea¤eras were tying up churches, making it difficult to schedule weddings.)
The guidelines drafted by Father Tony Sotelo, vicar of Hispanic affairs, recommended that parishes give participants classes in quincea¤era history, Hispanic history and some brushing up on family values. A few churches adopted the time-consuming procedures; one of them was the Mendez family's parish, St. Catherine's, on South Central. Others just dropped quincea¤eras altogether.
"Our church, the way we wanted to do it, didn't allow it," says Mary Mendez. "We wanted an individual quincea¤era because we felt it meant more."
"The group one takes a lot out of what it's supposed to be," Brandy says. "It's like, 'They all went through it,' instead of, 'This was Brandy's quincea¤era.'"
The Mendez's pool table in the next room is covered with items Brandy has made or collected over the past seven months--dozens of lacy champagne glasses, smaller decorative ones with white ribbons bearing her name and birthdate, a number "15" that will top the cake, even a frilly cake cutter. Everything is covered in sequins and beads and the colors that will be worn by the members of her entourage--violet, teal and blue. It looks like a wedding--and, after all, the Mendez family is spending $8,000 to pull it all off.