The mariachis begin to play inside, signaling their cue. "This is it--you can't back out now," one of Brandy's madrinas says to her, as if it were a wedding.

Brandy laughs. Are you kidding? This is the moment she's been waiting for.
Inside, she takes her place at the head of the altar. Father Peacock is doing the sign of the cross, and Brandy gets part of it backward. She never claimed to be a regular churchgoer.

"Thank God for all the good that has come into your family in your first 15 years," he says to her.

Later come the ritual embraces, which Brandy trades first with J.J. and her parents, then with her madrinas and padrinos, and then, as she steps front and center, with her damas and chambel†nes, and finally, with all in attendance who care to approach the girl becoming a woman.

The gifts come next. First, a necklace placed around her neck by Ed and Flora, her t°o and t°a.

One madrina gives her a rosary. Another, a bracelet. The next presents her with a prayer book and the next, a ring.

A pair of earrings come now, and finally, the tiara placed on her head. Most of the items have some sort of religious symbolism, but it is the the tiara that Mary Mendez would find most fitting for her daughter. It represents victory amid challenging circumstances.

@body:Dinner has been served at the VFW Hall on East Thomas Road, and a band named Devotion is ready to dish up a few hours of Latin dance music. The attendants mill outside in the muggy darkness, drifting in and out of formation, waiting for their missing pieces before they proceed with their official entrance and ritual dance.

"My zipper broke!" J.J. is saying to anyone within earshot.
He is standing, feet apart, staring down at the irreparable slit. Someone finds him a safety pin, which seems to do the trick for the time being.

"I'm sweating like a pig!" he announces now. "Everybody with a rent-a-car, let's turn the air conditioning on."
The music starts, and the line advances, and couple by couple, the participants are announced to the people packing the decorated tables inside, the audience to whom the Mendez family is only too happy to present Brandy, their only daughter.

The music and dancing begin, interrupted by the occasional ritual proceeding. Relatives and friends circulate amid the warm glow of the dim light, a steady flow of drinks churned out by a pair of bartenders at the far wall.

Barrel-chested and gravel-voiced, Ed Perez is an imposing man who can turn on the charm or the edge with equal immediacy and effectiveness. The older brother of Mary and Flora, he remembers the kind of childhood they had, and now, surrounded by half-eaten cake and empty champagne bottles and flowing dresses, doused in the light sprinkling from the glitter ball on the ceiling and the loud music reverberating off the stage, and perhaps inspired by the drinks that have passed through his own hand, he is inclined to offer the opinion he has managed to suppress long enough to go through with the celebration.

"We didn't have them when I was young," he says. "Why are we having them now?"
He mentions the thousands of dollars Juan and Mary Mendez have spent on the quincea§era. "A family from this side of the river doesn't have that kind of money," he says. "This puts economic pressure on families. It's a big macho thing. I would never let my daughter have a quincea§era."

He glances out at the dance floor.
"These girls think they're married. You know what they call kids down here? They call them 'trophies.' But that's not what you wanted to hear, is it?"
Mary Mendez knows about her brother's disapproval, but over the years that has not been the only issue that has divided them. They have grown into different worlds, she says, and he cannot understand the importance of the tradition within her own family.

"I only would have done this if I thought Brandy deserved it," she says a few moments later. "She's on the honor roll. She could be doing much worse. Brandy tells me she's going somewhere--she goes, she comes back. I don't have to worry about it. That's the way she's always been.

"I don't worry about Ed, because he didn't pay for it. I paid for it. Ed's my brother, and I love him dearly. But I have what I need. I have my family."
@body:As the night grows sweeter, the girls discard their headpieces and Flora discards her shoes. Juan Sr., wet with perspiration, rips off his bow tie just before 10:30 p.m., saying, "What the hell am I doing with this thing on?"

It's the type of gathering where the most enthusiastic sing-along participation is prompted by songs called "Volver, Volver" and "Whoomp! (There It Is)." Not much later, Juan Sr. returns from the dance floor again, sharing a laugh with another man of about the same age. He pulls him over exuberantly, arm around his shoulder, saying: "This is what it's all about--hanging out with guys you went to high school with."

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