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.

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Marc Ramirez