For her ride, the quinceaera has chosen the bed of a 1978 Chevy El Camino with a lipstick-colored, scooped-out interior. She floats in her velvety hot tub on wheels like a cloud, swaddled in sequins as the driver pilots the car toward the aging church on 17th Avenue just south of Buckeye Road.

The vehicle is second in the royal caravan that has lurched its way for several miles in 100-degree sun to Our Lady of Fatima, a church so financially challenged that today, the last Saturday in May, marks the last time until September it will host a Saturday occasion because the cooling costs are so high.

The 13 cars of the Majestics Car Club roll into a line at the curb, a shish kebab of ornamental swirls and killer paint jobs--Chevrolet Impalas and Monte Carlos, GMC and Mazda trucks, a Honda Civic, a Buick Regal. They rock in place like mechanical bulls, tilting, adjusting, hydraulic shrugs accompanied by robotic whirs. The quinceaera shrieks in delight as her El Camino belly-flops to ground level, a photographer crouching to capture her arrival for a Spanish-language newspaper.

Look at her! This is what she wants, what she deserves, what her family has spent a few thousand dollars for. She won't be 15 for another week, but her giddy coming-out to the community is now in progress.

"Wow! All those people!" says the priest, Father Frank Peacock, as couples stream from the cars in dresses and tuxes of silver and blue. He will perform the Mass for the quinceaera--the coming-of-age ceremony for 15-year-old Latinas, whose heritage often binds them to Catholic tradition.

The term refers to both the girl and the event itself, and although the Diocese of Phoenix has adopted a more lenient stance of late, it would prefer that quinceaeras be conducted simply, for groups of girls rather than individuals. If you must be presented to society, do it for the right reasons, church officials say, and don't let sincerity and history be smothered by the allure of attention and the urge to party lavishly.

Still, everyone knows that if you're going to go all out and it's an individual quinceaera you want, Father Peacock is the man to see.

"They're exciting, aren't they?" says a woman waiting at the door of the church. Her own quinceaera, about 20 years ago, was a less showy production, a church-and-backyard affair. "Seeing her in her dress, I remember mine. Our house was all full of people."
Oh, but now the young lady simply must have lipstick, or the show cannot go on. She looks like a queen with her big, Linda Ronstadt eyes, and she is acting like one. Happy birthday to me. With age comes responsibility, sure, all that stuff, but right now there are other things to worry about. Mom? Where'd you go? Dad says we need a head count of padrinos. Should I carry these flowers or wear them? Mom--give me the lipstick! She pops open a flip-top mirror and smudges one layer up, one layer down.

And into formation go her attendants, and then the older madrinas and padrinos, those who have helped make this day and her $350 dress possible. Her father, elegant as a turn-of-the-century statesman, takes her by the arm. He leads her up the aisle, leaving her childhood behind.

A half-hour later, the Mass is over, and the quinceaera has been showered with symbolic gifts, crowned with a tiara, rewarded for devotion to the principles that hold her family together.

"It is her night," her mother had explained a few days before. "I should be very honest about that. She has her escort. Everything is literally going to revolve around her. She becomes Miss Cinderella. Then it's back to tennis shoes on Monday."
"Sandals," her daughter reminds her.
Whatever. Today her little girl wears high heels, and as she and her escort hop into the waiting El Camino on their way to the reception, another young lady named Brandy Mendez is arriving at Our Lady of Fatima with her own entourage, preparing for her moment in the spotlight.

@body:Many cultures attach ceremony to the imaginary gates adolescents stumble through on their way to growing up:

For Jews, the bar mitzvah, which commemorates a boy's first participation in the Torah reading at religious services, had its origins in the 14th century. (The bat mitzvah, for girls, didn't evolve until much later.)

The American South gave rise to the debutante ball, which marked a girl's formal introduction into society and availability for marriage.

For Apaches, the sunrise dance is a rigorous, four-day ceremony planned after a girl has her first menstruation; it asks that her life be rich in blessings. For Navajos, the kinaald is an even longer ritual with similar origins and cues.

They are celebrations of maturity, a recognition that the weary adult can only nurture the budding youngster for so long. "Blessed be He who has relieved me from the responsibility for this child," begins the Orthodox bar mitzvah celebration, and when Father Peacock of Our Lady of Fatima conducts quinceaeras, he'll sometimes refer in prayer to "all the saints who have done Your will throughout the ages, and all the saints who had to deal with teenagers."

The quinceaera 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 quinceaera, 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 quinceaera 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 quinceaera, 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 quinceaera 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 quinceaera 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, quinceaeras 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 quinceaera 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 quinceaeras altogether.

"Our church, the way we wanted to do it, didn't allow it," says Mary Mendez. "We wanted an individual quinceaera 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 quinceaera.'"
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.

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

@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 quinceaera. 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 quinceaera guidelines. "They're a good family," he adds reassuringly.

Nevertheless, the church had to say no. It could not sanction a quinceaera 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 quinceaeras 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 quinceaera? 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 quinceaera 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 quinceaeras, 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 chambelnes, the older madrinas and padrinos--that usually accompany the quinceaera. "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 Quinceaera 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 quinceaera 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 quinceaeras] 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 quinceaeras, 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 quinceaeras 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 quinceaera class. There are more than a dozen; all of them, he says, want individual ceremonies. Quinceaeras 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 quinceaera, 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 quinceaeras. 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.

@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.

Over the years, Fatima has existed on pocket change, surviving both the construction of nearby project housing and the misfortune of being caught in the armpit of interstates 10 and 17. Each resulted in parishioners moving out of the area, but still they come back, and now their children's children are showing up at Sunday Mass.

Father Peacock found a home, and whenever it came time to rotate again, he'd lay low. "He was hoping the bishop wouldn't notice he was still there," laughs Rita Ruiz, a longtime parishioner. She figures he's safe now. But Fatima has neither a business office nor a pastor's residence, so Father Peacock lives at St. Thomas the Apostle, at 24th Street and Campbell, and commutes to work.

He finds it difficult to say no to anyone, which is why all the families who want single quinceaeras come to him. He has probably baptized more children than anyone else in Arizona, and baptism is the one prerequisite he demands of his quinceaeras. He believes he can attract more flies with honey than vinegar, and he figures his honey gets maybe one in 20 families back in the church habit. That's good enough for him.

"If you want people to have religion, it has to be attractive," he says. "You can use that whole fear thing, but that doesn't work anymore. People today aren't that much afraid of God like they used to be."
Father Peacock is a brat. He tries not to be, really, but carefree zest has always ruled his personality and he likes to spread it around. He looks like Jack Lemmon with a Dick Tracy jaw, and his words come casually with spurts of raised volume, like he's telling a story around a campfire and wants to make sure everyone in the back hears. He'd rather tell a story than sermonize, anyway, and if the stories he tells aren't true, they should be: He was born in a Santa Barbara cemetery (his dad was caretaker). He joined the Franciscans at age 13 and got kicked out six years later for questioning the logic and morality of the Crusades in his history class.

"A lot of priests already say, 'Go to Father Peacock. He'll do anything.'" But the scolding from the diocese, he says, stopped long ago. Besides, he, Bishop O'Brien and Father Sotelo are all good friends.

And he adds: "The bishop will probably read that, have another laugh and get his secretary to send me another letter."

He says all the teeth-gnashing over the lavishness of quinceaeras is troubling, especially given the amounts other people blow on some weddings.

"I find that a little bit insulting," he says. "They don't do that with other classes of Catholics. We have the right to spend money on whatever gives us the most pleasure. It's insulting, and it's immoral, to say to somebody, 'You're poor, and you shouldn't be spending so much money.'

"They want a quinceaera. They want it to be private. They want the funny car club to attend. They want to get a bank loan of $3,000, or $5,000. I try to get them back to a practice of religion that's enjoyable. And it works, a little bit."
@body:Traditionally, 14 young couples precede the quinceaera into the church, one for each of the first 14 years of her life, plus herself and her escort. But due to pregnancies, cash shortages and other circumstances, Brandy Mendez's entourage is down to ten couples.

As her escort, she has chosen her 17-year-old brother, Juan Jr., part teddy bear, part rogue. He goes by J.J., but the family just calls him "J."

The night of the rehearsal, a Thursday, brings humid, patience-testing weather. Several damas who attended Greenfield Elementary School with Brandy are outside Our Lady of Fatima, minutes away from rehearsal time.

"I just wanted one because everyone else is having one," says Rita Abril, 15, now a freshman at Carl Hayden High School. "But my mother doesn't believe in quinceaeras. She doesn't believe in spending that much money."
Rita is sitting on a concrete planter in front of the church with fellow ex-Greenfield classmates Norma Olivas and April Perez. April is nodding her head. "Too expensive," she says.

Rachel Mendez, Brandy's cousin, chirps in from the curb. "I have better things to do with my money than have a quinceaera."

April laughs. "Buy a car."
"Yeah, a car. Go to summer school. Save it for when I have a real wedding."
It's 7:30. Brandy appears from inside. "All the girls, come with me," she says.

They line up outside, boys on the left, girls on the right, Mary Mendez going down the line to make sure everyone will be color-coordinated for the real thing.

J.J. shows up in a blue Dickies tee shirt, long blue shorts and reverse baseball cap. "Where's the Budweiser?" he laughs.

J.J. is larger than 17, a kid in a man's body. He'll walk around his house shirtless, displaying both his gut and his "tats," as he calls them--tattoos of a woman's face, others reading "Mendez" and "Sandra," the name of his girlfriend, "my future wife."

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 chambeln 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 quinceaera:
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 quinceaera day. Father Peacock will perform four of them, plus a few baptisms; the week before he did 12 baptisms, five quinceaeras and a double wedding. The first quinceaera 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.

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 chambelnes, 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 to and ta.

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 quinceaera. "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 quinceaera."

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."

Brandy has gone through the motions. She has cut the cake and performed the ritual discarding of her childhood by changing her flats to high heels and tossing away a symbolic childhood toy. But mostly she spends the evening in her honorary seat at the main table, flanked by people she is going to high school with--best friends Lisa Lopez and Carlos Rivera, the two people for whom all of her 14-year-old walls come down.

Above them are a crescent of balloons and a cloth-covered cardboard heart reading "BRANDY XV." As friends, they laugh at the same jokes, listen to the same music, wear the same clothes, go to the same parties and worry about each other constantly.

The last ritual to include the entire party was the traditional group dance that began to the band's hokey rendition of the march "Zacatecas." A deceptively elaborate series of winding turns, loops and maneuvers under the upraised arms of other couples, it ends in another series of slow dances in which every male earns a few steps with the quinceaera, surrounded by a ring of people.

When all the partners are exhausted, Brandy is alone in the circle with J.J., her escort, and her parents join her and her brother on the dance floor to everyone's applause. Moments later, the others join in, but for a few glorious seconds, this was her family, center stage, the way she always imagined it.

"Happy birthday," the guy on the microphone is saying. "Happy birthday to Brandy.


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