Traditional high school didn't agree with J.J., so he switched to alternative school. Not long ago, he gave that up, too. He wasn't far from graduation. But changes there, he says, had eroded the alternative atmosphere, made it seem more like regular school again and less like his family, where people interact as peers.

He is looking for a niche, but nothing has really turned him on yet. He still could be an air balloon for all he knows. But his family loves him to death.

Inside the church, David Patterson, an older, thick-eyebrowed man who volunteers at Fatima, is conducting the rehearsal in Father Peacock's absence. He instructs the couples to delay their procession until the preceding couple reaches a certain point; they practice a run-through.

When the entrance is complete, the first three pews of the church are filled with chatter, and Brandy, J.J. and her parents are at front, overlooking the din. Patterson quiets them down.

"Have you guys all made your first Communion?" he asks. The response is so-so, though it's safe to say nearly everyone is Catholic.

"Well, this Mass is just like all the Masses you come to--or that you did come to . . . except it's for Brandy. This Mass is for Brandy."
They practice when to sit, when not to sit. There is giggling in the pews. Some of the girls make faces at Brandy, trying to make her laugh. A pager beeps from the waistline of Geronimo "Momo" Nevarez, a shaggy-maned chambel†n in the back row. "Damn," he says to someone. "What time is it?"

And Patterson is jokingly running off a list of gifts that will be bestowed on Brandy on her big day: "You have the crown, the ring, the new car. . . ."

To which Mary Mendez says, motioning to the gathering with a circling wave: "This is the new car."

@body:Some of the things that add up when you are trying to have a quincea§era:
First, there is the dress, typically white although the very traditional girl will choose pink. They are lacy with pillowy sequined shoulders and a bell-shaped skirt that must be swaggered through narrow corridors. Choosing one might take hours, and every once in a while a girl will keep coming back because she's fallen for a certain dress, says Ofelia Angulo, head salesperson for Azteca's bridal-wear shop, which claims to attract customers from Tucson and across the border.

Other times, "many girls are so happy to get a party that whatever dress the mom wants is fine," says owner Royna Rosell.

Ruffles are popular these days, and so is convenience: One of the more requested dresses has a removable train that comes off to reveal a shorter skirt underneath, suitable for more than waltzing. It runs about $400.

But dresses can cost more than $1,000, depending on whether the material is satin or something more exclusive, says Juanita Gama, an 18-year-old sales clerk at Thelma's Fashions on West Camelback Road.

Then there are the dresses and tuxes worn by attendants as well as the madrinas and padrinos, who traditionally are sought out as benefactors to help parents with expenses. There are the frilly knickknacks that dot the tables, decorations for the reception, lace and ribbons for the decorations, food and drink for dozens or hundreds of people, the rental of the hall itself, a band and/or deejay, security, a professional photographer, the fancy invitations, flowers, long-distance phone calls, spontaneous additions to one's wardrobe, cosmetics, fliers, a cake, a cake cutter, a bracelet, a necklace, a tiara, pillows, high heels, thank-you notes. . . .

Then, of course, there are the nails, and then there is the hair.
"I guess you really have to want to do this," says Mary Mendez, at her family room table with her husband and daughter. "It's a lot of work."
"And a lot of arguments," says Juan Sr.
"Yeah, a lot of arguments," Mary laughs. She knows that even with Brandy's big day just around the corner, her older brother Ed, one of Brandy's padrinos, is considering pulling out of the whole thing, unsure whether he wants to give his blessing to such a costly production.

@body:Saturday afternoon on Brandy Mendez's quincea§era day. Father Peacock will perform four of them, plus a few baptisms; the week before he did 12 baptisms, five quincea§eras and a double wedding. The first quincea§era has just ended, the attendants riding off from Our Lady of Fatima in the hydraulic, souped-up cars of the Majestics Car Club, the young woman in white in the bed of the red El Camino.

Since morning, Brandy has been on edge, and on this hot afternoon, her stress bubbles just below the surface. She is wearing her brilliant white dress like a costume, poufy short sleeves, big bow at the base of her back.

"Come on, you guys, let's get in line, let's get this going!" shouts her mother, dolled up in pink, trying to round up the guys in their tuxes and girls in their dresses of purple, teal and blue.

J.J., in his gleaming white tux and unmatching black socks, looks like Jackie Gleason in The Hustler, all baby-faced and fresh. Reluctant Uncle Ed is there, too, teamed with his sister Flora, after picking up his tux at the last minute.

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