IT'S MY PARTY, I CAN SPLURGE IF I WANT TO

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH FROWNS ON PRETENTIOUS COMING--OUT PARTIES FOR LATINA GIRLS. BUT YOU ONLY TURN 15 ONCE.

"We planned this, believe me," Mary says.
Flora: "The only thing missing is the groom."
Mary: "Thank goodness."
@rule:

@body:Father Tony Sotelo, a slight man with crinkly eyes, is describing a girl who couldn't get along with her mom and ran away from home. Still, she wanted a quincea¤era. Amazingly, the mother did, too. So did the father. In an apparently irreconcilable situation, they agreed on one thing. It was that important.

"It's just tradition, and maybe the mother's embarrassed not to have one," says Father Sotelo, who was entrusted by Bishop Thomas O'Brien with redefining quincea¤era guidelines. "They're a good family," he adds reassuringly.

Nevertheless, the church had to say no. It could not sanction a quincea¤era under such conditions. "It's asking God's blessing on the young lady and her life, an official presentation," says Father Sotelo. "We take it also as an opportunity to reinforce family values.

"For instance, we do not give quincea¤eras to girls who drop out of school, or girls who are in gangs. . . . We go over and above 'deserving.' Otherwise, you send a message: It's okay to drop out of school. And that's a terrible plague for kids these days. You want a quincea¤era? You get your life straight."
Masses at Immaculate Heart, the 66-year-old church where Father Sotelo also serves as pastor, are well-attended, although the neighborhoods that once surrounded it have long since dissolved. It remains the unofficial nucleus of Phoenix's Hispanic community. More obvious to passers-by might be the business offices that line Washington and Jefferson streets just east of downtown. They include Azteca Plaza and Rosa's Joyeria, across the street from Immaculate Heart and successful quincea¤era merchandisers. In particular, the Azteca center, which does most of its business in weddings and covers a half-block area, is an institution, though some complain that the plaza's proprietors have let their image go to their price tags.

On the other hand, Mary Dominguez, a volunteer who helps with cooking and decorating at Immaculate Heart's group quincea¤eras, says Azteca offers bargain packages, so girls end up spending only $250 to $300 apiece. Combined ceremonies also are free of the usual entourages--the young damas and chambel nes, the older madrinas and padrinos--that usually accompany the quincea¤era. "The girls all wear the same dresses, they all wear the same stuff in their hair, so that one's not any better than the other," Dominguez says.

Still, people will pay exorbitant prices to keep the spotlight on their own daughters.

"It's fine and wonderful, if the family can afford it," says Mary Jo Franco-French, a physician who 20 years ago helped start the annual group Quincea¤era Ball sponsored by Phoenix's Vesta Club, an organization of Mexican-American college grads that raises money for scholarships. Franco-French was born in Phoenix and grew up between here and Mexico, where she says people often went into hock to give their daughters quincea¤era celebrations. "I know people who have practically mortgaged their homes," she says.

Despite its recommendations, the diocese has always left it up to its pastors to make their own decisions.

"We have [individual quincea¤eras] once in a while," says a woman at St. Anthony's, just off Central Avenue near Buckeye Road. "But we have a new pastor coming in July. I don't know what'll happen then."
"Here, we have quite a few," says Esther Cota of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Guadalupe, planted amid generations of Mexican-American families. "About four, five girls a month, depending. They have to register for and go to classes, and they have to be from here. Other parishes only do group quincea¤eras, even though a lot of people want individual ones. We get calls from them almost every day. But there's nothing we can do."
Immaculate Heart reinstated individual quincea¤eras last year. In his office one morning, Father Sotelo pulls out a sign-up sheet listing the names of girls planning to attend an upcoming quincea¤era class. There are more than a dozen; all of them, he says, want individual ceremonies. Quincea¤eras already are scheduled into next year, and the families are smart to do that, he says.

He casts up his hands in what-are-you-gonna-do amusement.
"We remind them not to go into debt," he says. "The ones who do, if it's not a quincea¤era, it's going to be something else. They don't know how to handle money."
Through the swirling debate, one church and its pastor never flinched, openly ignoring the diocese's campaign against individual quincea¤eras. So when St. Catherine's couldn't give Mary Mendez the celebration she felt her daughter deserved, she returned to the neighborhood she grew up in, to the church others had found by word of mouth--Our Lady of Fatima.

@rule:
@body:The diocese periodically rotates priests from parish to parish, and 25 years ago, Father Frank Peacock was temporarily reassigned from St. Matthew's, where he was assistant pastor, to Our Lady of Fatima, a runt of a church that a few years before had won its independence from St. Matthew's, meaning it could control its own financial destiny.

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